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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Classical piano piece wins award, but jazz is his passion

Prairie View junior William Swisher sits at the studio upright piano in the school's band room. That piano is a far cry from the grand piano he played in at state competition. (Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

William Swisher first learned to play the piano when he was 6 years old. He took piano lessons for a couple of years, but by the time he was 8 he had dropped the lessons.

Flash forward about a decade. The Prairie View junior, by now a largely self-taught pianist, is preparing for the Kansas State Piano Festival Championships on Feb. 18, 2023.

In December, Swisher began working with Prairie View vocal teacher James Beltz, an accomplished pianist, to hone his performance of a classical piece titled “Knecht Ruprecht” by Robert Schumann, a 19th century German composer.

A daylong clinic with Trilla Lyerla, chair of the Department of Music and Theater at Baker University, helped Swisher refine the piece even more. Now he was ready to perform.

A snag, though. When he arrives along with another 130 aspiring competitors in Wichita, he finds out that his judge is Lyerla.

“You never want to be judged by your educator,” he said, adding that he felt additional pressure to play his best because she knew what quality to expect from him.

Swisher, it turns out, played well enough for a “I” rating, state’s highest. And while about 90 others at the event also scored a one, most of them came from larger schools in metropolitan areas, and only a few came from rural districts.

Swisher performs in the Weideman Recital Hall at Wichita State University. (Submitted photo)

While Kansas State High School Activities Association piano competitions demand the rigors of playing a classical piece, don’t look for the junior from La Cygne to be seeking the life of tuxedos and the concert stage.

While he said he appreciates all genres of music, including classical to hip hop, those aren’t his thing.

“I’m a jazz musician through and through,” Swisher said, adding that he prefers jazz to other genres because it is very complex. “That complexity makes it so interesting.”

Swing, Latin rock, bebop, and jazz fusion are some of his favorite sub-genres, but his favorite is bossa nova, a fusion of Brazilian dance music and jazz.

He likes the big band sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but he counts music teachers in the Prairie View district as the main influences in music. That includes former vocal teacher Dawn Burhart and elementary teacher Annette Viner, who he called a “huge inspiration” in his life.

Swisher said he does enjoy classical music, but he enjoys many other genres as well and appreciates what artists are trying to do.

“Even if you don’t like a genre, you should still appreciate it for what it is,” he said, adding that music is an art form and as such is subjective.

Most people don’t see Swisher sitting at the piano. He is better known as a drummer playing with the school’s pep band in the bleachers or marching on the football field. Recently during a basketball halftime performance he and four of his bandmates played a piece he composed on xylophones and a marimba.

He also plays trombone and guitar.

“Whenever you pick up an instrument, it’s a commitment,” he said. “I love every instrument I play.”

While he plans to go to college after he graduates from Prairie View, Swisher’s career goals include being a jazz drummer or pianist. However, he also likes the idea of going into medicine and is thinking about being a paramedic.

A man that balances out his art and the practical side of life, Swisher said that would be a stable, paying job that would allow him to pursue both of his interests: being a jazz musician and using his medical knowledge to help others.

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