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Teen’s piano prowess nets national stage as Memphis NAACP ACT-SO finalist

When Tyler Lewellen returned to school on March 25, nothing was quite the same. He had gained instant rock-star status at Overton High School after fellow classmates learned that the accomplished classical pianist was a Memphis Branch NAACP  ACT-SO finalist.

“It was announced in the morning and in the afternoon,” said Lewellen, 15. “Thursday (March 24) was the competition, and the awards ceremony followed the performances. My friends thought it was ‘pretty cool,’ and I thought so, too.”

African-American youth competed from all over the city in the 2022 NAACP’s ACT-SO project. The “Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics” is a year-long achievement program to encourage high academic and cultural excellence among high school students. Mentoring and scholastic enrichment activities lead up to the culminating national competition.

Lewellen learned in late February that he was a semi-finalist in the “Music: Instrumental/Classical” category. The final showdown was March 24, at Parkway Gardens Presbyterian in July in Atlantic City, New Jersey.Church. 

Local finalists will join the nation’s best and brightest on a national stage 

Ricky Lewellen noticed that his son, Tyler, showed an interest in musical instruments as a toddler. Now 15, Tyler envisions becoming a classical pianist. (Courtesy photo)

“When Tyler was very young, just a toddler, I noticed him being drawn to musical instruments,” said Ricky Lewellen, Tyler’s father, and keyboardist at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Westwood. “The day he walked over to the piano and touched the keys, I knew he would love music.”

Ricky Lewellen has been a church musician since second grade. He started on the guitar. He picked up music with his natural ear, even before formal lessons. Tyler, like his father, also plays multiple instruments by ear. 

“It runs in our family, our gift for music,” said Ricky Lewellen. “I started Tyler’s formal lessons in first grade. Although I teach piano, I got him a teacher, and you could just say I was his coach.”

Learning to read music and play the piano was a particularly joyful experience, Tyler said.

“I have always enjoyed playing the piano,” said Tyler. “Of course, I love gospel and all other music. But I especially love classical pieces. They are more intricate and complex. I enjoy the challenge of perfecting them.”

For the national competition, Tyler has narrowed his selection to be one of two pieces: Claude Debussy’s “1st Movement of the Arabesque” and Frederic Chopin’s “Fantaisie Impromptu.” 

He is leaning toward the much more difficult Chopin piece.

“I have been practicing on ‘Fantaisie Impromptu,’ and I have almost finished learning it,” said Tyler. “It is far more intricate, and the level of difficulty is considerable, but it has been a satisfying experience learning it. I believe it will be Chopin.”

Tyler is confident he can perfect the composition before July, thanks to his photographic memory.

Charice Lewellen, Tyler’s mother, reminds everyone she married into the family and did not acquire musical talent by osmosis.

“My husband always says the only thing I can play is the radio,” she said. “But Tyler’s dad and I are his biggest cheerleaders. He wins every competition he enters. My job is to scream and jump when he wins and embarrass him.”

Tyler is a sophomore at Overton High, a creative performing arts school. He attended Colonial Middle, also a creative performing arts school. He plans to pursue a career as a classical pianist.

ACT-SO includes 29 competitions in STEM, humanities, business and performing, visual and culinary arts.

Almost 300,000 young people have participated in the program since its inception. This is the program’s 44th year.

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