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January 2011



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First Published Wednesday, 11 February 2009


(CBS) Five years ago, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl met an 8-year-old boy named Rex, who seemed to embody in one small person some of the most intriguing mysteries of the human mind – how it is that stunning ability and profound disability can coexist within the same person.

Rex was born blind, with brain damage so severe his mother Cathleen was told he might never walk or talk or do much of anything, and yet he has talent beyond anything most of us can imagine.

60 Minutes was so captivated by Rex that we decided to follow him, to keep coming back to see what the years would bring. The last time Stahl visited Rex and his mom, he was 10. Today he’s 13 and he’s as joyful as ever.

But before you meet Rex today, meet Rex as Stahl first did.

Rex Lewis-Clack then, as now, was a study in contrasts: blind and full of enthusiasm, yet unable to dress himself, or even carry on a basic conversation.

But with everything Rex couldn’t do, he could perform a musical feat. Stahl played him a song he had never heard, with his old piano teacher singing along. Rex, who can’t see the keys, was able to replay the entire sequence, after hearing it only once.

Rex is a musical savant, one of a handful of people in the world who share a mysterious combination of blindness, mental disability, and musical genius.

But away from the piano, he was easily upset, confused by basic concepts, such as the difference between a square and a circle, and unable to find his way around the apartment he’d lived in his whole life.

If you’re interested in learning more about Rachel Flowers and her music, click here to visit her MySpace page.

Music seemed to be Rex’s only real connection to the world — to normalcy. And the question was how far it could take him.

Now, five years later at age 13, he is playing Debussy for audiences around the country.

He’s grown more than a foot since Stahl saw him last, and his technique on the piano has improved dramatically. But the answer to how far Rex has come is more complex, like the savant mystery itself.

Rex greeted Stahl with the same warmth and enthusiasm as ever. “Can I give you a big hug?” he asked.

But he seemed to forget that Stahl already knew his mother Cathleen.

Rex still has the magical ability to hear a piece of music one time and retain it, and he’s taking that into a whole new realm by singing. Stahl watched as Rex’s voice teacher Angela Rasmussen sang him a song he’d never heard before, Schubert’s Ave Maria in Latin.

Stahl thought the song was upsetting Rex, since he plugged his ears and started making noises. But we were wrong – Rex played and sang the song, again, after a single hearing – in Latin.

Sara Banta, Rex’s piano teacher, is pushing him to improvise and transform music into different styles, like asking Rex to play the song Blue Moon, which he’d just heard for the first time, in the style of Mozart.

“The more he improvises, he gets into new and wilder things which is fun for him. And it’s creative,” Banta explained.

Banta said she doesn’t do that as much with other students. “They don’t do it as well.”

Rex was born blind, with a giant cyst in his brain. He developed severe autistic symptoms: small noises would make him scream, and he kept his hands balled up in fists.

“That became the way he would be,” says his mother Cathleen, holding her hands up, clenched. “You’d have to peel his fingers open.”

But then, an unexpected breakthrough happened, when Rex’s father brought him a keyboard for his second birthday.

“He pulled his hands back up at first. And I thought, ‘Oh, now what am I’m gonna have to trick him into putting them back.’ All of a sudden, he overcame his own sensitivity because he was so intrigued,” Cathleen remembers.

Rex was hooked. The keyboard was all he wanted to do, even when his body couldn’t do it anymore – he’d literally fall asleep on the keyboard.

As his skill at the piano grew, so came other skills. Rex learned to walk, and talk, even run – all things he was never expected to do. Two years later, Rex was spelling, skiing, and today, exchanging e-mails with a Swedish pen pal.

But there are still barriers music hasn’t helped transcend – those hands that fly across the keyboard still can’t button a button, or guide his foot into a shoe. Even Velcro straps are challenging.

But Rex is full of positive surprises too, like defying the conventional wisdom that savants can only parrot back what they hear.

Every Saturday, Rex spends four hours with David Pinto, who has started an Academy of Music for the Blind, and is helping Rex turn his improvisations into original pieces of music.

“He’s composed about a dozen wonderful little piano pieces that are perfect for intermediate students,” Pinto explains. “I had him play them into the computer, so we could print it out.” He handed Stahl a printed book of Rex’s compositions.

Pinto believes Rex is truly creative. “Rex is beginning to be a little composer.”

The big challenge for Rex as a musician, Pinto believes, is a bit of a paradox. The savant gift that gives him such prodigious talent, also robs him of some of what makes music so powerful to the rest of us – real emotion.

“To convey emotion in a piece, you need loudness and softness and crescendos and decrescendos,” he says. “It’s amazing to me that he doesn’t naturally take to those things.”

Pinto says Rex does hear them, “But they’re not important to him. These are emotional things. This is conveying meaning on an emotional, human level. Those things are not significant to him as much.”

It’s a problem shared by many of David’s students, and why he feels it’s so important to bring them together and foster human connections through their music.

A perfect example is 14-year-old Rachel Flowers, who Stahl first met three years ago, when she and Rex worked on movement together with Pinto.

Back then, Rachel had just begun teaching herself to play the flute. Today she’s composing elaborate pieces of music for Jazz ensembles, recording every track herself.

Pinto considers Rachel “super talented.”

Rachel is much higher-functioning than Rex, but still, David says, she has similar problems connecting her music with stories or feelings.

“I asked her, ‘Tell me some possible lyrics.’ She had no idea,” he says. “Any lyrics whatsoever.’ Okay, so I said, ‘Let’s give a story about something that made you angry.’ She couldn’t.”

“I said, ‘Okay, play me something sad.’ She couldn’t. And that astounded me, to see how deep these kids go. But if you just move 10 degrees to the left, how shallow. They are fonts of wisdom and you’re amazed. But move a little bit left, they don’t have anything to say,” Pinto adds.

Asked if he thinks it’s possible for him to teach Rex and the other children to imitate emotion, Pinto tells Stahl, “Yes. And I think like all things, there’s a hope that imitation will lead to understanding. “

So when Pinto has Rachel play Rex’s new composition, he’s trying to use the extraordinary musical bond they share to build something that does not come naturally: a simple friendship.

“It’s still very hard for him to be friends. To have that deep connection,” Rex’s mom explains.

Cathleen hopes that music can help create a place for her son in the mainstream world, and it’s already happening Rex leaves his special ed classroom every day for the school choir and band, and while he still can’t fully relate to the other kids, with Rex, you never know when there’s going to be a breakthrough, as Cathleen learned from David Pinto about something she’d given up on because of Rex’s continuing aversion to touching things.

“I saw this twinkle between David and his wife. And, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Well, we were gonna keep it as a surprise for you. But Rex is reading Braille,'” Cathleen remembers. “First I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘I’d like to see that. Now.'”

“And at that point, you know, to see the tears in her eyes. She was deeply moved,” Pinto remembers of Cathleen witnessing this breakthrough.

Cathleen says Rex finished reading his first Braille book this summer: “Frog and Toad Are Friends.”

“They said, ‘He may never walk.’ He walked. ‘He may never talk.’ He talked. ‘He’ll never read.’ He’s reading,” Stahl points out.

“I always think that you, part of his laugh and little twinkle is like, ‘Oh, I know more than she does.’ It’s like he’s got his own timing. And I think that that’s a good lesson never to say that he’s not gonna do it. It’s just when he’s ready, and when his brain is ready,” Cathleen replies.

In all the years Stahl has known Rex, she never thought he would be able to sit at the piano with her and play an improvised duet, much less enjoy it.

But they did just that.

“Every now and then he would while he was playing get very excited and make a noise and go, ‘Yes,’ and he’d have a look of joy and fun,” Stahl observed.

“I mean, that’s what’s wonderful. His joy, his laughter. He loves music. It’s so big in him,” Pinto says.

“I think that the possibilities are endless,” piano teacher Sara Banta says. “The more I’m with him, the more I realize that there’s much more to discover than I’ve even gotten close to finding.”



For years Cathleen has thought about writing a book about her son, and she’s finally done it. It’s called “Rex: A Mother, Her Autistic Child, And The Music That Transformed Their Lives.”

Source:   http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/14/60minutes/main4604368.shtml?source=RSSattr=60Minutes_4604368

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