Monday, December 19, 2011

He was not "Rain Man".. but still...!!

"When he was done, he politely stood up, carefully handed my guitar.. and in words I understood this time, said “thank you”. 

I had the pleasure a week ago, to volunteer to play guitar and sing for a group of 30-40 mentally challenged adults for a Christmas party celebration. I have enjoyed the experience of having a mentally handicapped adult in my extended family for over 20year, and have frequently attended a weekly “drop-in” gathering with her and a good number of these adults as they socialize, do crafts and play games.

I have on a handful of occasions brought along my guitar and participated in their evening, by providing some music, some tambourines, and shakers to share with the group.

I had a very special moment this year as I situated myself, with my chair, small amplifier, guitar, music stand and microphone. The “drop-in” participants were beginning to arrive at the party, and I sat tuning my guitar, and preparing for the evening.

It is not unusual, for this to draw the attention of a handful of the group, and several of them took positions beside me as I asked for “assistance” in plugging  in wires, setting out my music books etc. However one man seemed to be particularly interested in my guitar. Un-distracted by the growing group and energy in the room, he watched my every move with my guitar.

Although there is a wide scope of functionality and causes for the mental challenges of these adults ranging in age from 30-70years, this particular man was late 30ths, and suffered from Down’s Syndrome. He was blessed with very little physical disabilities, and mentally relates to others at a Grade 1 student level.  I expect that he would be unable to know the address of his house, or have the ability to read or write, and would struggle with some of the simplest of tasks that we all take for granted.

I struggled to understand his speech, and our communication settled down to more of a pointing and exchanging gestures, but for what words I could understand, and his pointing. He wanted to play my guitar. Although I am very comfortable working with mentally handicapped adults, I struggle with letting anyone touch my guitar. As is very common with mental disabilities, emotion is unfettered, no hiding behind educated politeness, shyness, reservations... an enjoyable trait they all share... honesty, complete and sincere honesty. They have no ability for the complicated process of hiding their feelings, or beating around the bush, or reining in desires.

It was clearly something that he truly wanted, to play with my guitar. I sat him down, and carefully handed him my guitar. I was very surprised, when, he spoke insistently (I could not understand), and he reached out, and took the guitar pick out of my hand. I nervously watched and he adjusted himself on the chair and positioned my guitar on his knee.

He started... he played.. he was not playing WITH my guitar, he was PLAYING my guitar. I stood in complete shock, as he strummed perfectly rhythmically through the series of chords... Am, C, G, D. I was slack jawed. I watched closely as he played, he was not simply mirroring something that had been taught to him over years, I watched his fingers on the strings as he formed chords. All musicians as they progress thought chord changes, make near mistakes as they start to form an incorrect chord, and without missing beats, make the minor corrections to finger placements. My friend fingers were performing in this exact way. He was playing and understanding the music that was filling the hall full of his peers.

As I stood in amazement, he without missing a beat, reached his feet forward to begin pulling the base of the microphone stand towards him, the microphone that was out of reach from him, slid closer until it was perfectly positioned in front of he. Thinking my bubble of awe might be broken slightly seeing now that he was going to sing. And he did begin singing. I almost had to reach for a chair myself, because his singing was beautiful. The unintelligible speech remained a curse for him, as the words he sang were not understandable.. but that did not matter.. he was in perfect key, he confidently offered a voice that was dynamic, energetic and a joy to listen to. I wish I knew the song he was singing and playing, so I could fill in the words in my mind. But that did not matter. It was a completely moving experience, one which I will never forget.

When he was done, he politely stood up, carefully handed my guitar.. and in words I understood this time, said “thank you”. 


  1. That's touching! Did he previously know how to play the guitar or did he learn from the time he spent watching you? That's really great that you volunteer like that!

    On another musical note (no pun intended...), I have a friend who has been working on a new music website for months now, it's a sort of social network for original music and it's currently in its beta phase. I was wondering if you would be interested in an invite? He's trying to build some volume (no pun intended) before the full release of the site, but I think you would be a welcome contribution!

  2. Greg, no, he gained this talent somewhere in his life before. I have a unspeakable respect for whomever in his life took the time to sit down with him and teach him.
    And yes, I am very interested in an invite.

  3. Thanks for sharing that Darryl. So awesome the power of music.