Transcending Music In A Special High School Band

Music's power to transform lives has been noted by ancient poets and modern-day neuroscientists. Our correspondent saw this in action at a New York school for students with disabilities.

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SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: I'm Scott Simon. Our next story comes from the NPR Ed team. Reporter Eric Westervelt visited a special high school in New York City for students with cognitive and physical disabilities. And he saw how the music curriculum there has transformed at least one young life.

TOBI LAKES: My name is Tobi Lakes. I'm 15 years old. I listen to I Heart Radio and radio.com - two apps. I practice my piano every night.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: I met Tobi Lakes when he was sitting at his piano smiling. He plays lead piano and iPad Guitar App for Public School 177's technology band. It's a school in Queens, New York for children with disabilities. Tobi's gifted in many areas, including piano and math. But in other life skills, including aspects of learning and in social situations, he has huge challenges - among others, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

T. LAKES: I know how to play chords like major C, C minor, C dominant 7, all these chords. I just play all by myself.

WESTERVELT: No lessons, Tobi says. He's tall and thin with long narrow fingers and thick glasses. His parents and teachers say Tobi taught himself, somehow, to play piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

WESTERVELT: Tobi is kind of the Art Tatum of the P.S. 177 band - super talented, self-taught and partially blind. He was born with sight in only one eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PRACTICE)

ADAM GOLDBERG: Tobi Lakes, the man with the ears. Play us a C dominant sharp 9 for me. Yeah. OK. Fix the bass note or - what - something has to be fixed. You got the idea, though. Play it again.

WESTERVELT: The band is the creation of veteran music teacher, Adam Goldberg. The 53-year-old has dedicated much of his adult life to teaching music to the students with disabilities at P.S. 177 in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, students like Tobi.

GOLDBERG: It's just an innate ability that he has.

WESTERVELT: He'll hear a song half a dozen times and be able to play it.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Maybe less than a half a dozen. (Laughing) If it's basic chords and not too many, he'll hear it once and start - he'll start playing along with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

WESTERVELT: Tobi's father Carl Olufemi Lakes says some 10 years ago, the family had just finished a long car trip to visit friends in Atlanta. They were all tired and hungry. Carl was in another room with his friend when he heard something beautiful.

CARL OLUFEMI LAKES: So we both walked into the living room, and we saw Tobi standing by the keyboard and just playing it. And my friend is very knowledgeable in music, and was like, this boy's playing a masterpiece.

WESTERVELT: Carl, who works two jobs to keep the family together, says Tobi's older brother has a severe disability. He doesn't speak. He's blind. Carl says Tobi playing in the school band has helped pull the family closer and has given him and his wife something they hadn't experienced in a long time.

C. LAKES: Finally, hey, our son has given us joy, from being hopeless to being hopeful. This band may have a way to communicate among themselves that transcends into this other part of life. Certainly it's something like, you know what, I think he can pull through by himself if I'm not here.

WESTERVELT: That Tobi will be OK. That he'll have a life, Carl adds. Tobi Lakes, the man with the ears, music to the rescue.

T. LAKES: I feel excited. I feel happy. I love music.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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