Ten, blind and a musical genius

Rex Lewis-Clack, 10, is among one of the very few people in the world who shares an unexplained combination of blindness, mental and physical handicap, and extraordinary musical gifts. His mother, Cathleen Lewis, watches as he plays the piano during a recent interview with The Malibu Times. Heather O'Quinn / TMT

Malibu resident Rex Lewis-Clack will be participating in the Junior Blind Olympics on Saturday.

By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times

Rex Lewis-Clack of Malibu has the ability to hear a complicated musical composition once, then play it perfectly on the piano. The 10-year-old has never seen a written musical note, nor has he actually ever seen a piano. He has been blind from birth. Rex is among one of the very few people in the world who shares an unexplained combination of blindness, mental and physical handicap, and extraordinary musical gifts.

Rex will be competing in the second annual Junior Blind Olympics on Saturday in Los Angeles hosted by Junior Blind of America for nearly 200 visually impaired athletes ages 6 to 19. As a baby, Rex was enrolled in Junior Blind of America’s Infant-Family Program, in which a specialist works with a child and its family in their home to help the baby increase its communication skills, sensory awareness and development.

With what his mother, Cathleen Lewis, describes as an incredible piece of software in his brain, Rex can memorize sounds, notes and melodies, and has mastered compositions and advanced music theory in a matter of days that would take most musicians years to accomplish.

Among Rex’s gifts is the unique ability of also having perfect pitch. He can hear a note and describe exactly what note it is, A flat, F sharp, etc. Experts say this skill is so rare it is likely that only one in 10,000 people has the ability.

Additionally, Rex can differentiate notes and instruments simultaneously. Specialists say most musicians can process two or three notes at one time. Rex can likely hear more than twice as many and replicate them precisely on a piano.

Cathleen Lewis moved to Malibu two weeks before her son was born in 1995. While still in the womb, doctors discovered a cyst on Rex’s brain, and when he was born he suffered a myriad of problems. Although neither of his parents was musically inclined, Cathleen noticed he had an affinity for music early on.

“He would be in physical therapy and he would clap syncopated rhythms with his hands,” Cathleen said. “We got him a keyboard when he was two and the first day he got it he played notes on it and then replicated it. I first heard him play a tune at two and a half years old and thought, ‘That’s not normal.'”

He was diligently working on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” at that age and at age 3, Rex heard Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and played that.

“He never had a lesson until he was six years old,” Cathleen said. “He would hear songs and play them. He got into his Beatles phase at about [age] 4 or 5.”

Although he still has trouble walking, communicating, tying shoes or putting on clothes, Rex can play Mozart flawlessly while riffing on the melody.

“A man in our condominium complex was fascinated with Rex’s ability,” Cathleen said. “He took him to his piano in his condo and Rex played hundreds of notes of Bach with the right hand and did his own harmony. It was like there were so many other problems going on, the piano was Rex’s safe area where he could concentrate.”

Soon Rex acquired several teachers who were astonished at his ability. Lynn Marzulli, music director at Malibu Presbyterian Church, was amazed at his grasp of the piano scales in every key in a very short amount of time.

“It’s like a computer that already has the software,” Cathleen said. “He has the most sophisticated music computer in the world in his brain.”

During an interview at the Lewis home in Malibu, Rex carried on a conversation with The Malibu Times photographer, asking questions about the number of photographs, all the while playing Mozart’s “Fantasy” without missing a note.

He also serenaded visitors with his own version of “Silent Night,” with an improvised melody from “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and “I Got Rhythm.” When he finished a number, Rex would bounce up and down, clap and usually exclaim, “That was fun!”

Rex astonished his music teachers recently when he played the last part of a 10-page Haydn sonata from memory that he had heard a year earlier.

The CBS news program “60 Minutes” learned of Rex’s ability and he has been featured on the program twice. Cathleen said reporter Leslie Stahl and the producers have vowed to visit Rex every two years and update America on his progress.

The crew will be following Rex and his mother this spring as they travel to Germany where Rex will receive the “Winspiration Award” for overcoming the trials he has been dealt and inspiring others to rise above them.

During the European visit, they will also stop in London where Rex will meet 26-year-old Derek Paravincini, a savant with similar abilities and disabilities as Rex. Various news channels, including the Discovery Channel, will be documenting the meeting and their visit to Soundscape, a facility outside of London where blind children with learning disabilities live and study music.

On the way back to Malibu, Rex and Derek will perform a concert at Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas for more than 8,000 people.

Following the airing of the first “60 Minutes” segment, Cathleen said a number of people were interested in having Rex play the piano at various events, but she turned down most of them.

“I’m very specific. The presentation has to be educational- and inspiration-based,” Cathleen said. “I want to protect Rex and tell our story to groups who get it. Even the event in Las Vegas is a fundraiser for the Lily Claire Foundation [a Santa Monica-based nonprofit organization that seeks to enrich the lives of children and families with neurogenetic disorders].”

Rex’s first public concert was at a fundraiser for the blind and vision-impaired at the Riviera Country Club. Since then Rex and his mother have traveled around the world inspiring others and telling their story.

On a recent trip to Japan, Cathleen noticed new talents in Rex, including a knack for languages. “When we were checking into our hotel in Japan, I told Rex to tell the hotel staff good night and he told them in Japanese,” Cathleen said. “I got him some language tapes before we left, but I didn’t know he knew how to say what he was saying.”

Rex and his mother were also in Paris recently where Rex picked up some French and he is currently learning German for their visit in April.

“He has a good memory in general,” Cathleen said. “I rely on him to remember everybody’s name when we go to speaking engagements. As we leave, Rex will say goodbye to 10 people by name and he has never seen them.”

Cathleen, a former fashion model-turned-currencies options trader, left those jobs in Europe to raise Rex and is currently finishing up a master’s degree as a specialist with visual impairments.

“I moved to Malibu because I always dreamed of living on the water,” Cathleen said. “The tranquility of living on the water and having an unimpeded horizon allows you to dream. It’s such a great community. When we go out, people know and love Rex.”

The Junior Blind Olympics will take place at 5300 Angeles Vista Blvd., Los Angeles, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. More information can be obtained by visiting the Web site: www.juniorblind.org or by calling 323.295.4555, ext. 230.