At a contest rehearsal in April, 17-year-old Charles Askew’s fingers moved across piano keys with speed and skill, but what caught Kate Sargent off guard was his face.
It was in that moment that Sargent decided to do whatever necessary to help Charles succeed as a musician.
“I knew then that if he received the support needed, he could take his craft to incredible heights,” said Sargent, a middle school community resource specialist.
And support was what Charles needed.
Now a senior at North Kansas City High School, Charles began teaching himself to play piano by the time he could reach the keyboard, but those childhood years have been lived in unstable home environments and financial uncertainty.
For several years, and especially the past year, his mother, teachers, counselors and even strangers have surrounded him with support after hearing his story and listening to him play.
The help has been economic and emotional, said Sargent, who has spearheaded much of the effort.
In a week, Charles will attend a nationally renowned piano camp at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. A couple who heard Charles’ story, but do not know him personally, paid the full $450 tuition for the camp, Sargent said.
“I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere musically in the last year if it wasn’t for Mrs. Sargent and friends and strangers,” Charles said last week after performing for young students at the Kansas Academy of Theatrical Arts summer camp in Bonner Springs.
“They have all the appreciation I can give, and that’s still not even enough.”
Charles’ mother, Ernestine Askew, said she had always prayed that her son would have musical talent, a trait that runs in the family. When Charles was a baby, she would set him in front of her father’s piano and play for him.
But she hasn’t always been able to be present in his life.
Ernestine Askew said she was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and a nervous condition 30 years ago and doesn’t have transportation. She said providing adequate food and housing for Charles has been a heavy concern.
Charles’ guardian and provider was his grandfather until he died when Charles was 10. They lived in Kansas City, Kan., where his grandfather was a pastor at Walnut Boulevard Missionary Baptist Church.
It was there that Charles first started playing when he was 2 years old and tall enough to stand at his grandfather’s piano.
“My parents weren’t very present in my life when I was young,” Charles said. “My grandfather took care of and believed in me. He got me my first private teacher at a local jazz studio when I was 5 years old, who taught me some of the basics.”
Charles’ grandfather had a dusty and yellowed 16-book set of the International Library of Piano Music. His grandfather also had given him an old keyboard to practice on, and when that gave out, his jazz studio teacher, Reginald Watkins, gave him a $29 antique piano he had found at Goodwill.
Charles discovered Arthur Rubinstein’s version of Beethoven’s “Pathétique Sonata” on Youtube and was captivated.
“It sounded like a torrent of wind in a storm,” Charles said. “I wanted to make that, something so complicated that sounds so simple. I fell in love.”
He began trying to teach himself classical music.
“I sat down at age 10 with that 16-book set and tried to learn Beethoven, but it was beyond my skill level at the time,” Charles said. “I kept working on my own; I’d never put that amount of dedication into something before. I kept increasing my skill level till I could start to play the classical pieces.”
After his grandfather’s death, Charles lived with another family member for two years, a living situation that was unhealthy for Charles, his mother said. Ernestine Askew said she regained guardianship when Charles was 12 years old after discovering the environment he had been living in. His father lives in Kansas City, and Charles said they visit on occasion but have not lived together.
Charles said that when he moved to live with his mom in North Kansas City, he lost his grandfather’s 16-book set.
“So, I just started composing on my own, using Beethoven as a model for my early compositions,” Charles said. “I didn’t have any good paper, though, so I taped construction paper together and used a ruler to draw the lines.”
The family has bigger challenges ahead.
Because of a conflict with the apartment company, Ernestine Askew said, she is unsure whether she will be able to renew their lease in late August.
“I’m at a standstill right now, but I feel I’m in a crisis to make sure I have a roof for my son,” Ernestine Askew said. She said Sargent has taken her to look at other possible housing options and has helped her communicate with her current apartment complex.
Ernestine Askew said she is unemployed and provides for Charles through social security disability insurance checks.
“Finances are the biggest obstacle to Charles’ future that we are facing,” she said. “The way Charles plays the piano, it’s brought incredible people to us. People have come out of nowhere to help, and it’s overwhelming.”
Sargent first met Charles at Northgate Middle School, where she is a social worker.
But after she heard Charles perform at the April rehearsal, Sargent said she knew she had to find a way to provide him with private classical lessons.
“My relationship with Charles changed that moment I heard him play solo for the first time,” she said.
As it turns out, Joyce Berg, a classical piano instructor for 41 years, heard Charles play at a high school orchestra competition not long after.
“I was very impressed by his performance,” said Berg, of Parkville. “Then I found out that he had never had classical training and couldn’t afford a teacher.”
Sargent began orchestrating a fundraiser for Charles, a recital called “Charles and Friends.” He performed with orchestra students from Northgate Middle School this spring, and Charles said that fundraiser is one of the main reasons he has launched forward as a musician this year.
The night raised nearly $1,000 for Charles’ musical career, Sargent said, $390 of which is paying for weekly lessons with Berg. Berg partners with a nonprofit, Music Link Foundation, to offer Charles lessons at a reduced price.
Other money went toward camp and helping Charles and his mother with groceries and transportation.
“It’s been incredible to watch these things come together,” Sargent said. “Mrs. Berg held a recital not too long ago. A parent approached me afterward and told me he had $120 in his pocket he wanted to give to Charles. That’s now paying for Charles’ Greyhound bus ticket back from Nashville.”
When their housing situation gets settled, a nonprofit called Keys 4/4 Kids will donate a baby grand piano to Charles. The nonprofit, started in Minnesota, funds multiple charitable programs through the sale of donated and restored used pianos.
“Charles has exceptional talent that would be a shame to waste because of a lack of an instrument,” said site director Steve Waters, who helped start the Kansas City branch of Keys 4/4 Kids in 2009. “Charles’ will be the eighth piano that we’ve given away.”
Other contributions also have been made in Charles’ name to the North Kansas City Education Foundation.
Charles said his future is uncertain, especially with his family’s housing situation up in the air, but after he graduates high school he wants to either pursue music at a university or join the Navy. Either way, he will continue pursing a professional pianist career, he said.
“My dream is to be the best classical pianist in the world,” he said.
But before looking too far ahead, Charles said he is just excited to spend his last high school year taking lessons with Berg and playing piano for his school’s orchestra.
His high school orchestra will play one of his original compositions in the fall, Charles said, titled “The Tempestuous Wait.”
“Charles surprised me with his piece,” Berg said. “It’s quite elaborate. He used a complex music notation software that he learned all on his own. For him to go and figure out this software and pen a piece like this is stunning.”
Charles said that every piece he composes in his head has a story to go with it. For “The Tempestuous Wait,” the music accompanies an image of a man waiting for a series of violent thunderstorms to end.
“Finally, the storm and all the violence stops,” Charles said. “He sees this rainbow, and he’s just basking in the beauty of it. In a way, my storm has stopped and music is what I’m basking in. My door is wide open now, and it’s time for me to soar around a little.”