Nygel Witherspoon was about 3 years old when he began playing cello, his interest spurred by attending his older siblings’ violin lessons.
About 13 years later, Witherspoon is arguably one of the best young cellists in the Midwest, one who has played as a featured soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Witherspoon, a Minneapolis resident, was featured with the orchestra in October after winning a music competition earlier in 2017. He’s also been featured on Minnesota Public Radio and as a soloist with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.
The 16-year-old said he gets a little nervous the day before his performances, but the nerves go away once he’s on stage.
“I like getting a positive response from the people I play for,” Witherspoon said. “I think it’s very satisfying to get that response.”
It’s a response Witherspoon has been getting for years, according to his family and teachers. They say he has exhibited a rare combination of talent and determination since he was young, which sets him up well for a potential professional career.
“It’s very rare to see a young player invest so much concentration in form and doing things so beautifully from a very young age,” said Bruce Coppock, the retired president and managing director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who mentored Witherspoon and his siblings for years.
“There’s an authenticity to Nygel’s playing and his manner with the cello,” Coppock added. “He’s just a completely sincere and authentic character.”
Witherspoon doesn’t exactly come from a musical family. His great aunt, Shirley Witherspoon, was a well-known jazz singer in Minneapolis, according to his older brother, Alastair, but no other family members were particularly musically inclined.
Alastair said his own interest in music was piqued at a young age, when he saw a string quartet perform on TV. He and sister Imala both started taking violin lessons around that time, when he was about 7 and she was about 5.
Nygel would tag along and hum to the music, according to his siblings. At one point, he was able to hum an entire violin concerto, which caught the attention of his siblings’ violin teacher. The teacher encouraged the Witherspoons’ mom, Katie Daniels-Witherspoon, to start Nygel on the violin.
Witherspoon said he played the instrument for a few months before telling his mom he wanted to play the “big one,” meaning the cello. He’s played it ever since.
David Holmes, who taught Witherspoon for 13 years, recalled Witherspoon being a focused and settled child, even at 3 years old.
“I always called him my Buddhist student,” Holmes said. “He exhibited a kind of amazing focus and the ability to hang in there longer than kids his own age.”
Holmes said Daniels-Witherspoon was at every lesson, sitting on the sofa and taking notes. He said he knew Witherspoon was talented but that the young student had an interest and drive most kids do not possess.
“He’s the best student I’ve ever had by a long stretch,” Holmes said. “And I’ve had some really talented students.”
Witherspoon said he was practicing one-and-a-half to two hours a day by the time he was 5. He was practicing for four to five hours a day by the time he was 10 or 11, according to Holmes.
Holmes said the accuracy and beauty of Witherspoon’s playing really settled in by the time he was 12. Last year, Witherspoon began entering music competitions and winning everything, Holmes said.
That streak included a top prize in the Young People’s Symphony Concert Association’s annual competition, which earned Witherspoon the opportunity to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra in October. He’ll get to play with the group again in the spring.
Jessica Leibfried, director of education and community engagement for the orchestra, said Witherspoon exhibits a mindset while playing that’s fascinating to see.
“You can almost see his wheels turning,” Leibfried said. “He will look for things to improve from concert to concert. … It’s an incredibly short amount of time to see that type of growth.”
She added that Witherspoon has a pinpoint focus on the music but that he’s also kind and humble.
“You can just tell he loves the cello,” she said. “It’s like his hope when he performs is just to have people feel something. … I think he’s presenting a composer’s’ work as, ‘This is how I react to the music, and I hope you have some sort of reaction.'”
Alastair Witherspoon said he wasn’t all that surprised by his brother’s success last year, noting that Nygel has always done well in competitions. He said he’s very happy that Nygel got to play with the Minnesota Orchestra, adding that it could jump-start his career.
Imala said it’s amazing to watch Nygel achieve his dreams and grow as a person and musician.
Both siblings described themselves as among Nygel’s biggest supporters, noting a lack of competition between the three of them when it comes to music.
They described Nygel as a more reserved person but added that music draws out a side of him most people don’t see.
“For whatever reason, music is a way he’s able to converse with people in a really positive way,” Imala said. “It’s very clear that he’s feeling what he’s feeling, and you’re able to sort of draw into that and feel the same emotions.”
Growing up, the three siblings would each practice in a different room in their house, a setup Alastair described as a “cacophony of noise.” Imala said she didn’t mind, noting the companionship it created.
Nowadays, the siblings continue to play and perform together. Alastair and Imala are each majoring in music performance at the University of Minnesota, where Imala is also majoring in political science. They all play in the University’s Symphony Orchestra — Nygel thanks to the state’s Postsecondary Enrollment Options program.
The three are scheduled to play in a courtroom concert in March through the Schubert Club in St. Paul.
Witherspoon said currently he practices about five hours a day. He does his high school coursework through Minnesota Connections Academy, which offers classes entirely online. He’s been attending the school since kindergarten.
He said he would someday like to perform chamber music professionally and solo with orchestras. He added that he could potentially see himself going to a music conservatory out East for his undergraduate studies.
Coppock appeared to think that such aspirations would be attainable. He said Witherspoon has the whole package of talent, discipline, good training and reinforcement from home.
“He’s destined for a very solid professional career, but it’s a process,” he said, noting that musicians don’t finish their training until their early to mid 20s.
Holmes appeared to agree. He said he thinks Witherspoon could get into an elite music conservatory such as Curtis or Juilliard and then embark on a solid professional career.
“If anyone can make it, he’s got what it takes,” Holmes said. “I think anyone would be happy to hear him play.”