My mother taught piano when I was little, and she tried to get me interested in lessons, too. I played along for awhile, but found it difficult and, therefore, boring, so I gave up around age 10. On Oct. 6, as I sat in the Helen Yunker Auditorium at the Ventura College Theater, I watched a master pianist perform Beethoven’s Sonata in D Minor, “The Tempest.” His graceful fingers danced across the keys with delicacy and precision, never missing a note. His body swayed in tempo with the piece, and his brow furrowed in concentration, intent on the emotion and the task at hand. And to think, he just celebrated his 11th birthday last week. I wonder if I set the bar for myself too low.
The pianist was Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner, a recent alumnus of Ventura College and new student at the Manhattan Julliard School of Music. This is the definition of a child prodigy, and anyone else who heard him play would instantly agree. Werner was given an extraordinary gift, and he has spent the whole of his short life dedicated to the pursuit and perfection of that gift. On that Saturday night, Dr. Burns Taft, artistic director of the Master Chorale of Ventura County and one of Werner’s mentors, asked Werner when he had started playing piano.
“In my late 2’s,” he replied.
According to Werner, when he was young(er), his mother tried to expose him to a variety of different activities, both cultural and athletic. For some reason, he felt a connection with the piano, and his mother vowed to give him every opportunity to pursue that interest. The only problem was no piano teacher would take a 2-year-old student, no matter how talented his mother claimed he was. So Mrs. Werner employed a creative technique to convince them of her son’s talent: She would approach a teacher, claiming she wanted lessons, and then let Llewellyn play. Unsurprisingly, once they heard him, no teacher turned him down. [Editor’s Note: Story Updated from its original print edition and online version on 5/19/08]
After years of study under many different teachers, all of which Werner calls his heroes, he was accepted to Ventura College at the age of 5. Over the next five years, he proceeded to earn more than 135 credits and maintain a 4.0 GPA in such varied subjects as algebra, French, Spanish, history and advanced musical composition, orchestration and theory, before being accepted to the Julliard School.
Remarkably, Werner also feels a strong sense of commitment to improving the world with his music. He participated in the New West Symphony and Canadian National Academy Orchestra Symphonic Adventures concerts, bringing music education to over 20,000 schoolchildren. This Christmas, he will travel to Washington, D.C., and Swaziland as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, to raise money and act as a spokesperson for children’s music education around the world. Werner, a bit shy, says he wants to be a “little” spokesperson, admitting, “I would rather use my piano to speak to people.”
Werner also began composing in 2003, and his debut composition, “A Flute Fantasy,” was received with critical acclaim. Werner says he is not afraid of challenge or hard work, two of the reasons he is most excited about his new path of study at the internationally prestigious Julliard School. One of only six pianist accepted this year, Werner says, “I enjoy working hard at a piece. When I practice over and over again, and can hear myself improving, that’s what keeps me going.”
As important to Werner and his parents as his dedication and practice, however, is that he maintains well-roundedness as he enters his most formative years. Werner also enjoys chess, swimming and acting, and is eager to learn from his extensive worldwide travels. Werner seems articulate and poised, and yet still very much like an 11-year-old boy: a bit unsure of himself, and unbelievably excited to continue to perform.
Everyone agrees that Werner’s talent is miraculous. According to Dr. Taft, “His astounding ability has swept me up as I watched the unfolding of an amazing intellect.”
Perhaps Werner’s biggest accomplishment, however, is the fact that he is still so down-to-earth, comfortable with himself and eager to take on the future. Against all odds, Werner has remained a wide-eyed child, believing very strongly in the power of music.
“I love how you can communicate with the audience, how the music connects everyone,” says Werner.
It is the success of such a young performer that can allow us, his audience members, to truly believe in that connective power as well. Watching Werner perform, no one cares about the generation gap.