At age 3, Jonathan Waller found his love. Now at 19, he's wedded to it -- playing the ivory piano keys.
"He's a prodigy, in my opinion," said the Rev. Terry J. Stockman Sr., pastor of North Laurel's Hope Baptist Church, where Mr. Waller has played since he was 11.
Mr. Waller's talent has drawn regular attention to Hope Baptist. In June, he and singers from his church produced a recording of gospel music with the Savage United Methodist Church choir.
The 160 copies of the recording, called "People Need The Lord," have nearly sold out to members of the two congregations, and more are on order.
Ray Miles, music director at the Savage United Methodist Church, attributes much of the musical success of the recording to Mr. Waller, whom he watched develop from a child barely tall enough to reach the keyboard into a musician who impresses him every time he plays.
What makes Mr. Waller so special is his ability to improvise on the music of the church, Mr. Miles said.
"I was convinced that at 11 or 12 he had passed me in his ability to improvise," said Mr. Miles, a 50-year-old former public school music teacher. "I knew he was someone we would hear a lot about."
Jonathan Waller first climbed up on the bench to his family's upright piano when he was 3 and started playing songs he had heard. By age 11, he had become the lone musician at Hope Baptist, which then had 20 in its congregation.
He remains the only musician at the church, which now has a congregation of about 160. He plays as if no one else is around, rocking and moving to every rhythm he strikes up.
Growing up, Mr. Waller would play the piano as much as eight hours a day in the family's Ellicott City home, his mother, Jacky Waller, said.
"We would have to tell him to stop; he was always playing every chance he got," Mrs. Waller said. "He didn't always play what he should. Somehow, he still got through music lessons."
Jonathan's playing was a welcome addition to the sounds in the home. His mother said she always enjoys playing the piano, and his father, William Waller, directs music at First Baptist Church of Savage.
"I'm just thrilled that he's committed to our church," Mr. Stockman said.
Jonathan Waller said he is in no rush to become famous.
He has worked since last August in recording studios with the likes of producer Ernesto Phillips and vocalist Toni Braxton, and signed a recording contract of his own in October, but Mr. Waller said he doesn't want to become overwhelmed by those things.
He said that he enjoys playing at Hope Baptist, which meets in the Laurel Woods Elementary School cafeteria, and that he wants to focus on earning his degree in music from Towson State University, where he is a junior and plays in the jazz band.
"I know I'm right where I should be," Mr. Waller said. "I record a lot of pop songs. I could do gospel. I could do jazz. I may end up with a job that's not even musical.
"I preach on occasion. Some people say I ought to be a preacher," he said. "I like theater. I may be an actor. Right now, while I'm still young, I'm working on my degree and exploring all these different areas."
Some have urged him to avoid playing secular music, but he said he sees everything he does as giving "God glory," whether directly or indirectly.
"People think I'm leaving the church," Mr. Waller said. "I'm not about to leave the church. If it gets to the point where [secular music] makes me forget where I come from, then I would change."
The Christian faith has been deeply entrenched in him since his childhood.
From kindergarten until he enrolled in college, Mr. Waller attended Christian schools, studying the Bible, which he quotes frequently. And he played the piano in those schools every chance he got.
He played by ear, and he loves that most, even though he can read music.
"I don't rely on the piano lessons or the schooling to sustain my gift, but rather I rely on the Lord," Mr. Waller said.