Truman Walker is so shy that his parents kind of stretched the truth. They casually told him that a bunch of music teachers wanted to hear his original composition, and would he mind? So he agreed to play — as long as nobody looked at him and nobody clapped.
Everyone looked, of course, and when he finished, the music teachers rose to their feet for a standing ovation. The fib hid the fact that Truman had just unknowingly competed in a national Let’s Play Music competition for young composers. And he had just won.
He was 7 years old.
“I’ve never had a student progress so quickly,” says his teacher, Suzanne Clive, of Eagle.
Although his shyness has abated only a little, the adults don’t have to equivocate any more. Truman, who just turned 12, doesn’t win all competitions that he enters, but enough. And significantly.
In November, he won the Idaho Music Teachers Association competition for pianists age 11-14. “As the youngest and on his first try — it is a pretty big deal,” says Clive. (The win was a complete surprise. Clive confesses that they had hoped to place maybe as high as honorable mention.)
The Idaho state win sent Truman to the regional competition in Portland in January. “We felt like going to the regionals was sort of a bonus,” says Clive, who kept her — and Truman’s — expectations low again. Or at least realistic. “(It was) tremendous talent that he was up against.
“(And) they announced his name as the winner. It’s stunning.”
So in March, Truman advances to the national version, against only seven other finalists.
“It’s a stunning achievement at his age,” says Clive. “He’s got so many unique talents all in one and such supportive parents that the sky’s the limit, I think. …
“You could make the argument that he may be in the top 10 of the pianists, age 11-14, in the country,” she says. “It’s a really, really, really big deal.”
And the weekend after that, he will perform at Carnegie Hall. Really.
• • •
Truman himself is a bit uncomfortable putting his feelings about the piano into words. “It’s just what I love to do.”
He is the fourth of five kids in his family and all but the youngest, who has Down syndrome, started piano lessons at a young age.
“Music is such a powerful force in the world, let alone our own lives,” says Truman’s father, Danny Walker — who doesn’t play the piano well, but sings. “I think it helps us find peace and clarity and good intentions. So I always wanted him to have music as part of his life.”
One day, Walker came home to hear his eldest daughter playing her recital piece — except that it was 5-year-old Truman who had learned the piece by ear.
“That’s when I started to think, hmm. There might be something here,” says the elder Walker.
“We have a fundamental belief that we come into this world with power over our own lives,” he says. “If you don’t use that power of self-determination to scratch the itches you’ve got, you can spend your life pretty miserable, with kind of an internal disappointment that nags at you.”
Thus, Truman’s brother is an athlete; his sisters, a ballerina and a basketball player. And Truman practices the piano three hours a day.
“If you leave those kinds of gifts undeveloped, I think you spend your life a little unfulfilled,” says Walker.
One of the favorite family activities is to gather around the grand piano and toss out ideas that Truman spontaneously improvises into music: Make a song that sounds like a family trip to Disneyland. That sounds like a waterfall; a surprise birthday party.
His favorite part about music is composing. “After I finish my three hours (of practice), I can compose and just mess around on the piano,” he says. That’s his reward.
“I think (Truman) needs to go as far as he can,” says his father, “until he doesn’t want to any more. And once the desire dissipates, do something different that (he’ll) find joy in.”
• • •
It’s his passion that sets Truman apart, says his music teacher. He’s dedicated — those hours of practice at the piano — and focused. “Even when I ask him to play a scale, I mean, it’s musical,” says Clive. “He’s committed to every note.”
She’s had students who were technically proficient, who were hard workers, who were very expressive. “But he has something I’ve never seen in a student before,” she says, “which is his tremendous desire. That is the fuel for everything else.”
Human beings seek beauty, she says, like a beautiful flower or sunset — or music.
“I think for (Truman), even being a shy little boy, I think that connects his heart. You can connect to everybody’s hearts and I think that’s a communion for him in a sense. It nourishes him.”
His mother is more direct. “It’s just part of his soul that needs to come out, you know?”
“There are really good musicians in our valley,” says Clive. But when you listen to, say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that’s something else.
“Really well-played classical music is… mesmerizing. It takes you on this journey; it gives you that connectedness with everybody in the world that you get with the best live experiences.” Like, for instance, the total solar eclipse this summer, where Clive exuberantly felt connected to everybody in the world.
“That’s what you (have) when you listen to Truman. (Music) really played well by someone who really knows what they are doing — and that’s a totally different thing. A totally different experience.”
• • •
It takes a whole year of practice to put together a program for the MTNA music teachers competition: Perfecting 20 minutes of music and thousands of precisely performed notes, with feeling.
As he was still working on his pieces, Truman and Clive made a video recording and submitted it to an international competition — just for fun. Seems like they should be used to it by now, but to their surprise, Truman was chosen. The week after the MTNA national competition, Truman, his parents and Clive will head to New York, where Truman will play in Carnegie Hall along with the other finalists. “It’s not as though he’s doing a debut recital and he’s being covered by the New York Times; it’s not his coming out exactly,” says Clive. “But it’s a special thing to get to say you’ve played in Carnegie Hall.”
Perhaps Truman is a little young — at 12 years old — to peak with a concert at Carnegie Hall. But he is realistic. “There are three concert halls (in Carnegie Hall),” Truman says. “This is the smallest.” In other words, it’s just a start.
“I want to play in the big hall.”