"O Statesboro, where the sun smiles; where the evergreen grows from mile to mile." --Lyrics to "O Statesboro, Where the Sun Smiles," by Wemberly Ponder
As a five-year-old "colored" boy growing up on Cotton Avenue in the 1950s, Wemberly Ponder remembers being transfixed to a telecast that featured a concert pianist playing the most beautiful sounds he'd ever heard.
Undaunted by racial disparities that plagued the era, Ponder began a nightly petition: "Lord, please help me learn how to play the piano."
So while many boys were praying for a new bicycle, football or fishing pole, Ponder was sowing the seeds that would reap his talent.
"My mother (Harriet Ponder) was a strong woman. My dad was a disabled veteran, so mother reared us - Sanford, Thomas (deceased), Emily (deceased) and Rachel - almost as a single parent. Mother believed in me, and I began formal piano instruction at age 11 with Tharon Stevens, director of William James High School Chorale Society and distinguished piano and voice teacher.
"When confronted with a challenge, I think back to Mr. Stevens, the pictures of African-American musical artists that decked his classroom walls, and the saying that he frequently required us to recite: ‘Never say I can't; always say I'll try. If the other person did it, so can I.' That's been my motto," Ponder adds.
Today after 40 years of study, Ponder is a classical pianist, piano teacher and composer. Ponder's prayers have been answered. His name is synonymous with classical music, intellect, aptitude and talent. Fingers fly expertly across the ivory keys of the massive baby grand and a rhapsodic melody reverberates throughout the concert hall. In spite of its hypnotic appeal, the arrangement is foreign to my ears.
Ponder addresses my apprehensions.
"Classical music is a style based in the European tradition of music. People don't realize it, but there are African-Americans in every area of classical music. Many of African-American performers have a hard time establishing themselves because there's a long-time stigma that African-Americans don't play classical music. Andre Watts is one classical pianist who defied the odds. He's a highly acclaimed, internationally known classical pianist. And he's African-American! We're expected to be most familiar with blues, jazz, gospel, etc., but I don't believe we should limit our expression of this gift. We are here to express the inspiration that God has placed in music," he said.
A graduate of Georgia Southern University, Ponder has gone on to accomplish many personal accolades, some of which are: 1969 winner of Fort Valley State College Annual Music Teachers' Award in Sight Singing and Piano, 1970 winner of the Pro Mozart Society Scholarship which enabled him to study at the Mozarteum Academy of music in Salzburg, Austria.
Ponder has performed Rhapsody in Blue with the Georgia Southern Orchestra and J.S. Bach's Concerto in D minor for piano and orchestra with the Savannah Symphony. He also directed Brannen Chapel United Methodist Church Male Chorus in the performance of an original musical composition for the Statesboro Centennial Celebration. Currently, Ponder is an accompanist for opera singers at Georgia Southern University, teaches piano at the Averitt Center for the Arts, and is pianist for Historical First African Baptist Church and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Statesboro.
In spite of being a highly accomplished musician, Ponder considers himself a lifelong scholar. He currently studies musical composition and orchestration with Don Northrip, former professor of music at Georgia Southern University. He has studied piano with international renowned artist-teacher, Kurt Neumuller and has been coached by renowned concert artists Ruth Slenczynska, Lili Krauss, Maculzinski, Andre Watts and Eugene Haynes.
"I'm a teacher, but I'm also a student. I need to update what I learned 10 or 15 years ago. A willing student will continue to perfect his skill and explore new possibilities. Once you think you're finished learning, you're finished," Ponder said, chuckling. "I'm currently studying musical composition with Don Northrip and working on a piano concerto that I composed myself."
Dr. Steven Harper, Georgia Southern University music chair, is over-looking Ponder's work on his concerto. Ponder says Harper, who has a Doctorate in Musical Composition, is impressed with what he's heard thus far.
Ponder's concerto, which he has dedicated to his native home (Statesboro and Bulloch County) is awaiting review by Dr. Steven Elisha, conductor of the Georgia Southern University Symphony Orchestra. Ponder hopes Elisha will allow the GSU Orchestra to perform the concerto.
"I thank God for my musical gift, and I pray that I'll always glorify Him through the music He has placed in my heart," he said.