In the halls of Meek Professional Technical High School in Northeast Portland, well before the first bell rings, the music of long-dead white men-Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt-cuts through the early-morning quiet.
There is no music program at this vocational school. No music hall. But there is a clunky old upright in the cafetorium, and this is where you will find Stanley Waters bent over the keys, his big hands moving quickly, his right foot pedaling fast.
Stanley also plays through the lunch hour, his polonaises, etudes and sonatas providing a bizarre soundtrack to an otherwise typical high-school scene of food fights and foosball. Even after the last bell, as teachers pack up for the day, Stanley is spelling out the works of classical masters most of his peers have never heard.
"I just like to play," he says. "I don't know why. I can't explain it. I just want to."
Stanley Waters has no instructor. No recital to prepare for, no mentor to make proud. His mother is a recovering crack addict, his father isn't around, and in his 17 years he has attended 11 schools. But the self-taught pianist is also something of a prodigy-even with no lessons to speak of and only the faintest grasp of music theory, fingering and note-reading, Stanley's ability is rich and rare.
The problem is, almost no one knows it.
Lianne Roland doesn't remember much about Stanley as a child. She knows her son was a curious kid, and that he had an early knack for reading-he was learning by age 4. And he loved Sesame Street.
The truth is, Lianne Roland doesn't remember much about Stanley because she was already in the seventh year of a fierce addiction to crack cocaine when he was born.
Sitting over coffee at her kitchen table in Northeast Portland, a bare and spotless room at the bottom of a cramped but clean three-story duplex, Lianne's face darkens as her memory of the pregnancy focuses. "I used with him," she admits, lowering her voice to a whisper. But even as early as her pregnancy, she says, "When music came on, he would go crazy."
Lianne now works at Project Network, the rehab program that saved her life three years ago. Stanley has her eyes-dark tunnels of history that rarely avert-and her caramel complexion is so smooth she looks a decade younger than her 44 years.
Lianne has never been in prison, but she has served what can only be described as hard time-sexual abuse at age 5, alcohol at 10, abortion at 14, cocaine at 16, crack at 20, and then the downward spiral of domestic violence, homelessness, and eventual neglect of her own four kids.
She tries to describe what the past few years have been like-the pain that comes with withdrawal and, harder still, the clearing of a 20-year haze.
"One thousand, one hundred and fifty-eight days." Lianne speaks through the lump in her throat. "It is one day at a time, one decision at a time. And every day-every day-I live with the fear that one bad decision and I'll be back out there."
Stanley's features are sharp-a straight jaw and a perfect buzz cut atop his tall frame-and when he talks about his mom, her past, and her husband, which is rare, he clenches his fists hard and his shoulders tighten.
It's great that his mother is clean, Stanley says, really great-and he means it, too. And it's great that he gets to live with her and his twin sisters, 14-year-old Brandy and Briana, daughters of a different man. And it's great that they just got new furniture in the living room, and that he has his own bedroom at the top of the stairs, and that for the first time in his life he has been at the same school for more than a year. Really great.
It's just that Stanley has seen his mother relapse before, and she's married to a man who has relapsed since-who Stanley says even now comes home in the middle of the night high and mad and takes it out on his mom-and he can no longer find it in himself to separate her from that lonely, maddening world of drug addiction.
"Sometimes I want to fight him so bad," Stanley says, referring to Querron Johnson, Lianne's husband of four years. "And she knows we all hate him, but she never listens."
Beach Elementary. Clarendon. Sitton. Applegate. King. Back to Beach, then back to Clarendon. Ockley-Green Middle. McLoughlin. Cascade. Evergreen High. Grant. Meek. These are the names of the Portland and Vancouver public schools Stanley has attended, jumping from one to another as he rotated among relatives.
Grades? Mostly C's and D's. Stanley says he knows what this is all about. "I haven't really had a reason to do well in school," he explains softly, his voice so low and quiet it tends to come out as more of a whisper. "I never really learned anything from most of the schools I went to because I was jumping around."
Since he first started high school, however, a trend developed: A's in A Cappella and Gospel Music, D's in physical education, and F's in pretty much everything else.
Early last year, when Stanley first arrived at Meek-a small alternative school that tends to be a last resort for kids who didn't make it elsewhere-his reading scores were very low. Results of the California Achievement Test had him at a third-grade reading level, yet reading teacher Lynda Darling says his corresponding assignments were too simple. It didn't take long for Darling to notice Stanley's perfect grammar and extensive vocabulary.
"My mom's really good at reading and writing," he says. "I would say that's probably where I get it."
Just weeks later, Darling had him take the test again, hoping she'd motivated him to try harder. The results were both predictable and shocking: Stanley was reading above an 11th-grade level.
"Stanley is a question mark for me," the 30-year veteran teacher admits. "I've never been able to crack him as far as finding out what makes him tick and why he won't perform. I do know his love of music is total. It's all-consuming. He is very confident in his abilities on the piano, but I don't think he's been able to gain the confidence in his true intellectual abilities."
Today, after three years of high school among Evergreen, Grant and Meek, he has a cumulative GPA of 1.63 (a C-minus average) and only 10.25 credits, which means that to reach the 22 necessary to graduate he has two full years of hard work ahead of him.
When Stanley was 15, he was given his first instrument-a used six-octave Yamaha electronic keyboard (pianos have eight octaves) with plastic keys and no pedals. It was a gift from his uncle, Timothy Waters. A few months earlier, Stanley had first heard Beethoven's Für Elise. Every day before choir practice, he'd sit on the piano bench with the kid who knew it and mimic his hands until, a few weeks later, he'd learned the whole thing. Any time he got near a computer, he went online and searched for music, but most of it was computer-generated audio files-the equivalent of learning an accent by listening to a digitally synthesized voice.
He'd heard of Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, but as he listened to samples Stanley began to fall in love with a new name-Chopin. This music was darker, moodier, filled with dueling tempos and something else, something he has never quite been able to explain. When he got his Yamaha, Stanley sat down and, with only the memory of these songs, began to teach himself.
Stanley doesn't exactly read music. Instead, he listens to a piece over and over until he can make out every note and the slightest shifts in tempo and timing. One of Chopin's best-known pieces, Fantasie-Impromptu, involves battling times in the left and right hands-the left plays semiquavers and the right plays triplets-and Stanley spent hours tapping away the deceptively tricky rhythm on his lap before venturing to his keyboard.
"I'd be stuck in my room just playing the same measure over and over to get a song right," he says.
When, at age 16, Stanley was sent to Meek-where his best subject, choir, wasn't even offered-he was paired with science teacher Misty Scevola because she knows how to play the piano. After a while, she was able to develop a friendship with Stanley, but it was never easy.
"He's very quick to find out who his teachers are, and he's always searching for some way that you will screw up," Scevola says. "But if you get in his face, he's right there with you. Some kids get pretty put off by him because he can be so blatantly blunt or rude to them. He can be downright mean sometimes. And they'll call him on it and say, 'Stanley, that's mean,' and he'll back off. But he is so bright, and when he's happy he's very quick."
Scevola recognized Stanley's talent, and with the help of his academic advisor, Jerry Eaton, tried to find someone who would offer lessons. But neither had realized the extent of his talent. "We tried to scare up musical mentors for him for a while, but everyone's quickly agreed that he is too advanced for them," Eaton says.
For nearly three years now, Stanley has holed up in his shoebox of a room, the keyboard on a stand beside his bed, and practiced. His detachment from Portland's classical-music scene is extreme: Until last month, he had never had a single lesson or attended a single recital.
Stanley plays the keyboard more often than video games; sometimes it's the only thing he does all day. Over time he has collected a binder full of sheet music-mostly Chopin-but because he doesn't read notes well he rarely refers to it. Everything he plays is in his head.
Stanley has a harder time with jazz. "Listening to it, I just love it," he says. "But it involves improvisation, and I just mimic."
Stanley likes to play on the upright at school, and his friend Leroy Morgan says most of the kids think the music is really cool. Sometimes they even gather around to watch. But at home, Stanley is always in his room, with his door shut, so no one has to hear him pound out the same measures over and over again.
This isn't exactly comforting to his mother, who is all too familiar with obsessions. With her it was consumption-food, alcohol, cocaine-and while she admits to being relieved that Stanley's preoccupation is music and not video games or far, far worse, she worries that it's just a hoop dream, that it will never put food on the table. Lianne sees the fire in Stanley's eyes when he plays; without music, what does he have?
"I want all my kids to be happy, to be able to do something they love," says Lianne, who aside from Stanley and the twins has another daughter by another man, 22-year-old Elise Davis, who has won voice competitions and now lives in Baltimore. "I just don't know how practical the piano is."
Neither does Stanley. One night last December, he listened to the soundtrack of an anime film he had seen recently, and it included Chopin's fourth ballade, Opus 52. As he listened, Stanley drifted asleep, but he was jerked awake by the ballade.
He remembers lying in bed, his whole body frozen in awe, floored that such complicated music had ever been written. He is shy as he tells this story, struggling to find the words to describe what it felt like. He remembers that there were tears as he listened, his eyes wide, his mind focused on every note. It was almost, he says, as if Chopin had reached through two centuries, shaking him out of some deep stupor, cutting right to his core.
"I like the way that music from so long ago is still around, and people are still listening to it-that it's that powerful," Stanley says. "And I like the fact that it seems really complicated but it's kind of simple at the same time. I feel calm when I do it. I'm so relaxed. I don't have a TV or anything, so I go to my room, turn it up, listening to tunes, and play for hours."
Stanley doesn't know if music is practical. He doesn't even know if he's good enough to make a living at it. Anytime anyone asks about his future, he shrugs. He's never really thought ahead, he says.
But he does know that when he listens to music, the world stands still and something happens. Something magical.
I have played the piano since I was 7, and, like Stanley, I preferred classical to anything else. By his age, I had won several statewide competitions in Minnesota. I first heard Stanley play on an out-of-tune upright piano at the Matt Dishman Community Center near his home and immediately knew I'd encountered a unique talent. Stanley was playing more difficult music than I, after 10 years of lessons, have ever tackled.
I called Karen Lam, director of the Portland Conservatory of Music, and arranged a meeting. We met at the community center and made our way over to her studio in Southwest. Lam had Stanley play several pieces. When she asked him to play something "fun," he didn't know what she meant. Eventually, he launched into a Scott Joplin rag he'd picked up.
Lam watched Stanley closely and asked lots of questions about how he listens, how he learns and why he loves to play. She was gentle with him and invited him to sit in on a few of her lessons to get a feel for how they work.
Most researchers agree that high levels of early skill are achieved by the combination of environment, where exposure and practice can occur, and innate talent. This is where Lam struggled most in assessing Stanley's future. His sheer talent, combined with a rare and inexplicable passion for classical music, may be enough to launch him into the most rigorous musical training, but there are so many other question marks.
Is he disciplined enough to study? Is he confident enough in his talent to handle criticism? Does he have emotional and structural support at home? Is he willing to exercise to improve his posture and muscle strength? She does not want to discourage what he has done, she tells me later, but these are serious questions.
"It is not too late," Lam, a petite woman with kind eyes, told Stanley after their first meeting. "You have a lot to learn, and if you choose to pursue this, you are going to have a tough two years ahead of you. But it is not too late."
Later, she said she struggled with how to encourage Stanley without giving him false hope in light of all his challenges. 'He is obviously a unique case," she said. "For someone who's grown up in his background, what he has done in two years-it's extradordinary."
Next we got together with Susan Chan, a recent addition to Portland State University's music program and a world-renowned teacher and performer. In late August, she invited us to her studio at Lincoln Hall.
Stanley chose to play Chopin's 12th Etude for Chan. The ceiling in her studio must be 15 feet high, and the afternoon sunlight slanted in, bathing Stanley's frame in a halo of dust particles as he bent over the finest piano he'd ever played-a black Steinway grand. Chan sat to his left, her eyes jumping back and forth between his fingers and his face.
Stanley was making mistakes. He paused to wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans and returned his hands quickly to the keys. "I'm really nervous," he explained, looking distraught, but Chan just nodded and smiled. She was watching his fingers closely.
"How did you learn this?" she asked when Stanley finished. He heard someone play it once, and it just stuck in his head, he explained. "Do you have a recording?" He doesn't. "Sheet music?" Nope.
Chan paused. She asked if he has perfect pitch, and Stanley shrugged. She had him turn away and she played a note firmly. She asked him to hum it. He did. She asked him to play the note. He looked carefully at the keys and touched middle C. He was right.
They did this again with a few other notes, and Stanley could both sing them and play them just by closing his eyes and listening. His pitch is nearly perfect.
"The level that he's playing, just by teaching himself for two and a half years, is amazing," she told me later. "When he plays it's with a lot of feeling, too, and apparently music is a very personal thing to him. It seems that he has very little difficulty expressing his feelings when he plays."
Like Lam, Chan hesitates to use the word "prodigy" with Stanley. He has so much to learn-sight-reading, fingering, better posture, musicality, theory-and he's already 17. But Chan marvels at Stanley's wholly self-motivated drive.
"I've always been [inspired by] the abilities of my teachers-the musical abilities, the intellectual abilities, and the caring and quality," she says. "That was a big part of my life." Stanley, she notes, has done it all utterly alone.
A few days later, we met with Gloria Wiley, a recently retired piano teacher Chan recommended. Over the course of the hour-and-a-half lesson, Stanley played little more than four measures over and over again. As usual, he paused now and again to wipe his sweaty hands against his jeans.
Wiley, a thin, sharp woman in all black, paced the room as he played. She interrupted frequently, asking him to play evenly, to slow down, to play triplets, to stand up as he played and lean over the open piano and listen, really listen, to his sound. At one point, she asked him to play the four measures the way he had 10 minutes ago, "which was bad." Stanley laughed nervously.
Wiley moved dramatically around the room, pacing as she listened. She touched the side of the Steinway, leaning in. "You can make the piano do just about anything you want," she said slowly.
Stanley had never been talked to like this before. His face was frozen in concentration. Wiley told Stanley that in the course of one lesson, he'd improved by two years. It sounded almost absurd, but her tone was serious. Stanley didn't giggle or blush. He met her gaze.
Stanley started school two weeks ago. It's not quite clear what he is going to do with the revelations over the past weeks that his is a unique talent. "Of course I've been thinking about it," he tells me. He wants to take lessons. Desperately. He is also beginning to realize how helpful it would be to have a real piano at home. And to learn to read sheet music better.
But something Wiley said sticks with him-that everything he does with the piano, every ounce of concentration and dedication and exercise, extends to every other part of who he is, how he lives, and how much he grows.
Today, Stanley is standing at a crossroads. Where does he go from here? Ask Wiley for free lessons? Work with Lam to find a piano? Read books on music theory? Study harder in school? The future is one giant looming question mark, but for the first time in his life Stanley has felt like looking at it. And he is looking at it hard.
WW has created the Stanley Waters Music Fund, with the help of the good folks at Umpqua Bank. If you would like to contribute to Stanley's music education and/or the purchase of a piano, please make contributions at any Umpqua location or mail Umpqua Bank, One SW Columbia St., Suite 150, Portland, OR 97258. Please make checks and money orders payable to Stanley Waters Music Fund.
Stanley Waters, a tenor, has been singing in school choirs since he was 13.
Stanley's grandmother has been taking piano lessons for more than 20 years.
Frédéric Chopin started playing at age 4.
For his natural-resources vocation at Meek, Stanley has done water-quality testing in Opal Creek.
The farthest Stanley has traveled is to Los Angeles to visit family.
Stanley's favorite kind of music after classical is rock; he's been listening to a lot of My Chemical Romance of late.
Stanley has never been to a music show.