Music can be life changing.
Just ask Dimitar Grigorov. When his then-12-year-old son, Victor, asked to take guitar lessons, the Highland Park, N.J., father was skeptical. Victor, who is autistic, was prone to anxiety and had difficulty focusing his attention on one task.
But Victor was insistent: He was going to play the guitar. “There’s no denying Victor when he sets his mind on something,” Mr. Grigorov said. “I figured it was worth a shot.”
Mr. Grigorov started calling music schools, but became discouraged. Most teachers had never taught a child with special needs and weren’t sure they could.
He had almost given up when a friend recommended Octopus Music School in downtown New Brunswick, owned by Rutgers University alumnus Joseph Fekete. “It was wonderful to finally hear a yes,” Mr. Grigorov said.
The school had never taught a child with special needs. But Mr. Fekete and guitar instructor Ariella Gizzi, a fellow Rutgers graduate who works during the day as a special education teacher, were willing to try.
“We are music teachers, not music therapists, but we saw a child who just wanted to learn how to play an instrument,” Mr. Fekete said. “Why not teach music for music’s sake, and if, in doing so, we provide something therapeutic, all the better.”
In his early sessions, Victor was anxious and experienced panic attacks. “Teaching him guitar was secondary to keeping him engaged in the lesson,” Mr. Fekete said. “But soon, Victor started to express his understanding and appreciation of music. It was pretty amazing what he achieved.”
Today, Victor, 15, practices daily, researches music that he’d like to play and has performed in the school’s annual spring showcase at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
Beyond the technical skills, Mr. Grigorov ticks off the personal benefits: Victor’s communication, patience and interaction with the world around him have improved. And the teen, who at one time, could tolerate only the lowest volumes while watching television, now can be found in the audience at rock concerts. “We’ve seen the loudest bands we could – The Rolling Stones, Whitesnake, AC/DC,” said Victor’s dad. “I have to wear cotton in my ears, but Victor takes his out.”
Since enrolling Victor, Octopus’s special needs program has taken off, primarily through word of mouth. Out of approximately 200 students the school teaches each week, 25 percent of them have disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome.
As a Division of Developmental Disabilities service provider, Octopus also offers music instruction to special needs adults attending area day programs, said Mr. Fekete. “Victor opened our eyes to the fact that there is a population of people who want to learn music, but have few opportunities….Students come to us from across the state.”
Fekete – a French cultural studies and political science double major who worked his way through college by teaching guitar at his off-campus home – opened Octopus Music School upon his graduation from Rutgers in 2008. Since then, the business has grown from one to four rooms and boasts a stable of 10 instructors who teach guitar, bass, piano, violin, drum and voice.
The quirky name is a nod to Fekete’s original home studio. “The street number was eight, and the room where I taught was so tiny that the equipment cables unraveled all over the place….I referred to it as ‘the octopus’ and the name stuck.”
Ms. Gizzi, who previously worked at Rutgers’ Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, draws upon her education and experience to apply instructional techniques to teaching music theory. “Some students do not require modified content,” she said “For others, I focus more on providing the foundations and basics of rhythm and note reading. I add visuals, body movements and verbal cues to enhance my instruction.”
Beyond music education, students in the program have reaped other benefits, such as improved motor or communication skills.
Ms. Gizzi encourages parents to see their special needs children as capable of learning an instrument. “The progress they see is incredible….They will leave their lessons with a sense of purpose and with a skill that they themselves have worked to achieve,” she said.