As a child, Alfred Sheppard didn't have a lot to say — until he took to the piano.
Today he narrates as his fingers race across the keys, his feet tap, his body sways to the rhythm. And these days, the 26-year-old Tampa native certainly has a story to tell.
In June, millions of viewers heard Sheppard as he and bass player Daniel Navarro, also of Tampa, accompanied Mandy Harvey on a nationally-televised America's Got Talent performance.
Harvey, 29, of St. Cloud lost her hearing 10 years ago due to a connective tissue disorder. She now relies on her sight and touch to perform. Her song, Try, impressed judge Simon Cowell enough to garner a "Golden Buzzer," sending the group straight to the live shows in Hollywood, which NBC will air at 8 p.m. on Tuesday (Aug. 15), Aug. 22 and Aug. 29.
Listening to Sheppard's music, it's hard to image a painfully shy child who spent his free time at home playing the piano. But now his musical conversations range from telling the blues to happier times of dancing to graceful stories filled with classical mementos.
"I never liked being the center of attention. In school, I wanted to sit in the corner away from everyone," Sheppard said while sitting in his mother's restaurant, Alfred's New Orleans Cafe. "But whenever there's a piano in the room … there's that recognition, that comfort."
Sheppard was born into a family of musicians. His father, Alfred Sheppard Sr., has taught music for 40 years, including more than two decades at Valrico Elementary School. His mother, Yvonne, is a singer.
At age 3, Sheppard would cry for his mother to lift him onto the family's piano bench so he could poke at the keys. As he grew, so did his talent. He eventually began competing, winning various contests, including Bay Area Idol. He went on to graduate cum laude from the University of South Florida in music studies.
"He's speaking his language once he's playing," his mother said. "He transforms when he's playing."
Sheppard met Harvey, Navarro and drummer Dave Hamar, also from Tampa, in 2015 while working on a Burt's Bees commercial featuring the singer. It didn't take long for the group to connect. They soon began touring and have been close ever since.
"Alfred is a brilliant musician and his dedication to his craft and constant learning inspires you to be a better musician," Harvey said. "During our concerts together, we have created our own ways of communicating that allows for us both to be working together but also gives freedom to be ourselves."
The group's collaboration has also had an impact on Sheppard's life away from the piano. He now speaks with more confidence. The band, he said, has pushed him to come out of his shell.
"These last two years, I have seen the effect of him being a part of this," Yvonne Sheppard said. "It has absolutely affected him and influenced him. I see him growing more, being more comfortable in his own skin."
Auditioning on a national television show was something the group admits they didn't expect to do. But the opportunity arose and they decided to take a chance.
"It was a little shaky," Sheppard said. "You couldn't tell in the recording but the crowd, they kept cheering so we really couldn't hear each other. But it was like 'Wow, this is my life right now.'"
Whether they win or lose, Sheppard hopes to expand from playing local gigs — he frequently appears at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and occasionally plays at his mother's restaurant — to traveling the country while collaborating more with Harvey and the band. He also is working to become a cinematic composer, a passion that began as a student at Blake High School.
"I'm very passionate about film scoring and composing. I feel like I'm a natural story teller … I like music to mean something. And, in my opinion, what greater medium than film to really just give it that emotion that it has," he said.
But don't expect Harvey and her band to go down without a fight. In the live show, viewers will see more of the band's members — drummer Hamar will be on stage this time — and Harvey will sign her own lyrics to the audience, stepping away from the ukulele.
"It's going to be bigger. We're pretty excited about this one," Sheppard said. "You've only seen a shade of what [Harvey] can do."
Contact Crystal Owens at [email protected]