Sightless prodigy just plays what he hears

The Baltimore Sun

Daniel Price has been playing music by ear since he was a toddler. When he was 6 years old, he flawlessly performed Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube" on the piano. And by age 9, he could pick up just about any song after hearing it only once.

He plays without sheet music. The 16-year-old Rosedale youth has been blind since the age of 1.

"Whenever I hit a note, I could tell by the sound what it was," he said while sitting in his home studio this week. "Music came easily for me."

Although Daniel makes it sound simple, his extraordinary talents go well beyond anything his music instructors have ever witnessed.

"Dan has somewhat of a photographic memory, but it's in music," said Tobias Hurwitz, who says he's taught thousands of people over the past 20 years to play the guitar. "He's a child prodigy. He has some abilities that I have never seen in any other student."

When he was 2 months old, Daniel was diagnosed with Stickler syndrome -- a genetic disorder that can produce a flattened facial appearance, eye and vision problems, hearing loss and joint problems. Detached retinas, common with Stickler syndrome, caused Daniel to go blind, according to his mother, Rebekah Price. He has also been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that can cause sensory integration and social problems.

Despite those medical conditions, Daniel has pursued his love of music. He takes piano and guitar lessons, and he performed with a band from the Maryland School for the Blind. He also won a guitar competition competing against adults and is now recording a CD of original music.

"Dan is destined for something pretty incredible musically," said Hurwitz, who has written several guitar instruction manuals. "He isn't like any other student I have ever had."

His musical talent began to show when he was a toddler, said his mother.

"He would hear a song and play it back," said Price, 49, who works as a registered nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "He picked up the nursery songs, and then he started to play songs that were more difficult. But no matter what he was playing, his music was amazing."

Recognizing that her son was gifted, Price enrolled Daniel in piano lessons at the age of four. His current piano instructor, Belinda deCastro, who teaches at Towson University's Music Preparatory Division, also has marveled at her young charge's development in the decade she has been tutoring him.

"Dan has this amazing ability to memorize and learn by hearing," she said. "He doesn't have the sight, but he definitely has the ear. He can take a very complex piece that would take the average person six months to master, and he can master it in three lessons. No one ever does that."

At about age 10, he started taking guitar lessons. Playing with the instrument across his lap, he picked up the melody quickly, Hurwitz said.

"I tried to get him to play the guitar the standard way, but he just wouldn't do it," Hurwitz said. "Now I think the way he plays enhances his music."

Despite Daniel's unorthodox technique, Hurwitz said his protege has displayed uncommon dexterity in picking up music.

"I've taught other blind students," Hurwitz said, "and they often have difficulty shifting position on the guitar, because they can't see. But Dan just hops right to the next note without hesitation."

Hurwitz recalled that during a recent lesson, he coaxed Daniel into trying a new piece he'd just heard, "For the Love of God," by Grammy Award-winning rock musician Steve Vai.

"This song is incredibly difficult to play," Hurwitz said. "It's incredibly fast, and Dan thought he couldn't do it, but he did. And when he came to parts of the song that were beyond his technical abilities, he revised what he didn't know and played it with astounding accuracy."

Daniel's acute senses stretch beyond music, to things like cars, Hurwitz said.

"He loves cars," Hurwitz said. "He can tell you what kind of car you're driving based on the sound of the engine. And he can tell how fast a car is moving based on the feel of the tires on the road. It's a bizarre talent, but he does it."

During a recent interview, Daniel played an original piece on his guitar and then a piece by Chopin on the piano. When he finished, he shed some light on his musical methods.

"I can play music quickly when I hear it because I break it down into parts," said Daniel, who practices about three hours each day. "The melody repeats itself a few times, so the solo is the only part that's different. There really isn't that much to learn. So I just play what I hear."

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