Artistic openings

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Piano teacher David Mehnert with Rex Lewis-Clack.

Music opens up the world for a young boy who is blind and developmentally delayed.

By Diana Funaro/Special to The Malibu Times

David Mehnert’s life took a dramatic turn three years ago when he first noticed then 5-year-old Rex Lewis-Clack, who is blind, playing the piano at a Malibu Halloween party.

Mehnert, who is a classically trained musician and Malibu resident, wound up becoming Rex’s music instructor. This past Sunday, “60 Minutes” featured the two in the show’s season premier along with Rex’s mother, Cathleen Lewis, and Lynn Marzulli, another music instructor and Malibu resident who worked with Rex.

When he first met Lewis, Mehnert said she believed, as he did, that Rex had special musical ability, but it wasn’t until Mehnert started researching online and contacted a world-renown expert in the field, Darold Treffert, M.D., who was the consultant on the film, “Rain Man,” that they finally understood Rex’s condition.

“Treffert confirmed that Rex is considered a musical savant,” Mehnert said. “Musical savants typically have these three traits in common-they are blind, developmentally deficient but with high musical skills.

“And in Rex’s case,” Mehnert emphasized, “exceptional musical memory and improvisational skills.”

Rex has a form of congenital blindness known as optic nerve hypoplasia. He is delayed in many developmental areas such as speech, physical movement and conceptualizations of the world. He has been attending the Blind Children’s Center since he was 6 months old.

His mother, Lewis, explained that Rex is extremely sensitive to sound and touch.

“Sounds of the world” – a door closing, the sound of running water – bothered him so much, Lewis said, that she couldn’t even take him to a store.

Experts in the field thought his disabilities were so severe that he might never talk or walk.

Rex’s father first gave the boy a piano keyboard when he was two-and a-half, which started to change his world for the better. It was out of “desperation,” Lewis said, that he was given the keyboard, because he was so “overwhelmed by the world.”

Lewis said Rex “immediately took to the keyboard … started exploring the keys, then laid his hands on them, which was incredible because he never wanted to touch anything. It fascinated him, like his mind was exploring another world.”

Rex began picking out four or five rhythmic notes and, within two minutes, would repeat what he had just played-at age two, with no instruction. By the time he was three, he started playing Christmas melodies, and by age five he was playing and singing Beatles songs. His playing was very simplistic, Lewis explained, he didn’t use chords or his thumbs, but he could pick out the basic melodies.

To help with his physical development, Rex’s parents gave him another keyboard that he would have to stand to use, so he could exercise his legs; at his school, it was the only thing he would stand up to do. Rex was so entranced with the keyboard that he would play until he was exhausted, sometimes falling over with exhaustion, but then reaching up one more time with a hand to play a few more notes.

Treffert’s research has indicated that music can help the savant acquire verbal skills, which then translate into social skills, which has been the case with Rex. Rex’s speech is improving and he is now able to walk with a cane. Lewis attributes not only the piano, but the “combination of the music to the wonderful people in his life-his music teachers, school teachers, including me,” to the early intervention services that enabled him to progress where experts thought he never could.

Rex now attends Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.

Mehnert explained that the “60 Minutes” producers came out last spring to tape a recital that Rex, now 8, played for the Blind Children’s Center in Los Angeles.

“A few months later,” Mehnert said, “Correspondent Leslie Stahl flew out and we were all at the piano when she played the piece, ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose,’ and I sang along. Rex then repeated it on the piano having just heard it. He doesn’t read music, of course, but he has an exceptional musical memory.”

Mehnert was nominated for a Volvo-For-Life-Award and last April was awarded $10,000 as one of 10 finalists. The Volvo connection eventually led to “60 Minutes” and provided seed money for his new venture, The Savant Academy, a center for the study and support for those suffering from this condition worldwide.

The center would also encourage the education of other types of Savant Syndrome including mathematical, artistic, verbal and calendrical savants. It is the first nonprofit center of its kind in the U.S.

The study of exceptional individuals can help brain research in general, especially memory concerns.

“Alzheimer patients have exhibited an artistic opening,” Mehnert said, “so that we’re seeing a parallel in later life to the earlier stages of this coupling of mental deficiency and high artistic achievement. The more we learn about how the brain and memory function, it tells us what creative potential there is for all of us.”

“The music is critical,” Lewis said, “it has helped him develop his brain in other areas … everywhere he has trampled expectations.

“He rewrites his own story every year,” she continued. “Of course, music always leads the show.”

More information on The Savant Academy can be obtained at www.savantacademy.org or by e-mailing David Mehnert at david@savantacademy.org.