Rex was born with a cyst in his brain. He was blind, didn't learn to walk or talk, and developed autistic-like symptoms, including hyper-sensitivity in his hands which he kept curled up to avoid having to touch anything. It seemed there was little hope for Rex, until his second birthday, when his father gave him a keyboard.
"Oh gosh. It was like he was being transported into another world. He started hitting it at first. And within two minutes, he was actually laying his hands on the piano and holding them there," explains his mother, recalling Rex's first encounter with the keyboard. And this was at the time when Rex wouldn't touch anything. "And he was just like fascinated. You could see it in his face," Cathleen remembered.
Rex was instantly hooked. The keyboard was the first thing he wanted to do in the morning, and the thing he wanted to do even when his body couldn't do it anymore. And as his skill at the piano grew, so came other skills. Rex learned to walk, and talk and even run, all things he was never expected to do.
"You know, I used to brag that he could play Beethoven before he could say 'mama.' But that was really hard for me that he couldn't, you know, even say my name," Rex's mom, Cathleen, says. "He was three when he played Beethoven. He was close to four when he said 'mama' for the first time."
Cathleen believes music was Rex's first language, and that learning music actually stimulated his brain to enable him to make the strides he has, like learning to spell and even to ski.
But with all his accomplishments, those dexterous little fingers still can't button a button. And real conversation continues to elude him. Emotionally, Rex is immature.
But he is not immature at the keyboard, says David Pinto, Rex's other piano teacher, who specializes in working with the blind.
"When he hears me play something for the first time, he'll laugh. He'll go through all these emotions on his face," Pinto explains. "The music is obviously a conversation to him. And he's understanding it on the levels in which the composer was really trying to convey it … He's really resonating to the music. Now to get that out into his hands, I think that's a challenge for him … So I'm teaching him that right now."
Rex is even driven to practice the dreaded scales. But he gets really agitated when he doesn't get something just right. "We need to try this over again," Rex said, visibly irritated at one point.
"You know, I saw yesterday real frustration and annoyance, when he kept missing notes," Stahl remarked. "And he was angry at himself … I didn't even know he had that emotion in him."
David thinks Rex's frustration is counter-productive, and has started turning the mistakes into a game. "I deliberately had him go faster and faster, and I said, 'OK, now you're going to make a mistake.' But if you make a mistake, all you have to say is 'No big deal.'"
During an exercise, Rex made a mistake, started to moan, prompting David to take his hands off the piano.
"OK, stop. What are you going to say?" David asked. "No big deal," Rex replied, and completed the exercise perfectly.
"And he jumped further than he's ever jumped before," Pinto explains.