Clifton Williams: Seventeen year old classical pianist

You know we always talk about where’s the good news when it comes to young folks. The media will throw out bad news in a heartbeat. Sometimes you have to dig for the good news but then sometimes the good news is right there front and center. Last week it was Sharron Pearson in Los Angeles heading to Oxford University this summer after a very successful fundraising effort. Today the front page Style section of the Washington Post has an interesting article about a young man who lives in Southeast D.C.   Seventeen year old Clifton Williams studies classical music at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. where he’s a junior.



Clifton’s the recipient of a $10,000 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship for exceptionally promising low income students.  You can read all about the award here.


Clifton’s been playing the piano since he was a youngster but didn’t start studying classical piano until he was fourteen. He was discovered while performing in church by Shirley Ables-Stark who runs the Shirley Ables Music Ministry. Clifton’s been taking lessons there for 10 years.  Even when his mom couldn’t pay for music lessons Ables-Stark still insisted he show up for his lessons.

Just last Sunday Clifton performed in Boston before a live audience on From The Top, a showcase for the country’s best young classical performers on NPR.  According to the Post article D.C. area listeners can hear the performance this coming Sunday, May 3 on WETA 90.9 or watch the video at

Grand Achievement
Teen Pianist From Southeast Orchestrates an Unlikely Rise

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

He didn’t start playing classical piano until three years ago, when he was 14, much later than other classical students his age, who had already been playing for years. He doesn’t have a piano at home and the one he practices on at church is slightly out of tune. Clifton Williams doesn’t come from a moneyed family that lavishes him with private lessons and trips abroad, and yet there he is at the top, competing, winning classical competitions. Quietly driven.

Clifton Williams unbuttons his suit jacket, sits at a baby grand and prepares to conquer composer Sergei Prokofiev. The night is young and old, depending on your perspective. The clock says 8:47. But it is a school night. The church sanctuary is empty. And there is Clifton, alone at the slightly out-of-tune piano. Eyes closed. Shoulders hunched. Fingers in a painful fury, chasing music.

“I’m a little nervous, because I’m playing classical,” he says. “But not really.”

His fingers glide over the keys, seeking the power they can give him: control over chaos. He corrects his posture and summons the scene he wants his audience to feel as he plays a piece by the Russian composer. A piece that, if conveyed with justifiable emotion, if played not just masterfully but also with brilliance, could be Clifton’s breakthrough. A junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, Clifton has just two days to practice before he travels to Boston, where he will play before a live audience on “From the Top,” NPR’s popular showcase for the country’s best young classical musicians. Washington listeners can hear it at 6 p.m. this Sunday, on classical WETA, 90.9 FM, or watch the video at Clifton recently won a $10,000 scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which partners with “From the Top” to aid exceptionally promising low-income students. The scholarships have helped them buy instruments and pay for tuition. Clifton plans to use the money for music school, travel expenses and a piano.

For the NPR performance, Clifton will play Prokofiev’s “Suggestion Diabolique.” It is a complicated piece that a panel has selected from Clifton’s repertoire. It is a chance to play classical music before a national audience. In interviews leading up to the performance, people have asked him complicated questions. Questions no 17-year-old should have to answer, even if he did have the answers for all that has gone wrong in inner-city neighborhoods.

Questions such as: How does a young man survive far Southeast, a neighborhood that has become a symbol for pathology? How can a young man emerge from the chaos and gun violence? How does a young man whose father is in prison make it over the hill of pathologies and emerge as a rising classical pianist?

Check out the video about Clifton.

You can check out the entire Post article here.

3 responses

  1. No problem – thanks for the correction!

  2. Thank you. I hit the wrong key.

  3. Please note the Clifton Williams broadcast of “From the Top” can be heard this Sunday, May 3, at 6 p.m. on Classical WETA 90.9 FM – not 90.0 as stated in your story. Thanks!

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