Fingers stretch over white and black keys. A slender frame sways slightly back and forth with the notes.
The piano player is absorbed, lost somewhere in the music of Mozart’s “12 Variations of Ah, vous dirai-je maman.” You’ve heard the tune, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” This eight-page piece is not the kiddie version, but 12 complex variations.
His teacher says he is one of the best pianists in the country for his age.
And James Wilson is 11. Barely.
This practice, in the middle of his living room, is mostly devoted to preparing for an upcoming piano recital at the University of Wyoming, one of about half a dozen he performs in each year across the country. He has placed third in both Texas State University’s and the University of Tennessee’s international competitions. He won the Asian American Music Society’s international competition when he was 9, earning the right to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
This Thanksgiving weekend, he will play in Carnegie Hall in New York City, after taking third place in the American Protege music competition.
“His musical talent is innate,” says Theresa Bogard, Wilson’s teacher, a UW piano instructor and a world-renowned concert pianist.
“I can tell almost instantly when a little kid plays. It’s inside him.”
He still is a little kid. He craves chocolate covered ice cream cones after practice and watches cartoons in the morning.
But when he sits at the piano, he is all grown up.
James’ passion for music started long before the tuxedo tails and concert halls. His parents first wondered about his musical future, if only in retrospect, when James was 2.
The family was living near Tokyo, and James sat nestled between his parents on the couch one Sunday night. His dad, then working as a senior administrator for Temple University’s Tokyo campus, flipped through channels.
“Stop!” James yelled. He told his dad to turn back.
He wanted to watch a Sunday night performance by a Tokyo philharmonic orchestra.
For the next several hours, James sat mesmerized. His mom and dad fell asleep, and James woke them when it finished. He’d watched the whole thing.
James’ mom, Noriko Wilson, had started her youngest son in piano when he was 3, almost 4. Her three older children were already taking lessons. The instructor told Noriko to bring little James.
She questioned what her son could do, but figured a lesson or two couldn’t hurt. Matt thought James was clearly too young. They decided to see how it went.
The instructor called soon after and said they had a problem.
“She told us that he had already surpassed his siblings,” Noriko said.
They registered James and his older sister for a piano competition in Tennessee when James was 5. He had to compete in the 10 and under class, the youngest class available. James took third.
His family also learned what made James thrive: applause. Practicing was a struggle early on. He wanted to play, just not that much. The prospect of praise is what made him sit there that extra hour, or two, or three.
No teachers in Tokyo qualified to teach James would take a child so young. Matt and Noriko struggled to find a teacher for two years, sending James to Utah for summer lessons with one of the best instructors in the United States.
James needs a new teacher, the instructor said.
They decided to look in the U.S. for other options and Matt found a teaching position at the University of Wyoming College of Law. Before he accepted the job he looked for a music teacher. He found Bogard, a graduate of Eastman Music School, the top-ranked program in the country. The family decided: They would move to Laramie from Tokyo if she would take James as a student. She accepted.
The upcoming recital doesn’t mean much. There won’t be judges and it won’t be televised. Only a handful of listeners will show for the short Saturday morning performance.
That doesn’t matter. The night before, James is home practicing.
He prepares every day, often for several hours, sitting in his living room in front of a black, Boston grand.
From the couch behind him or working in the kitchen, his mom listens.
“You need to change your dynamics, Bud,” she says, as he works through Guiseppe Concone’s “Study in B flat Major, Op. 46, no. 11.”
“I know it was a bit too harsh,” he says, still playing. “But I wanted it to be at that maximum level so it would be different.”
He moves on to the next of nine pieces he will perform in the recital the next day.
“Same tempo. Do not rush please,” his mom says. “Your right hand is choppy. Play it again please. Just make sure your wrists go up and down.”
He turns to give her a plaintive look, smiles, then plays again.
When he’s bored he stops. He switches to something different, something he doesn’t have to play. Lately, it’s been the soundtrack to the “Wizard of Oz.” He knows all the songs because he volunteered this year to accompany the school musical, a role typically reserved for music teachers or other adults.
The family has given a lot for James’ music career — money, time, effort. The last thing they want is to push him too hard.
“We don’t want him to get to a point in his life and think all he did was piano,” Noriko says. “The professor in Utah said let him be a child even if he breaks an arm or a finger playing basketball. Let him enjoy his childhood.”
So he walks that fine line between normal kid and piano genius.
He plays catcher on two Laramie baseball teams, participates in Boy Scouts and shoots basketball. He runs with his brothers and competes in spelling bees. At school, he jokes with his friends in the hall and talks about classes.
But music is his passion. A stack of books sits in his bedroom and many detail the sordid lives of famous composers.
One of his favorite ones, “Bach, Beethoven and the Boys,” is a laundry list of facts and trivia on several of the greats. He found the book when he was 8.
On the back of his door hangs a tiny, plastic basketball hoop. On his dresser are 11 ceramic busts of famous composers next to a Beethoven bobble head.
He has a bucket list he keeps in his room, written in pencil on yellow construction paper: Go to Julliard or Eastman and be the best pianist in the world. Win 100 competitions. Play accompaniment for 12-year-old music prodigy Jackie Evancho. He even wrote her a letter once, the first line reads: “I was thinking about you and me being a duo.”
The next goal he considers completed, playing in Carnegie Hall — even though he won’t play there until Thanksgiving. He’ll play with winners of the American Protege competition from Uzbekistan, France, Australia, New York and more.
He continues reading his bucket list:
“Go to Carnegie Hall,” he reads. “Check.”
James wakes up at 6 a.m. on April 28, recital day. He’s always up early to watch cartoons. By 8:30, he is practicing while his mom makes breakfast.
When it is time to get dressed, his mom adjusts his shirt and cummerbund on the first tuxedo he has owned. He used to perform in suits.
At the university, standing in the Fine Arts lobby, Noriko finishes the ensemble, snapping his black bowtie into place and straightening his tuxedo jacket.
He says he isn’t nervous. The recital is only for fun, no judges.
Ready to start, he sits in the front row of the concert hall, legs crossed, hand on his chin. A talented 7-year-old girl in a pink princess dress plays before him.
A University of Wyoming piano instructor introduces him. He is the winner of many international competitions, she says, impressive, given his age.
He walks across the stage and sits on the edge of the piano bench, his feet barely reaching the pedals. His back is straight, tuxedo tails resting behind him.
He takes a breath and raises his hands to the keys. Then he plays, nine pieces by memory.
James is a performer. He closes his eyes occasionally, sways back and forth and glances at his hands. Audience members sit focused, eyes glued to the blur of his tiny fingers.
Crowds give him confidence instead of turning his face red and making his knees knock.
When he finishes, he places his right arm over his waist and bows, like so many of the composers he idolizes. He takes his seat in the audience, crossing his legs and placing his hand back under his chin. Adults don’t fidget during performances, and neither will he.
James the performer, a pianist beyond his age, knows he performed technically well, other than one hiccup.
James, the 11-year-old boy, turned to his mother with a questioning look. A thumbs up? He gestures.
Noriko smiles and nods, the approval her boy is looking for.