When typical toddlers hum a tune, it's usually something like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," not Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D Minor.
So when Nygel Witherspoon began humming that very difficult concerto — note for note and perfectly in tune — his family surmised he was overdue for music lessons. He was, however, just 3 years old.
"He was calm and serene, with an innate ability to focus," recalled David Holmes, Witherspoon's cello teacher from age 3 to 16.
"My 3-year old students aren't usually like that."
The now 17-year-old Minneapolis cellist recently returned home from Detroit, where he won first place in the junior division of the renowned Sphinx Competition. The national competition recognizes classical music talent among junior high and high school students in the black and Latinx communities. This win provides Witherspoon an opportunity to perform solo with major orchestras, as well as on the nationally broadcast radio show, From the Top.
Witherspoon is already a familiar name among Minnesota music aficionados. He's inherited his talent and music appreciation from both sides of his family, including his great aunt, the late jazz vocalist Shirley Witherspoon.
He's won many local music competitions, has performed with the Minnesota Orchestra twice and was featured on MPR's Minnesota Varsity in 2017.
Still, Witherspoon doesn't see himself as competitive. "I think it's more important for students to have a supportive environment than a competitive one," he said. "It's great to have a support system, where you can be yourself and improve right along with others doing the same thing."
Witherspoon's love of music blossomed as he tagged along on violin and viola lessons with older siblings Alastair and Imala. Their teacher, David France, quickly noticed that little brother was a sponge.
"He'd listen and absorb everything they did," France said. After the impromptu Sebelius concert from his car seat, he was given a box violin. But Witherspoon wanted to play "the big one" — the cello. He loved its size and tone. That's when he was matched with Holmes.
Holmes said Witherspoon is the complete package. "His passion hit him early on. He has perfect pitch and an incredible drive." To have sufficient flexibility to practice and focus on his music, Witherspoon began attending online school in kindergarten. He's now a senior at Connections Academy Online School and attends postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO) classes at University of Minnesota.
Witherspoon's drive and motivation are fueled by the connection music provides. He recalled that he and his siblings performed as a chamber trio at their grandmother's nursing home. The positive reaction from residents gave him motivation to keep playing.
"It's so important, whether it's hip-hop, classical, pop or jazz," he said. "Music is the universal language. It transcends everything, no matter if you're rich, poor or the color of your skin. It connects all of us."
Most days, Witherspoon gets up early to work on his online classes, then practices cello until lunch before heading to the U. Evenings are set aside for eating — his favorite junk food is vegan nachos — homework and, when it's on, TV food shows featuring Gordon Ramsay.
His mother, Katie Daniels, runs an in-home day care whose lucky children have Witherspoon's concertos and sonatas as background music.
Witherspoon finds the sometimes noisy environment helpful in terms of learning to focus and play with distractions. He practices in the kitchen as children sometimes toddle up to listen.
"A parent of a former day care child said [the child] dressed up as Vivaldi for a school costume day," said Daniels, who opened the day care solely to allow kids to home-school and study online to focus on what they love.
That parent, Daniels said, "was certain that it was a result of the classical music influence early on."
Despite years of practicing and performing, Witherspoon said he still gets nervous sometimes. "It really depends on the importance of the event, but nerves are a normal part of this profession," he said.
"But once I'm on stage, I connect with my instrument and try to tell a story with my music."
On a recent trip to Boston, he reconnected with France, his siblings' former teacher. France is founder and executive director of Revolution of Hope, an arts for social change initiative whose flagship program is the Roxbury Youth Orchestra, an after-school orchestra for inner-city students. France provided Witherspoon with his first opportunity to teach. He played for them and showed the students proper posture and how to hold their bow. More important, he inspired them.
"Nygel was phenomenal," said 15-year-old violinist, Lyana Portillo. "When he played, I could feel the passion in his music. He added extra elements that made the music come alive. Listening to him made me want to practice more so I can be as good as he is."
Witherspoon encouraged the students, who sometimes get frustrated with their progress.
"There are times when you lose motivation and hit a plateau," he told them. "Maybe you feel you're not improving or winning competitions. Those things can be demotivating. The challenge is to take those moments and grow from them. In the long run, if you're doing what you enjoy and [you] stick with it, you'll be happy."
Success, he said, is "making a living doing something I love. As long as I can play my music and have an impact on people's lives, I consider that the best definition of success."