Brad Johnson knew that his son, Noah, was musically gifted. An early clue was finding the tiny boy asleep on his electric keyboard. When Brad played any key on his iPad, Noah could identify it, every time.
And Noah has perfect pitch.
These revelations buoyed Brad and his wife, Melissa, as they sought to give their son — born 15 weeks premature and legally blind — every opportunity for normalcy and joy. “We just needed to find the right key to unlock his potential,” Brad says.
The Johnsons, of Isle, Minn., found that key in an innovative musical outreach program and a veteran piano teacher named Diana Bearmon.
“Wow, Noah, that’s great!” says Diana as they tackle “The Swimming Song,” composed by Noah. “It sounds like floating. Did you have legato?”
“I had legato,” Noah replies proudly. “And staccato!”
Diana, who has taught piano students for 30 years, leans forward on her piano bench, sunshine streaming through the second-floor window of a spacious room at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.
“What key are we in here, Noah?” she asks, as they move on to “Ice Cream.”
“The key of C, Diana,” he says confidently.
“Oh, you are so smart.” Noah, who plays by ear, is not in the room. He is on the screen.
Since the spring of 2013, Noah and Diana have met weekly through MacPhail’s Live Online program. Today, they work on the glue.
“What do we need to put on our fingers?” Diana asks Noah. “The glue,” says Noah, clarifying for an observer that he doesn’t mean real glue.
Diana nods. “We work so hard to keep our fingers in one position,” she says. “Your left hand is really cheating on the glue.”
The good-natured 12-year-old concurs. “My left hand is a little confused,” he says. “Well,” Diana suggests, “let’s do the left hand alone.”
She demonstrates. Noah listens intently. “Good job, Diana,” Noah says.
Diana laughs. “Thank you, Noah.” Noah, a sixth-grader at Isle Elementary School, took piano lessons at home, but soon needed more of a challenge.
While MacPhail was appealing to his parents, a two-hour weekly drive was not, and Noah’s aversion to noise could make an on-site experience upsetting. Diana didn’t leap at the chance to teach music via Skype. Would she be able to see her student’s fingers? What if they experienced technical difficulties? Then she met, and fell in love with, Noah.
“He has the most charming personality,” she says. “He’s very outgoing, very sweet. I wanted Noah to have the opportunity to learn piano, as any student would.”
A bit of online training by MacPhail staff, and the two were in business.
Now Noah “absolutely loves” to perform at home, school and church,” says Brad, noting that their 8-year-old son, Caleb, also is musical.
Noah is composing music, and seldom needs a nudge to practice. “He’s had that desire, that potential,” Brad says. “But part of it is magic.”