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'Virtuoso' Herman Whitfield III should be 40. The world will never know how far he could've gone

The world will never hear Herman Whitfield III play again, which is what saddens his peers the most.

Growing up in Indianapolis as a budding composer and pianist, Herman Whitfield III’s command of the keys garnered considerable remarks about his bright potential.

“A virtuoso on the rise,” an Indianapolis Star article reported about him when he was 14 years old.

“A composer commanding” the city's attention, read another.

His mentors say it was only a matter of time before the musical genius received a Pulitzer Prize for his compositions.

Yet the public will never know how far he could’ve gone.

The 39-year-old took his last breath April 25 − double-handcuffed, face down and twice shocked by police officers with a taser while experiencing an apparent mental health crisis. His parents, Gladys Whitfield and Herman Whitfield Jr., said it was his first mental health episode as far as they knew. They called 911 early that morning with the intent to request an ambulance. Instead, police arrived. Their son was naked, unarmed and mumbling to himself while walking around the home. Then, their call for help became a deadly encounter.

His death came as a horrific blow to those who knew him. It flew in the face of what they remembered about Herman Whitfield III, the inquisitive and soft-spoken genius who’s been referred to as a gentle giant in media reports as far back as 2001. By all accounts, Indianapolis lost one of its best and brightest.

“When I think about what the world lost with Herman, that saddens me,” said William Curry, the music director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra.

Saturday, on what would’ve been their son’s 40th birthday, Herman Whitfield III’s parents are commemorating his life while continuing to push for justice in his death.

Their continued fight for justice and better mental health resources, his parents told IndyStar, is what their son, who they call Trey, would've wanted.

A genius in the making

The start of Herman Whitfield III’s love affair with music began perhaps the way any child first encounters that world – by banging on pots and pans.

He wanted to become a drummer, but Gladys Whitfield and Herman Whitfield Jr. noticed a different potential in him on Sundays when the family returned from church. Herman Whitfield III could sit down at the family's piano and effortlessly play the hymns he'd just heard by ear.

His parents kindled that talent by putting him in lessons at four years old. Gladys Whitfield said they were met with hesitation by teachers. He was too young, she remembers being told. Gladys Whitfield said they insisted the teachers at least hear him play. After they obliged, the piano instructors changed their tune and said he was ready.

With the help of notable local piano teachers, Herman Whitfield III blossomed.By age 14, his talents advanced at rare pace, giving him the ability to move from one classical piece to the next seamlessly, an instructor remarked in a 1997 article.

Around this time, he tried his hand at composing, taking pencil to paper to jot down pieces. The family later splurged on a computer so he could organize his compositions more easily through a software program.

Though playing keys was his forte, Herman Whitfield III could write music for any instrument.

“He often told me he could hear all the instruments in the piano,” Herman Whitfield Jr. said. “It’s just amazing, the conversation he’d carry on all day about music.”

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra twice named Herman Whitfield III the winner in its “emerging African-American composers” competition.

Eighth grade musician Herman Whitfield III plays the piano on Thursday, May1, 1997, at Shortridge Middle School in Indianapolis.
Eighth grade musician Herman Whitfield III plays the piano on Thursday, May1, 1997, at Shortridge Middle School in Indianapolis.

Herman Whitfield III’s uncanny composing ability marked him as a genius to Curry, the musical director of Durham Symphony Orchestra.

Curry recalled listening to Herman Whitfield III’s Scherzo No. 2 for Orchestra while he was on the hunt for music to fill his concert series for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2003. He immediately selected it to play at the concert, Curry told IndyStar, and the piece received a standing ovation.

A musical genius in Curry's mind, he said, is either someone who can compose and play at a level it would take a maestro like him hours to achieve the same standard.

"Then, there's the genius who I could work 1000 times more than them, but I could still never equal their level (such as) Mozart," he said. "What I saw in Herman was the latter category."

Listening to Scherzo No. 2 for Orchestra now makes Curry emotional, knowing the world will never again hear a new Herman Whitfield III piece. He hadn’t heard of the 39-year-old's death until recently.

Remembering Herman Whitfield III’s life also evokes tears from Susan Kitterman, his former music teacher who taught him every week through the previously-named New World Youth Orchestra she founded in 1983.

For Kitterman, her emotion does not solely stem from sadness, but sheer respect.  

Kitterman remembers the lesser-known aspect of Herman Whitfield III – his interest in politics. Herman earned a Bachelor of Arts in Politics at Oberlin College, along with a Bachelor of Music in both Composition and Piano Performance.

Gladys Whitfield and Herman Whitfield Jr. recalled how their son would stun them with his knowledge of political organization and theory. His former peers at Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School elected him senior vice president of student council. In his trademark private manner, his parents said, he didn’t tell his family until they saw the news in the student newspaper.

Kitterman remembers hearing Herman Whitfield III discussing the Austro-Hungarian empire with other students during one of their breaks at music practice.

“That’s what I think in reflecting back on his life now,” she said.

Herman Whitfield III combined his passion for music and politics in 2009 by playing in an opera entitled Small Box. In a cruel twist of irony, the opera examines the death penalty.

Losing Indianapolis' best and brightest

It’s safe to draw the conclusion the world would've heard more from Herman Whitfield III. Composing and performing is what he’s done since elementary school, and the people who knew him have no doubt his works would've received even more standing ovations.

Herman Whitfield III performs at the Indianapolis Arts Garden on Feb. 13, 2009. Whitfield died while in police custody after being tased on April 25, 2022.
Herman Whitfield III performs at the Indianapolis Arts Garden on Feb. 13, 2009. Whitfield died while in police custody after being tased on April 25, 2022.

Yet reaching that level of fanfare was never Herman Whitfield III’s main goal. In a cut-throat industry rife with egos, Herman Whitfield III preferred to compete with himself.

When asked about his source of talent for an article, the then-14-year-old responded matter-of-factly he just loved to play. Years later in a video from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, he said music is one of the most direct forms of communication we have, before playing a bouncy tune on the piano.

Herman Whitfield III is a product of the Indianapolis community recognizing his talent, Kitterman said, and his parents putting him in places where he could thrive.

The Marion County Coroner's Office declared his death a homicide in July and an investigation of the officers who responded that night is being reviewed by the prosecutor's office.

Now, Gladys and Herman Whitfield Jr. hope the memories of their son’s life flourish, and his untimely death marks the start of a reckoning for mental health responses.

Contact Sarah Nelson at 317-503-7514 or sarah.nelson@indystar.com

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Herman Whitfield III: Family mourns loss as 40th birthday approaches