Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Music (03/08/07)
TITLE: AMAZING GRACE
By Debbie Roome
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“My child is autistic.” The woman’s voice was soft but determined. “His name is Joey, he’s eight years old and loves music. Would you be prepared to teach him piano?”
Autistic. My mind rummaged through distant memories. Didn’t autistic people have problems with communicating? I didn’t have any training in special education. Would I be capable of teaching this child? Did I even want to?
The woman spoke into my silence. “Please.” Her voice was tinged with sorrows unknown and a thread of hope. “At least come and meet him.”
Joey was a solemn child, a boy with wispy, toffee hair, whose mind was a million miles away. His mother, Esther, was a single parent, a sweet natured woman who’d learned to be strong. She showed me Joey’s room. “He spends hours sorting his toys. Lining up his cars and sorting his blocks into colours and sizes. He’s a perfectionist.” She knelt before Joey and gently turned his chin to face her. “Joey. This lady’s name is Faye. She’s going to show you how to play piano.”
The piano was a walnut upright in the corner of the living room. I sat on the stool and Esther arranged Joey onto a chair next to me. The first lessons seemed fruitless. Joey would sit and rock to and fro, to and fro as I showed him the notes and played simple scales. He refused to touch the piano and screamed if his mother moved his hands to the keys.
After a while, I decide to teach for ten minutes and then finish the lesson by playing for Joey. Maybe that would reach into his depths. Show him what was possible on the piano. And so after scales and notes, I would play an assortment of music. Strauss waltzes, hymns, jazz, a little rock and roll.
The first breakthrough occurred after two months. His face blank, Joey hopped off his chair and disappeared. He came back a few minutes later with a tray of wooden blocks and rods. He knelt in the corner and meticulously arranged them into the formation of a keyboard. I continued playing as he stared at his creation, rocking himself.
The weeks went by and still Joey ignored me. But he did start showing a preference for certain music. The flight of the Bumble Bee was a favourite and so was the theme song from the Titanic. He especially loved some of the old hymns. Great is Thy Faithfulness, Amazing Grace and It is Well with my Soul. I learned to interpret his signals. Pounding his fists together meant he wasn’t enjoying something. Running his fingers over his blocks was a sign of enjoyment. Esther told me the block keyboard was permanently resident in the living room. She wasn’t allowed to touch it and Joey spent hours hunched over it, tapping it, stroking the keys, rocking to himself.
In spite of this, I was discouraged. I tried twice to quit but Esther refused. “He’s more manageable somehow. I know he’s enjoying the music. Please give him a while longer.” We were six months into lessons when the real breakthrough came. Esther called at 10pm. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Faye, but you have to hear this.” I was amazed as I heard the pure sounds of Amazing Grace in the background. It was simple playing, three fingers maybe, but accurate.
I visited the next day and between hiccups and sobs, Esther told me the whole story. “Joey spent the evening playing with his block keyboard before moving to the piano. He started with scales and notes, just like you, and then moved on to tunes.”
The piano became the centre of Joey’s life that night. Through it, he could express himself. The tone of the music was a reflection of how he was feeling. His mood swings stabilised and he spent less time in repetitive routines. To begin with, he still practiced on his blocks but over the years, grew more confident and played with skill and passion.
I have seen gifted musicians pass through my life but no one has touched me like Joey. Ten years on, he has still never spoken to me, looked me in the eye or displayed any emotion. However, he knows me, and when I arrive, he drifts to the piano. “Amazing Grace, please, Joey.” I always have the same request and my heart soars as warm notes and contentment cascade from his fingers.
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