Alex Hagen sat with his lanky frame hunched over a grand piano, his head bowed and eyes downcast.
Then, without warning, he tore into the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, while gleefully stomping his feet on the floor of the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis.
“When Alex walks into a room with a piano, he instantly feels at home and knows what to do,” said his father, Andrew Hagen of Victoria. “He speaks through his music.”
Hagen, 22, is among a select group of people with autism known as savants. Since he was a toddler, he has been able to perform musical feats almost beyond comprehension. He can play dense classical pieces after a single listening, knows a repertoire of more than 1,000 songs by memory and can play the piano upside down.
Yet Hagen’s musical talents went largely unnoticed at Chanhassen High School, where he struggled in the classroom. After graduating in 2014, he attended a job transition program for young adults with disabilities. It helped him land a series of unpaid internships doing routine tasks, such as sorting mail, that offered little hope for advancement or a chance to display his talents.
“Our big fear was that [Alex] would end up stuck in our basement, playing video games,” his father said.
Those fears began to subside last spring after a series of meetings with state VR specialists. They encouraged Alex to expand his musical reach by joining a rock band at MacPhail and by composing his own sheet music. With their help, Hagen landed short-term gigs performing at senior homes, hotels and even a Menards home improvement store.
His father said the opportunities have helped his son “come out of his shell.” A year ago, Alex still pounded at the piano keys with his head down, as if he were in a furious race, Andrew Hagen said. Now he grins at his audiences and adjusts his tempo to the mood of the moment.
“Alex is getting more social exposure than we ever imagined possible.”