May 3, 2009
Demetrius Williams was only 8 years old when the power of music - especially the holy sound of an organ - filled the canyons of his soul.
He just needed a little help transferring it to his fingers on the keyboard, which he was teaching himself to play.
"I talked to my pastor about it," Williams says, "and the Rev. Sam Quinn began praying. 'Father, this child has come before me with a specific need to play music for you in your service ...' "
Three years later, Williams became the organist at Quinn Temple Church of God in Christ in Lawrence County. He still plays there as an 18-year-old who recently earned his high school diploma from Mississippi Job Corps in Crystal Springs.
But come July, the church will need a stand-in for a little while. Williams, who resides in Brookhaven, and 18-year-old keyboardist PJ Walker of Clarksdale each won five-week summer scholarships to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Music giants John Mayer, Quincy Jones, Kevin Eubanks, Natalie Maines and Melissa Etheridge studied at Berklee, which has students from more than 70 countries. The scholarships are valued at $10,000 apiece.
But take it from Travis Calvin, a 19-year-old blues guitarist from Clarksdale who went through the five-week program in 2008.
"You can't measure the experience by money," Calvin says. "I had no formal training. All my playing was by ear and by watching other people. But at Berklee, I studied music theory, and it opened up the entire neck of the guitar to me. It helped me understand how to build a sound.
"But maybe the best part was after class was over. My roommate was a rock and heavy metal guitar player from Missouri. I wasn't sure at first how it would work out. But me and him wound up playing until 4 o'clock every morning down in the basement of the dormitory.
"He would show me a lot of scales and stuff I didn't know. And I showed him some sweet, bright, soft chords and simple licks that he had never known. I think it made us both better."
And that is the advice he offers Williams and Walker: "Go up there with an open mind. Even if you're studying something or being exposed to something that's not really your thing, absorb it. Because in the end, music is music. The more you know, the better you will be."
Renowned poet and blues musician Dick Lourie often visits the Mississippi Delta. During one of his trips, he learned of the Delta Blues Museum's afterschool education program where lessons are offered on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums for $15 a year. If students can't afford an instrument, the museum will provide one.
The program has 55 students enrolled.
"Dick Lourie came to me and asked if there was anything we could do to reach out to those kids," says Allen Bush, Berklee's media relations director.
Bush did so through scholarships. Calvin and vocalist Kendra Savage of Brandon were the first recipients.
Recently, Williams earned his scholarship by winning a talent showcase in Crystal Springs, organized by the Robert Johnson Blues Museum. Walker took first place at a competition sponsored by the Delta Blues Museum.
"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," Bush says. "They will study everything from performance to songwriting to music theory ... they will be exposed to music in a way they never have before."
At the end of the five-week session, students can audition for scholarships to the school. Calvin won a $10,000 scholarship, and he intends to apply it toward Berklee's $29,000 annual tuition in 2010. "It's a lot of money, but I'm working and saving and doing everything I can to get there," Calvin says.
Williams and Walker will receive a cultural lesson before they reach Boston.
Neither has flown.
"I'm a little nervous about it," Williams says. "But if that's what it takes to get there, I'll do it."
Williams began singing when he was 2 and became hooked by the sound of an organ while listening to Terrence Alexander play at church.
"My mom bought me a small keyboard that had 29 keys on it," he says. "I read a few books, learned some chords. But it really wasn't until Rev. Quinn said that prayer that my playing really improved."
Williams' goal is to become a contemporary gospel performer and songwriter. He will perform Saturday at the Robert Johnson Birthday Blast, a festival at Lake Chautauqua Park in Crystal Springs.
"I already feel like I've played for my toughest crowd," Williams says, laughing. "The folks at church cut me no slack. They're always 'play it in another key' or 'play softer' or 'play louder.'
"And, to be honest, not everyone at the church is thrilled about me taking this scholarship. We're a very strict church. No smoking, drinking, movies, sports. But I don't believe playing gospel music outside the church is a sin. It's only a sin if you put it ahead of your relationship with God. And my main ambition is to travel the world and perform wherever people need to hear good singing about the Lord. How can that be a sin?"
Dennis Williams Jr., his older brother, says Demetrius has a "charisma" that will serve him well at Berklee.
"People are drawn to him," Dennis says.
Walker began banging keys when he was 11. His uncle Fred Walker taught him the basics.
"Gospel is where I'm at," says Walker, president of the 2008 senior class at Clarksdale High School and now a music composition major at Mississippi Valley State. "But I love the sounds of orchestral music. I'd like to write arrangements for symphonies to play."
He already has. He wrote a piece of music that was performed at a recorder festival by third-grade students at Montgomery Elementary in Mound Bayou. The song was called Child's Play.
"When I wrote it, I pictured children swinging and running and playing ... I wanted it to have that feel," Walker says. "It was a honor when those kids took notes I had arranged and made them sound that beautiful. It just made me realize how important music is to me."
He hopes to become an international composer and owner of a music school.
"Seeing what the experience did for Travis, I can't wait for PJ to study at Berklee," says Shelley Ritter, director of the Delta Blues Museum, where Walker works part time and serves as an assistant teacher in the afterschool program. "He already has a wonderful ear for music, but I think this will open a whole new world to him."