Blind Piano Prodigy With Severe Autism Leaves Audiences in Awe With Her Amazing Musical Gift

Blind Piano Prodigy With Severe Autism Leaves Audiences in Awe With Her Amazing Musical Gift
(Courtesy of The Amber Trust)
4/11/2023
Updated:
4/18/2023
0:00

A 13-year-old piano prodigy, who is blind and has severe autism, is nurturing her incredible musical gift with the help of a dedicated teacher. Together, they are wowing audiences and proving that the sky is the limit for kids with disabilities.

Adam Ockelford, professor of music at the University of Roehampton in London, England, first met Lucy Illingworth at Highbury School in the north of England when Lucy was 5 years old. Ockelford, who is a specialist in working with visually impaired children, entered the school’s soft playroom with Highbury’s head teacher and saw a small hand poking out from the ball pond.

“I always carry a little keyboard with me, so I put the keyboard under the hand and it started playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in C-sharp major,” Ockelford, 64, founder of music charity The Amber Trust, told The Epoch Times. “There was a lot of potential there.”

Lucy performing at The Amber Trust Concert in 2022 (Courtesy of <a href="https://ambertrust.org/">The Amber Trust</a>)
Lucy performing at The Amber Trust Concert in 2022 (Courtesy of The Amber Trust)
“Lucy has faced many challenges,” he said. “She’s blind and severely autistic and has severe learning difficulties. She clearly found the world quite a frightening and confusing place, because she was trying to understand, without understanding much language. ... It was then a question of how do we find someone to teach Lucy.”

Hand Under Hand Technique

Since Lucy lives 200 miles from London, Ockelford found a talented local teacher named Daniel Bath, with whom he worked out a program for Lucy that would help her flourish. Their approach had to be unique.

“Most children learn an instrument by looking at their teacher and copying their movements. But obviously. ... I can’t say to Lucy, ‘Put your thumb on this key,’ because she won’t understand,” Ockelford said. “In fact, what Daniel is doing is actually putting Lucy’s hands on top of his hands. It’s called ‘hand under hand,’ and it means she can feel the finger shape that he’s making ... Gradually, she can build up a mental model of how a good technique on the piano works.”

Working with Lucy from when she was 5 years old, Bath described her as “the most musically gifted student” with whom he has had the opportunity to work so far and praised her for her “wide emotional range of expression and a lot of humor and fun.”
(Courtesy of <a href="https://ambertrust.org/">The Amber Trust</a>)
(Courtesy of The Amber Trust)

Lucy’s technique today is still “quite idiosyncratic,” Ockelford said. However, over time she has mixed in more conventional fingering patterns that will enable her to play more fluently.

However, according to Ockelford, there is something else that gives Lucy an edge over others—she has perfect pitch.

Ockelford said: “Lucy has this thing called perfect pitch, which means she can know all the notes in music just by listening. She knows what C sharp is, she knows what A is, what B flat is ... all she has to do is find the right notes on the keyboard.”

Lucy already has a repertoire of thousands of pieces, chosen by her, and she plays them all from memory. She loves jazz, especially the music of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, and classical music, with Bach among her favorite composers.

No Limits

About four years ago, Lucy’s incredible story reached a wide audience when UK television’s Channel 4 approached The Amber Trust while filming a talent show, “The Piano,” looking to feature undiscovered musicians with disabilities. Lucy played Chopin’s “Opus 9, Number 1” on piano in front of a public audience at Birmingham New Street train station and her short story of “triumph over adversity” won the hearts of the nation.

A tweet of her video amassed almost 5 million views, “which is wonderful,” Ockelford said. It also raised public awareness of what children with disabilities are capable of.

Lucy's teacher, Daniel Bath. (Courtesy of <a href="https://ambertrust.org/">The Amber Trust</a>)
Lucy's teacher, Daniel Bath. (Courtesy of The Amber Trust)

According to Ockelford, Lucy can do whatever she wants in life. However, he believes that the society isn’t yet set up in a way to enable her to do it.

“[I]t takes specialist teachers like Daniel and, I suppose, like me and specialist organizations like The Amber Trust, to understand how blind children learn,” Ockelford said.

“We can help using Braille to read, we can help using specialist technology, so there are no limits, potentially, to what a blind child can do,” he said. “What we want for Lucy is that music making will bring her into context with lots of people and she will make friends and she'll have a nice, fulfilled life.”

Ockelford firmly believes that it’s the duty of Lucy’s educators and therapists to enable Lucy—who was left blind as an infant by a rare form of cancer, bilateral retinoblastoma—to fulfill her potential.

“Medicine can’t do anything for Lucy. they’ve done what they can, they kept her alive,” Ockelford said.

It’s not only Lucy who is benefitting from Ockelford and Bath’s continued support. Her parents have been overjoyed to see their daughter thrive.

Founder of Amber Trust, Adam Ockelford. (Courtesy of <a href="https://ambertrust.org/">The Amber Trust</a>)
Founder of Amber Trust, Adam Ockelford. (Courtesy of The Amber Trust)

“[O]n the one hand they had some bad news: the doctor said, ‘Sorry, your child’s very disabled,’” Ockelford said. “But we’re saying, ’Here’s the good news, something she can do really well, and she could have a great life doing it.'”

“They love Lucy very much,” he said. “Lucy’s mum, Candice, she’s been able to see children like Lucy who are a bit older who are now moving out into the world. ... It really helps them to see the routes that Lucy might pave.”

Raising Awareness

As her talent reaches new heights, Lucy has had the opportunity to perform in many concerts for The Amber Trust in various prestigious venues and her mentors are proud of her progress. Ockelford likens Lucy to the famous musical prodigy, Derek Paravicini, a 43-year-old pianist from London, who is also blind and autistic.

While working for the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People earlier in his career, Ockelford had an insight. “[I]t became obvious to me that a lot of blind and partially sighted children have a particular affinity for music,” he said. “Some of them become very highly skilled as well, and it can offer a career option, which is very important in a world where jobs are hard to come by, especially if you have a disability.”

Ockelford set up The Amber Trust almost 30 years ago, working with parents with a view to improving music provision for visually impaired children in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The charity supports some 600 children every year by paying for music lessons, instruments, specialist technology, and concert tickets. They hope to increase their budget from £350,000 (approx. US $435,000) to £500,000 (approx. US $620,000) in the next five years, allowing them to help up to 1,000 children per year.

“Most adults can’t play the piano, probably one in 10,000. So the message is that disability need be no barrier to making music,” Ockelford said, reflecting, “If you asked me, ‘Who are the young children The Amber Trust will be supporting in five years?’ I don’t know, because they haven’t been born yet.

“No one knows they’re going to have a blind child, it’s very rare,” he said. “So it’s really important that we constantly raise awareness of what blind children can do with music.”

Watch Lucy’s Story:

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