He speaks the truth, you know.
Who is it, though, of whom Merton speaks?
The athlete? The musician? An amalgam of the two? Or perhaps one simply seeking meaning, fulfillment, and peace?
Say “Hello!” to Donovan Williams, a creative, articulate, multidimensional, and multitalented Collegiate School senior.
He’s a violinist extraordinaire who’s performed both locally and in venues up and down the East Coast as well as in Europe.
Among his myriad honors, he’s earned first place in both the Charleston International Romantic Music Competition and the Eastman Eclectic Strings Competition. He, classmate William Bullock, and 2020 graduate J.P. Mintz (who perform as Tr1 F3cta, pronounced TriFecta) won top honors in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. That’s just a sampling, of course. The list is long and growing.
In addition to his instrument of choice, he’s also adept as a pianist, classical guitarist, electric bassist, and drummer. Composing music is a passion as well.
In the athletic realm, Donovan is a four-year varsity football letter recipient and, at 5-7, 170-pounds, a starting running back on this year’s squad. Through seven games, he’s rushed 86 times for 393 yards and four touchdowns and caught nine passes for 95 yards.
He’s competed as a sprinter in winter track.
He’s played varsity baseball since the 9th grade, mainly in rightfield and more recently in center. This past spring, he earned All-Prep League, All-VISAA, and honorable mention All-Metro honors on the strength of a .360 batting average, .430 on-base percentage, four doubles, four triples, 17 runs batted in, 23 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases in 22 games.
Now this is the question: Is Donovan a musician who plays sports or an athlete who plays music?
“I personally feel like it’s both,” he said. “I want to major in music and play sports in college and prepare for a career as a composer, so that (question) will sort itself out. I feel that music comes more naturally to me than athletics does, but I love being able to work and better myself in the athletic world.”
His connection with music came first. When he was a toddler, his maternal grandmother Sandy Shelton, a musician herself, introduced him to the violin.
“Ever since then,” he said, “it’s been a keystone part of my life.”
During his Collegiate years, he’s studied violin with Wendy Loeb, Françoise Moquin, and now Jocelyn Vorenberg.
“Violin is at the top of what I want to pursue,” he said. “I have the best chance of performing it, but I really enjoy all the other instruments I play.”
He’s often performed solo, including the National Anthem before athletic events, and in string ensembles and orchestras throughout his time on North Mooreland Road. He’s performed in regional, state, and national competitions and twice served as assistant concertmaster in the High School Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall.
“I’ve really, really enjoyed being able to represent Collegiate and be part of the culture here,” he said.
Donovan’s tastes in music are eclectic, which influence his efforts as a composer.
“I mix a lot of genres together,” he said. “Some of my favorites are Romantic era classical: Chopin, Liszt, and Paganini. Paganini wrote a series of 24 songs called Caprices which are deemed to be the most technically challenging pieces for violin. Lots of different schools, when you go to audition, require you to learn one of his pieces. I love that style of music.
“I also really like electronic music and film scores, and I’m a little bit of a rapper, so I like to mix all those genres in some form or fashion. One of my goals in life is to combine those into a sound that resonates with everybody.”
That’s the plan. This is the process.
“In terms of how I go about writing or composing music,” he continued, “I’m a very emotional person. Whenever I go to write music, I usually hear the song or the tune in my head, and I’ll record it on my phone or go and try to play it. I try to instill the emotion that I’m feeling at the moment in that tune or rift. Then everything kind of goes from there.”
And the ideas?
“Really,” he said, “they can be anywhere and anything. I get a lot of ideas driving down the highway. I live about 35 minutes from Collegiate, so I spend a lot of time driving. When I listen to new music on YouTube or Spotify, I might hear something in a song I really like and mix that into something.”
Sounds like music has become quite a calling, I observed.
“I’m a very religious and faithful person,” Donovan replied. “I do believe I was called to play music. I believe that God has given me the ability and the privilege to communicate through music. I know how much music has impacted me and sustained me. I believe that music speaks where words can’t. Sometimes music can reveal something in you that you wouldn’t have otherwise known was there. That’s something I want as a purpose in my life: to help people realize their potential through my music and ultimately connect them to who they’re supposed to be.”
So music is about communicating? I said.
“I love to speak verbally,” Donovan replied, “but whenever I step on the stage or get up with my trio or play in an orchestra, it gives me a vessel to open myself up and pour emotion into the music. What’s beautiful about music is that everybody can interpret a song in a different way. Maybe I could play a chord on the violin, and somebody could hear that and it could mean one thing, and it could mean something completely different to the person right next to them. How does the music move you? How does it inspire you? How does it help you become a better version of yourself?”
Just as his grandmother laid the groundwork for his musical endeavors, his father Chris Williams, a multi-sport athlete and Hall of Fame inductee at Bath County (VA) High School and a James Madison University baseball player, inspired him in the athletic arena.
“I’m so grateful that the expectation was there,” Donovan said. “With football specifically, being a smaller, quicker back going up against linebackers that are sometimes 70 to 90 pounds heavier than me and 6 to 8 inches taller, you have to have a lot of grit and perseverance to put your body on the line game after game.
“I love the camaraderie that comes with football. I really learned that when I started playing for Collegiate because I could see my peers come out and support me and the team, and it gave me the opportunity to be on the stage, to be with my guys, to perform with them.
“I also love the training aspect, the physicality, the emphasis on the weight room and the on-field work. And I love riding on the bus with guys that I sit in math class and English class with and have gotten to know over the years. Getting to play four quarters of football and represent Collegiate and wear that Cougar jersey and have that paw on my helmet means a great deal to me and my family. I love that about football.”
“There’s the same camaraderie aspect,” he said. “One thing I love about baseball is the mental pressure. With all sports and things performance-related, you need to be locked in mentally. If I go into the batter’s box worried about striking out, I’m not ready. What I’ve learned about baseball is that there’s a lot of failure in it. There’s a lot of ground outs, fly outs, strikeouts. The ability to stay level-headed and put the team’s needs over yours is something that I’ve really learned. If I go 0-for-3 and the team sweeps the series against a Prep League rival, that means so much more than me hitting a triple and us losing.”
Do you see parallels between your musical and athletic endeavors? I asked.
“Preparation is key,” he said. “No matter where the performance venue is, I always want to make sure I have my repertoire ready and practice well. I want to make sure I’m comfortable enough to play the music without looking at the piece and having to rely on anything other than muscle memory. That takes a lot of practice and repetition. You have to put in the time.
“With performances both in sports and on the stage, even in the classroom, there’ll always be nervous energy. You’re getting amped up. Your heart’s beating really fast. You have to control your breathing. I’ve had the most success when I know I’ve put in the work, not just two or three days or even a week before, but months, years, so when that time comes, I’m ready and can just breath and relax.”
How, I wondered, do you remain balanced and productive despite the many demands on you time?
“Collegiate has done a good job instilling mindfulness in us throughout the curriculum,” said Donovan, who’s in the process of determining the next stop on his educational journey. “For me, I’ve found that spending time in the Bible and doing my devotionals in the morning really sets up my day in a good, peaceful way. I feel like I align myself really well when I make time for my faith and read the Word and meditate on it.”