There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of children who would do anything to get their hands on a guitar, but for whatever reason, are unable to do so. Maybe their families can’t afford to buy them one, maybe the family doesn’t support their dream to be a musician, maybe they were never encouraged in school, or maybe their school doesn’t have a music program that would encourage and teach young people how to play an instrument. Whatever the reason, too many children give up their dreams too early. Thankfully, Willie Moore, III was not one of those children. He was not only able to get his hands on a guitar, he learned how to play well enough to receive a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, and he did it with only four fingers on his left hand.
When Moore was six years old, his father bought him his first guitar. As a child, he was often made fun of by the other children at school because he is differently abled. His father’s heart broke each time his son came home from school in tears, so he bought the guitar, thinking that if his son could learn to play, he wouldn’t worry so much about what the other children thought of his hand. From birth, the thumb, “never really worked right,” as the now grown Willie Moore puts it. Doctors determined he would have greater use of his hand by removing the thumb and replacing it with his left index finger.
How could they know, at that time, that this would severely affect Moore’s ability to play the guitar later in life? “I just play left handed,” he says nonchalantly. Luckily, he grew up with a gospel music background and developed his skills playing chords with his right hand. By middle school, Moore was playing music for a few local churches and attending LaVilla School for the Arts, where he met Don Casper. Casper was his guitar teacher at LaVilla as well as at Douglas Anderson School for the Arts (DA), where Moore attended high school.
For most guitar students at DA, much of their curriculum centers on mastering classical guitar. It was easy to see that Moore struggled to hold the guitar and get the finger-style right because classical requires picking the strings with the left hand. “You need four fingers for the chords, which made it almost impossible for Willie,” Casper points out. “Unlike classical guitar, jazz guitar has less stringent guidelines for holding the instrument, or picking the chords. I could tell that Willie gravitated towards jazz music and it works so much better for .”
Moore is an incredibly gifted musician. His ear and rhythm are so good, he can pick up on a piece without having to read it, which is fortunate since his early education didn’t give him the skills he needs to read musical notation.
“Willie has such a warm personality and he’s always joyous,” Casper adds. “He was adored by all of the teachers, as well as his peers.” Knowing that Moore was struggling more academically than musically, Don gave him the flexibility to skip some of his guitar classes in favor of improving his math and reading skills. “I would arrive at school early and stayed late to get the help I needed,” Moore recalls.
Le Tricia Carson, a mathematics instructor at DA, remembers meeting Moore in her Algebra II class, “I had always heard good things about Willie, but I knew that he was struggling. Even though he participated in my class and asked questions, he didn’t seem to understand.” She tutored Moore through his junior and senior years. Carson noticed that when he stood and walked around while working on math problems, he comprehended the information much better. Yet, when seated, as is often expected for class exams, he would fail. She decided to allow Willie to stand and walk during his exams and his scores dramatically improved.
Moore also had Le Tricia Carson as his instructor for Financial Algebra during his senior year. “As a musician he would need to be able to read contracts and understand how, not just how much, he would be paid,” she explains. This was the real-life application Moore needed to connect the importance math had to his musical career. While this type of attention is not unusual for teachers at DA to give to their students, it made a huge impression upon Moore, who says, “The people I met at DA pushed academics as much as the arts. They taught me about time management, how to audition and interview, and how to ask for help. They helped me realize my dream and they made me feel like family.”
After graduating in May 2014, Moore received a $20,000 yearly scholarship to Berklee, where he is majoring in Professional Music and Contemporary Writing and Production. Carson had the honor of presenting him with the Florida Times-Union’s Most Outstanding Senior of the Year Award in June, for his dedication to academics and his commitment to bettering the Jacksonville community. When he comes home to visit, Moore hosts music workshops at a few elementary schools in Duval County and is actively involved with his foundation, raising money for homeless children, or holding donation drives to give teddy bears to children recently displaced from their homes. And, of course, he plays at local music venues. Carson loves to go see him play while he’s in town: “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. He just loses himself.”
“Music has helped me through a lot of stuff, and I think of myself as an ambassador for the city,” Moore says. Both he and Carson are grateful to have forged a long-standing relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. “Willie changed my life,” Carson states. “He made me want to be a better teacher and he is one student I will always remember.“ “She’s like a mother to me,” Moore adds.
Not only did Moore become a better guitar player during his time at DA, he also learned how to read and understand math. More than that, he found a home away from home and learned his “difference” didn’t matter – it’s kindness that matters, and he discovered that music builds bridges between divides. In a time when classroom sizes are growing, and arts programs are underfunded, Willie Moore’s story raises the question, “How can we help more children achieve their dreams?” Le Tricia Carson answers, “It doesn’t take much, it just takes the willingness to make a connection.”
Article written by Laura Riggs