Maybe 120 people are in the Tea Room at Grace Episcopal Church downtown — 70 diners, 30 food preparers, 20 waiters and waitresses — and they’re all displaying smiles that would challenge a cynic’s resolve.
The mostly senior members of the audience are sporting florid sun dresses or seersucker suits and joyfully picking through a display of rich, varicolored desserts atop floral tablecloths.
Enter Caleb Borick. He slips stealthily behind the piano, dropping his red backpack on the floor. He’s garbed exclusively in black, from his shoes to his tie. His hair’s a sandy brown with a bowl cut and his wire frames cling to his face. Without saying a word to anyone, he starts pounding out Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp minor.
Caleb’s right hand sways back and forth, each finger moving impossibly fast — five tiny, distal entities striking keys furiously with absurd precision — while the left turns the pages of the sheet music, fighting the air conditioner’s flippant draft.
He pauses briefly to put up the sheet music for Verdi’s Requiem and plays the portions he knows, anticipating the Spoleto Festival’s forthcoming performance.
Caleb is 10.
His favorite composer is Mozart, and he doesn’t care for French Impressionism, though he may dabble in Ravel soon. When he sits in a folding chair, his feet hover above the floor almost comically. Homeschooled, he’s a year ahead of his peers, finishing the equivalent of the fifth grade, and he reads voraciously — on a college level.
After this performance on June 3, which occurred before school ended for the summer, he had to go home and start an essay, which he was not looking forward to.
“Caleb is a young prodigy, for sure,” said Jack Graham, a tea room patron, pausing before correcting himself: “Well, I guess that’s redundant. But we love having him here regardless.”
Caleb, who lives on James Island, plays eight to 10 shows like this a year, said his mother, Susan Borick. She met her husband, Carl, in church, and the family has been a church-centric one ever since; Caleb plays tea rooms and church gigs on a regular basis and has developed a fan base at Grace.
“When Caleb was little, he loved classical music,” Susan Borick said. “Since before he could speak. We’d be driving along and he’d be in the back seat bobbing his head along, and if I put on rock, he would cry.”
The love is apparent.
“He is absolutely amazing,” said Ian MacDonald, another tea room patron whose enthusiasm still somehow fails to capture the aura enveloping Caleb, for the kid plays with passion while sitting static and stoic, as if his life force transfers solely into his fingers, into the keys and hammers, into the music.
Caleb likes people to know that he has Asperger’s syndrome. “He spends four hours each day, Monday through Friday, working with an awesome group of therapists who help him with the social/life skills that come naturally to most of us,” his mother wrote in an email. “The Asperger’s works to his advantage in many respects. He has an unbelievable amount of focus and determination not commonly seen in a 10-year-old.”
At Grace Church, the audience goes about its edacious business as Caleb’s fingers flit and his eyes stay locked on the page. Some older women walk up to him to tell him how wonderful he is.
The only time he stops playing is to change the sheet music. Mozart’s Rondo in D Major is up next.
Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.