Morgan St. student hits the keys to success

October 17, 1991|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

A caption on an Evening Sun photograph Thursday incorrectly identified Darin Atwater, a Morgan State University student who plays piano with two nationally known gospel groups. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

Darin Atwater sees himself as a typical Morgan State University student, but with a few minor exceptions:

He wears suits or tuxedos on campus.

L He's never been to a campus football game or Greek stepshow.

He plays piano with two nationally known gospel recording groups.

Like many of his fellow students, Atwater has a part-time job, although it's unlikely that their jobs involve nationwide travel or work with gospel stars the likes of Richard Smallwood or the Winans family. Atwater practices the piano at least five hours daily -- after he finishes his schoolwork.


"Maybe I'm not like other students and I don't have time to enjoy student life," he says. "I've missed a lot of things on campus. Really, I've never been to anything. But I don't regret it at all."

The Morgan junior has gained national attention for his piano abilities in less than three years at the school. In addition to recording with the Richard Smallwood Singers and touring with the Winans family, he wrote a song to be sung by Whitney Houston in an upcoming movie starring Kevin Costner.

And that's in addition to his duties as the assistant minister of music at the Long Reach Church of God in Columbia.

"A lot of students see me as a professional or something and they don't call me because they think that I can't or won't do something with them," says Atwater, 21.

"Right now, I'm addicted to my music. That's all I need right now. If I don't practice every day, I'll lose something and have to practice doubly hard the next day."

He plays mostly gospel piano, but also is developing his classical and jazz skills. In some songs, he combines the three. He knows he probably won't be able to play all three professionally.

"I'm a gospel musician and that's going to come through in other types of music I play. I put that feeling and interpretation into jazz and classical," Atwater says.

"To be a good gospel artist, you've got to be focused. But I like playing all three. I want to be able to eventually drain myself of every bit of talent that's in me."

Daniel Winans of the Winans gospel singers asked Atwater to play with his group a year ago after hearing Atwater play at the Long Reach Church of God. He played with the other members of the Winans family while on tour.

"The first time I went with the Winans, it was very intimidating, but it worked out pretty well," Atwater says. "We were in the Omni in Atlanta the first night. I remember going to sound check with them. It was intimidating. But I felt this is where I want to be. This is where I should be."

Atwater toured most of the summer with the Richard Smallwood Singers and plans to record an album with the group later this month in Nashville.

He met Richard Smallwood last fall, but almost didn't.

While Atwater was taking a final exam at Morgan, a secretary told him that Richard Smallwood had called the school looking for him to perform with the group.

"I said this must be a joke. Everybody knows that I'm a real fan of his and like his music," he says.

It wasn't a joke. When Atwater returned the call, Smallwood told him he had heard Atwater play with the Morgan choir in Washington and was impressed.

"Playing with Richard Smallwood is the biggest thrill of my life," says Atwater, who was introduced to Smallwood's music as a child. "I had studied his music and I knew everything he played. He was my mentor."

After Atwater called Smallwood, he went to Smallwood's house in Washington, played a couple of selections and that night was on a tour bus to Ohio with the group.

He was offered a full-time position with the group, but turned it down because he wanted to finish school. He also wanted to hone his skills. Atwater has played the piano since he was 4, but he never had lessons until he came to Morgan. He has since learned to read and write music.

"I'm a perfectionist. I've always been a perfectionist," he says. "That's why it was so hard for me to learn how to read music. It was hard for me to sit and say I know nothing. It was totally intimidating. Now I'm walking, but not running."

When he was 8, he was playing with the church choir and in the middle of a song he forgot part of the music.

"I didn't want to start over and try again. I just stopped playing and left. If one part wasn't perfect, then none of it was perfect," he recalls.

Dr. Nathan Carter, Morgan's choir director, says Atwater is a versatile musician who has gained more confidence in his abilities since he's been at Morgan.

"He's gained more facility on the keyboard by studying the classical giants," Carter said. "He's still experimenting. Darin is not only gifted and talented, he's a scholar. Often the two don't come together.

"We don't know what Darin is going to do with his art. He's a leader, and people listen to him. I see him as a composer or a conductor. Not necessarily in gospel, but he could be in a Broadway show."

Atwater takes his piano abilities in stride, and only hopes he is able to improve.

"It's God who gives us the power to create and be creative," he says. "Without him it's all in vain."

And his short-term goals are modest.

"This year I'm going to homecoming," he says. "I'm going to make sure of that."

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