Blindness, autism can’t stop Andover teen from pursuing love of music

How many people do you know who can sit down to play a new song on the piano by ear and sing it perfectly after only having heard it a couple of times before?

Music therapist Maria Buan works with Gage Cook, a talented 16-year-old musician who has a deep love and talent for music, rhythm and singing – despite living with blindness and autism. Photo by Karin Craig
Music therapist Maria Buan works with Gage Cook, a talented 16-year-old musician who has a deep love and talent for music, rhythm and singing – despite living with blindness and autism. Photo by Karin Craig

Gage Cook, 16, of Andover, can which is amazing on its own. But when you consider the fact that Gage can do this despite facing some serious challenges, it’s even more incredible.

Born blind and diagnosed with a serious case of autism by age three, Gage can’t even see musical notes – much less read them – and he struggles with communication. Most of his class time at Andover High School is spent in a special education setting. He can never be left completely alone, and relies on the help of his longtime personal care attendant, Ashley Rentner, when his parents aren’t able to be home with him.

But even these tremendous challenges have not been enough to stop Gage’s love and talent for music, rhythm and singing.

Gage’s parents, Gary and Jessica Cook, noticed his musical ability very early on. As a toddler, he taught himself how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a little toy xylophone.

He loved singing with his grandma, Patty Derfler, and listening to old country music with his grandpa, Ernest Cook. As he got older, Gage loved memorizing and playing songs.

Gary and Jessica had heard about music therapy and they thought it might be a good choice for Gage. They were right.

Gage was eight years old when music therapist Maria Buan entered his life.

“After meeting him, I knew he had a gift,” said Buan, who comes and works with Gage in his home twice each week. “He was blessed with amazing ears. He is a natural musician.”

Gage was also gifted with a voice with perfect pitch, she said.

Because of his blindness and autism, Gage was not able to learn music the traditional way, so Buan’s challenge was to find other ways to teach him. To her amazement, Gage was very quick to learn music by ear and memory, Buan said.

Buan chose a selection of songs that fit his vocal range and style of music, and Gage learned to sing them perfectly as Buan played along on her guitar. Later he learned to hold his melody while Buan harmonized.

“He picked up that skill very quickly and was able to come up with his own harmonies when he was very young,” she said.

Buan also helped Gage learn to play the piano. Their lessons began on a smaller electronic keyboard that did not have the full set of keys that are found on a standard piano.

Gage mastered the keyboard very quickly, but – to everyone’s amazement – his fingers would often automatically reach to the left of the keyboard for the “missing” keys that would have been there on a full piano.

His mind knew exactly where those keys should be and it was frustrating for him to not be able to access the missing notes as he played. And so, it was time to upgrade to a full-size piano.

Music therapy is not just providing a way for Gage to enjoy and express himself; it is also making a difference in his ability to manage his autism. Gage can use music as a way to help him calm down when he is in a fidgeting, agitated state.

Autism makes it difficult for Gage to deal with changes, but his music therapy sessions frequently offer opportunities for him to practice adjusting to changes.

“He has learned to be flexible and adapt to the situation,” said Buan. “If he can use the coping strategies that he acquires in his sessions and apply them to his daily life, then his parents and I have succeeded in helping him deal with the daily challenges.”

Gage’s sessions with Buan are also helping him learn to make decisions. Originally, Buan chose songs for Gage to sing. Now, he chooses the songs he wants to sing himself. He particularly likes Johnny Cash, the Monkees, the Beatles, Merle Haggard, Faron Young, George Strait and Garth Brooks.

He has recently mastered Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

After eight years of working with Gage, Buan said she wanted to share Gage’s talent with everyone.

“He is amazing and we have worked so hard in the last few years to polish his skills,” she said. “I knew he was ready and I knew that people would be amazed and inspired by his ability to overcome obstacles in his life to pursue his passion for music.”

Buan, who is a member of a small band, was going to play a gig at JJ’s Coffeeshop and Wine Bar for a friend’s photography show in February 2013. She asked Gage if he would like to join her and perform a few of his songs in front of an audience.

Gage said he wanted to do it.

“He did a great job; it was a hit,” said Buan.

The crowd loved it and so did Gage.

Since then, Gage has performed concerts at several other locations, with Buan always at his side playing the guitar. They have played at Joseph’s Grill, Little Szechuan, St. Paul Union Depot for the Art Crawl in St. Paul and in June, he sang at Beef O’Brady’s in Andover.

They are hoping to schedule at least one more local performance this fall.

They often end their performances with a special song Buan wrote specifically for Gage, titled “I’m Just a Kid.”

Buan wrote this song when they were considering having Gage record a CD. She wanted him to have a song that was all Gage’s and that would be free and clear of any copyright restrictions.

“The response from those who see Gage sing has been overwhelming,” said Gage’s mother, Jessica Cook. “People come up and tell us how amazing he is; some of them have tears in their eyes.”

According to Jessica, some of those who have come to see Gage perform had learned of him through the YouTube videos that Jessica has posted of Gage singing and they wanted to see him in person. (Search for his videos on YouTube using the words Gage Cook’s Gig.)

Gary and Jessica are obviously proud of Gage and they said that watching their son perform his concerts lets them see him in such a completely different light. Gage loves to hear the audience clap after each of his songs, they said.

So where did Gage’s musical talent come from? Gage’s father, Gary, is quick to point out that he did not get it from him.

“The extent of my musical ability is that I can choose what CDs I like,” he said. “His mother can sing, but neither of us can read music or play an instrument.”

Gage has two younger brothers, Gus, 14, and Jack, 12, and neither of them is involved in music. But they are both very proud of Gage and are amazed that he can memorize new songs and perform so well.

Gage’s incredible ability to memorize extends beyond just songs.

He excelled in his Spanish class at Andover High School because it was easy for him to remember the Spanish words. He can also name the capitals of every state, every Canadian province and most of the countries of the world.

He has a long list of beloved knock-knock jokes committed to memory.

“Gage is a hilarious person,” said Jessica. “He’s always telling jokes and trying to make people laugh. He likes to make up jokes, even though they usually don’t make any sense.”

Gage enjoys playing baseball in the Miracle League, a league for special-needs youth in Blaine, where he hits a beeper ball off a tee.

He is looking forward to beginning his junior year at Andover High School this fall and he is excited to share his music in additional concerts in the near future.