It is no secret that Stanford boasts a sheer amount of talent on its campus. Starting my freshman year, seeing the “hidden talents” of my prodigy-like peers, especially within the arts, never failed to astound me. Soft spoken students from my STEM classes delivered raw slam poetry performances at open mic nights. Friends I had made in Muslim Student Union (MSU) created jaw-dropping works of art at student art galleries in McMurtry Art Building. Yet what resonated with me the most was seeing the talent of other frosh on the piano. Almost every day, I walked through the lounge of my all-frosh dorm, Larkin North, and heard one of my neighbors or RAs belting out a Beethoven or Bach piano concerto in all its complexity, their fingers effortlessly gliding across the keys.
It fascinates me that the other Stanford students I pass by every day, the same ones who casually wear their Birkenstocks and Stanford hoodies in the Palo Alto sun, possess such immense talent at their fingertips. Wiley Skaret ‘25 is a classical pianist and Stanford student majoring in Computer Science. He was invited to perform with the Reno Philharmonic on Oct. 15 and 16, and was sponsored by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Before his debut in Nevada, I sat down with him to discuss his musical career and time at Stanford.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): When did you start playing the piano? What made you want to stick with it?
Wiley Skaret (WS): I started piano when I was five years old. Since my dad is a diplomat, I moved from Northern Virginia to Bogotá, Colombia when I was 12. My dad played a little bit growing up, as did my grandmother. Over time, I learned that I had good pitch and loved performing. But there was never a moment where I thought, “I know this is for me.” It was just kind of a process.
TSD: Do you think your early move to Colombia had an effect on your musical career and you as a person?
WS: Moving to Colombia was a great step to just experience something a little bit different and find value in something new. I really learned how to integrate myself with the culture and take advantage of the music that they had. I was fortunate to find a world class teacher in Colombia who taught students how to play the piano without pain: no tension, no cramps, completely relaxed. Traditionally, students are encouraged to have a relatively rigid hand. The idea is that the more sound you want to produce, the louder you want to play, the tighter you have to be, the harder you have to hit the keys. But that’s not necessarily true. You can get just as loud as anyone else, and play just as fast as anyone else, with a relaxed hand. And twenty years down the road, playing with a relaxed hand is not going to have a bad impact on your body like playing with a rigid hand would.
Moving to Colombia was a tad discouraging for my musical career at times, but finding the value in something that is difficult is really important; even though I didn’t get the extensive amount of competition opportunities like I might have had in the states, in Colombia, I got so many chances to perform in concert with orchestras. In that way, the move was a blessing in disguise.
TSD: How have you learned to deal with setbacks and disappointments in your musical career?
WS: Growing up, my parents never told me that one competition was going to be more important than another one. My parents were also very strict about always celebrating after the competition, and it never mattered if I won or not. Whatever the outcome, the fact that you were able to prepare yourself, and that you got through it, is what is really important.
TSD: Tell me about your opportunity to play with Reno! What piece are you playing?
WS: I’ll be performing “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Sergei Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra. The Philharmonic had reached out and asked for a few pieces I would be willing to play: this one was my favorite one, and they ended up picking it.
The whole piece is a theme and variations. I’ll take one melody, and twist it up, and play it backwards, and play it forwards, and play it slowly, and play it with a rambunctious attitude, and a romantic attitude and everything in between. It’s a memorable and enjoyable piece to play and listen to.
TSD: How did you get the opportunity to play with the Reno Philharmonia?
WS: While I was in Colombia, I ran a small foundation called James 1 to provide scholarships to the sons and daughters of fallen Colombian police officers. Back in the 90’s, drug cartels were killing hundreds of officers every month. Right now, most of the children of those young officers are young adults trying to go to college and get an education. So for about six or seven years, I would run benefit concerts throughout Colombia and also the United States to bring in revenue for the foundation. We currently have nine scholars who are attending universities in Colombia on scholarships. Part of my work with James 1 involved me arranging my own pieces and creating music videos. That was how I got involved with the Davidson Fellows Program. And about a year ago, they invited me to perform with the Reno Philharmonia.
TSD: Tell me about your musical involvement at Stanford, and your time here as a student in general. What made you decide to come here?
WS: I’ve been studying with Professor Arrul here, and it’s been great coming to group lessons, hearing his advice about the pieces I’m playing, and performing in front of the other students.
But to be honest, I’ve been focusing more on the academic side: I’m planning on pursuing some field of engineering, but am not sure if it will be computer science or not. I might possibly minor in music production or music performance.
I think I came here mainly because of the opportunities for computer science, and also because of the other students. I really appreciate being around other Stanford students, and getting to ask them questions about their life and hear about all their projects, businesses, foundations, work and research. It’s really something that you don’t get at many other schools. I remember reading in one of Stanford’s admission packages that everyone at Stanford has a reason for being here and it’s so true. Even if you don’t know what it is, the admissions committee picked you for a reason because they saw potential in you. Just figuring out that reason — figuring out what that special thing is about each and every student here — is really special and is something you don’t get in many other places.