Beautiful Music

The New York Times

NOV. 7, 2004


Beautiful Music



When my 3-year-old son, Michael, first went over to the piano and played a recognizable melody with both hands, I knew I had a child with exceptional musical ability. What I thought I would hear from others were the words "talented child." Instead, for years to come, I would hear "idiot savant."

It did not matter to me that he had just been thrown out of a nursery school for retarded children because of too many tantrums. It did not matter that competing doctors identified him as either brain-injured, autistic, learning-disabled, developmentally delayed or emotionally disturbed while denigrating and disputing the diagnoses from rival associates in other therapeutic disciplines.

I saw ability where they saw disability.

I knew I was onto something when playing all six Brandenburg Concertos on the phonograph engrossed Michael long enough for me to clean the house, and when the second movement of Haydn's Surprise Symphony brought a laugh to an unresponsive child. But when I looked for guidance regarding his talent from psychiatrists and special-education schools, I was usually treated as another mother in denial and, frankly, an annoyance. On my urging that he listen to Michael play, one school doctor told me that what he heard were pretty but meaningless sounds.

At home, I asked my son, "What did you play for the man?"

It had been part of the middle movement of a Mozart concerto, which the doctor had apparently not recognized. We quickly changed schools. My son was 4.


It was a crucial moment, and I knew from my own experience that Michael's gift might wither without the proper training and appreciation.

As a child, I could play the piano by ear.

"How do you do that?" my cousins would ask.

"It's easy," I would say. The high notes are on the top and the low notes are on the bottom. When you hear the melody go up, play a note near the top; when you hear it go down, play a low note. They thought it was a trick. It wasn't, but I didn't know how I did it either.

I should have grown up loving music, and I should have learned to play the piano with some degree of competence. But a few crucial pieces of encouragement never clicked into place for me. First and most important, I had several teachers I didn't like. They believed I should not learn by ear, which came naturally to me, but only by developing sight-reading skills. Music soon became another academic exercise in memorization. Second, my parents rarely had time to hear me play, and when they did, they became impatient. Third, I was discouraged from entertaining myself with sounds that delighted me.

"Stop jibbling!" my mother would say -- it was her word for telling me I should stick to the lesson they were paying good money for, until most of my love for the piano disappeared.

My husband, who grew up poor, never had music lessons. But he was fortunate to have been sent with a wealthy cousin to the children's concerts at Carnegie Hall, which were conducted, at the time, by Rudolph Ganz. It was there that his mind was opened to serious music. He could identify pieces of music, as well as the orchestra and conductor, from listening to just a few notes. Although I can reproduce popular melodies with basic chords, I do not remember harmonic subtleties. My husband has those abilities but lacks the skills to play.

Our son can do both.

I knew what went wrong with the musical education provided for my husband and myself. I was determined to bring my son's talent to fruition.

Luckily, the encouragement I received from the professional musical community was in sharp contrast to the advice provided by educational and medical "experts." My son attended special-education classes until age 19 in 11 different schools, and with the help of six private teachers and instruction at the Mannes College of Music, his sight-reading skills thrived. He received his degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Today, he performs as a soloist, and he is also an accompanist at prestigious schools for voice and dance, including Vassar College and the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, N.Y. He has been a rehearsal pianist for the Alvin Ailey Dance Center for 15 years, including several years with the company at the City Center in New York City.

But his success is only part of the story.

It is nice to know that autism and Asperger's syndrome have replaced labels like "idiot savant," but it doesn't change a thing. I have a talented child, now 38, with one foot in the world of the performing arts but one foot in the world of the disabled.

And so, Michael attempts to make his way. He is too high- functioning for developmentally delayed groups, but too low- functioning to participate in the social life of dancers and musicians. He has difficulties unscrambling sensory signals, and his days must be dictated by routine. Others don't always pick up on it, at least not at first, but he gets lost in complicated conversation and guesses at much of what is being said. Hungry for friendship, he has given money and household items to people he hardly knows who ask to borrow things and then disappear. "Friends" once moved into his apartment and had to be removed.

But the world of music is different. It has its own vocabulary, structure and rules that repeat. It is music and only music that keeps my son linked to "our" world.