T.O. trumpet prodigy raises tuition online
William Leathers had 10 minutes to prove himself. That’s the length of a Juilliard audition for music performance, and there could hardly be a more decisive wisp of time in an aspiring musician’s life.
After his pre-screening essays and audio samples were accepted, Leathers flew from his Torontoarea home to the prestigious Manhattan institution this February and played trumpet for four judges who scarcely moved a muscle. The 17-year-old was unfazed.
“I said thank you and I left. It felt really good, and I think I sounded good,” Leathers says. “So long as I was 100 per cent prepared, which I was, there was no need to be nervous.”
He was right — there was no need to be nervous. After devoting much of his post–high school gap year to audition prep (up to five hours of trumpet daily), Leathers was one of only three trumpeters admitted into Juilliard’s undergrad performance program. Admission is the hard part. Very few have to face the massive tuition bill that follows. Four years at Juilliard (including housing) costs $394,000 Canadian dollars, and the Leathers family had not yet determined how they would pay, beyond the $25,500 they had ready. Thankfully, a close family friend started an online YouCaring fundraiser in April.
Within the first week, the goal of $65,500 for the first year of tuition was met, and by August, over $100,000 had been raised.
“We are somewhat surprised how people have responded in supporting him,” says Leathers’ mom Donna. “I think 90 per cent of the people who donated online don’t know him. They’ve never met him, and they’ve never really heard him play. It just goes to show that people are good and like to see others do good as well.”
Probably if they were to hear him play, his donors would redouble their efforts to support him. Leathers is every inch the prodigy you’ve already guessed he might be. He started piano at age four, wanting to imitate Oswald the piano-playing cartoon octopus. (In itself, this was an early sign of Leathers’ ambition, what with the eight hands.) And trumpet was soon to follow, given that Leathers’ father is a professional trumpet player and teacher.
“As soon as I had enough adult teeth to be able to buzz, so at age six or seven, I started learning trumpet,” Leathers says. “I just worked with my dad until I was 12, and he taught me most of the fundamentals. It was teaching but it was all father-son moments at the same time.”
This might conjure up the image of a demanding taskmaster parent pushing his only child to excel in accordance with his own expertise. But that is not the Leathers family story. As the younger trumpeter tells it, the only demand ever placed on him was that he play a duet with his dad, Howard.
“All he wanted musically was just to be able to play a tune together, and he got that when I was four or five. I was playing piano and he was playing trumpet,” says Leathers. “He wouldn’t care less if I became a dentist, and my mom just wants me to be successful. They’re pretty much just proud of me.”
Driven by his own passion for music, Leathers plans to pursue a master’s and a PhD.
The online fundraiser, now hosted by GoFundMe, continues — but with a twist. Seeking to raise another $160,000, Leathers came up with a way to share the generosity he’s been shown: he’ll use 10 per cent of the final amount raised to start a foundation for other artists who are in need of financial assistance for their education. And if enough is raised to cover all four years of school, every extra dollar beyond that amount will also go to the foundation.
But for now, with his first year covered, Leathers is off to Juilliard. Doubtless he will make his supporters proud.
Leathers has played piano since he was four and trumpet since he was seven