Rosalie Snyder has been watching Noah Waddell play the piano for a third of his life—five years. But that’s like a passing fad compared with Betty Symes’ devotion. The nonagenarian Shell Point resident keeps a journal listing each performance of Noah’s she attends, along with the date and who accompanied her. In late August, she reached her 73rd entry.
“We think of him as an adopted grandchild,” Snyder says. She and her husband volunteer at the front desk at HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers, where Noah plays weekly. “He was 10 when we first heard him play,” Snyder remembers. “He was coming in as our shift ended and someone said, ‘Have you heard that little boy?’”
That was back when Noah played on Fridays, the Snyders’ day to volunteer. Then he switched to Thursdays, so now the couple are among a dedicated audience that assembles in the hospital atrium weekly, filling two short rows of folding chairs outside the medical library and across from the grand piano just before 4 p.m.
A few toss “Hi, Anita” to Noah’s mom as she takes a seat, too. “We’ve developed a family relationship among us,” she says.
And indeed, devotion here is a cup runneth over.
There is the kind that inspires a youngster to freely share a talent with others—with hospital patients, staff and visitors—during hundreds of hour-long performances. There is devotion of parents to child, which has included homeschooling both Noah and his sister, who is now in college. And most of all, there is devotion to God.
Because more than even superlative accomplishments such as a perfect grade point average or a state athletic record, a proficiency like Noah’s eludes logical explanation.
To the Waddells, the answer is clearly God. Early on, in fact, when Noah was 7 and Alexia Waddell was 9, musical ability in both began to emerge, they say. “They were very young. In church, singing and playing together,” Anita Waddell says. “And that’s where God started working, moving them outward.” Alexia literally found her voice—as a coloratura soprano—when Noah began discovering piano. Anita Waddell remembers thinking about this deeply for the first time while Alexia sang Nothing but the Blood of Jesus during a church performance.
“God gifted both of them simultaneously,” she says. “When things were happening with Noah, they were happening with Alexia, too,” both in opera singing and academics. Alexia is in her third year as a pre-med major with a minor in music at Pensacola Christian College. At 17.
At 14, Noah played at her school for his largest audience to date: 6,000. In a video of the performance, he can be seen wearing a black tuxedo—his third, as he had grown out of two already. He walks jauntily out from the wings with confidence, smiling, and takes a seat at the piano bench, gently flipping the tail of his jacket behind him. He pauses a moment before beginning the first piece, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in B Flat Major, Op. 23. His hands hover above the keys. His face betrays deep concentration, while at the crown of his head, a plume of blond hair sticks straight up like Alfalfa’s in The Little Rascals.
Just a year later, Barry Waddell thinks Noah might be ready for more exposure. Scouts have contacted him, including one for the TV show America’s Got Talent. But Noah wasn’t ready. “We made the executive decision not to pursue that,” Barry says. “We felt that we wanted to maintain his childhood and keep a balance in his life. But now, he’s maturing quickly and it’s a good time for him to launch a national, even international, career.
“But he still watches cartoons.”
Noah is among other animation aficionados three days a week at Crosspointe Academy, a private, nondenominational Christian school for families who home-school their children the other two days a week. He’s smart and does very well, according to his algebra teacher, Theresa Lemieux. “The only problem I have with him is showing his work,” she says. “Because he does it all in his head.”
He joins five other boys around his age for American history class one August morning. As they learn about Colonial America, they’re attentive but still find a minute now and then to pursue an apparent running joke about the contents of Chicken McNuggets. During Bible instruction, they discuss whether accepting free fast food from a friend at work is stealing. Quietly, Noah threads highlighters and pencils into the shoelaces of his blue and orange Nike sneakers. Like the other students, he wears a polo shirt with a Crosspointe Academy logo and khaki trousers.
When teacher William Coe returns a recent history test, a few of his classmates groan and report failing scores. Noah remains quiet about his 94 percent grade.
He’s a good student, yes, but it’s piano that he’s really, really good at, his friends say. “He has the skill to pay the bills,” says his friend Gabriel Fort, 14. “And the skill to pay everyone else’s bills, too.”
Noah has amassed first place wins in contests all over the country, for all ages of players. The accolades began at age 9, when he entered the Florida Gulf Coast University Steinway Young Artist competition and won. Noah tells it this way: “The FGCU professor came up to my dad and said, ‘Do you know your son is a musical phenom?’ And my dad said, ‘Huh?’ And he said, ‘Do you know your son is a musical genius?’” Soon after that, Noah says, he became serious about his playing. He practices three or four hours a day now, and works once a week with a teacher in Miami. But he skips days sometimes, too. “There are other kids that can play advanced,” he says. “But I think God has put this ability in my life.”
“He’s a big sensation. But a strong, devoted Christian, too,” says classmate Myka Massing, who’s 15. “That’s one of the main reasons we like him. These days you don’t have very many people like that because they fall into the fame and the money.”
“When we’re 40 we’ll go knock on his door and say, ‘Remember us?’” says Chris Lynn, who’s also 15. “And it’ll be a mansion door.”
“Yeah, and I’ll say, ‘You want to go fishing?’” Noah says, smiling.
Fishing plays second fiddle only to piano in his life. About the same time his mom and dad stopped in to a piano store to look around—Anita Waddell says she “just wanted a piece of furniture”—Noah caught his first fish. “I was 7 years old, and I caught a 33-inch snook,” he says. “And I pulled it in myself. It was on a private beach on Sanibel and it was my first time fishing.”
At least once a week, he stays overnight at his grandparents’ house a short bike ride away from the Waddells’ home in Fort Myers’ Belle Meade neighborhood, so he and his grandfather can go fishing in the early morning.
Barry Waddell grew up fishing, too, and playing tennis in the summers on Sanibel and during the school year in Miami. He was a state champion tennis player in high school and after graduating from college in Illinois, turned pro. He’s now a real estate agent with John R. Wood, specializing in waterfront luxury properties.
“He used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to go fishing,” Noah says. “Then go play tennis until lunch. Then he’d go fishing again for two hours and go back and play tennis again. And sometimes he’d go running, too.”
True, Barry Waddell says. Today, though, he is top-ranked in pickleball, which the whole family plays. Noah is a great natural athlete, Waddell says. People see him play pickleball, too, and are amazed.
But Noah is careful, keeping his future in mind. Piano will be his career. So when the post-lunch pickup basketball games start at school, he’s on the court, but he hangs back a bit, he says. Breaking a finger would not be good. “Because later, you get arthritis,” he says with a mischievous smile. “Like my dad.”
And even now, an injury would slow down his playing schedule, which in August included performances with the Southwest Florida Symphony, the second orchestra with which he has played. He made his solo debut with the Tampa Bay Symphony a few years ago.
He has his second CD to record, and of course the devoted local audience to remember. “I just want people to enjoy it and to give back my talent,” he says.
That happens. “He brings an enormous enhancement to the patient experience” at HealthPark, says Arts in Healthcare Coordinator Doug MacGregor. “People walking in, people waiting for surgery, can’t quite believe they’re in a hospital hearing a concert like this.”
“It’s almost hard to describe the feeling you get hearing someone in his teens that’s so masterful,” says Eleanor Pease, a cellist who also has been following Noah’s progress since he was 10 years old. During his recent Southwest Florida Symphony concert, she saw a young man growing up. “Two or three years ago, when he talked between each piece, he was adorable and young. With the symphony he was different. He is extremely professional, with real poise.”