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Featured Story: Birth of an Artist


Growing up in a house full of music, instruments, and frequent trips to the theatre to watch his sister and brother sing, my son Joseph comes to music honestly.

So it was no surprise to discover he possessed an interest in music. Like anyone his response to music is obvious and immediate. Never shy to break out the dance moves or air guitar to express his approval. So, it was also no surprise that Joseph gravitated toward the variety of musical instruments that lay around the house – whether it was sitting at the piano, strumming a guitar, or drumming with whatever he could get his hands on, Joseph made music.

Joseph is now 7 years old and shows no decline in his musical passion.

Joseph has CP. Something I always leave out when I think of or talk about my son. It doesn’t define him. It doesn’t define anyone. It comes with assumptions and expectations that are often inaccurate and unfair. Assumptions that make parents like me cringe in discomfort and frustration.

Joseph is also non-verbal (so far). Something I also leave out – I have the luxury of leaving this one out because Joseph has a voice – a computer generated voice that he is very capable of using and sharing. Although his hands are one of the parts of his body most affected by his palsy, Joseph has sufficient control to operate his computer’s touch screen in order to communicate. With every touch of the screen he becomes more accurate and efficient. His computer, as a result, serves the dual purpose of also providing a form of physical therapy for Joseph’s arms, hands and fine motor skills (but don’t tell him that).

And, it is this technology that has become the greatest source of liberation for our son. Liberating his ideas which are as uncensored, funny and sometimes hurtful, deep, and poetic as any child’s.

This is where the story begins. In finding his voice, Joseph also found opportunity, friendship and music. And, at the heart of it all were the teachers and Communication Professionals that recognized Joseph’s distinctive ability to turn a phrase, disarm, light up and take over a room.

Enter Paul Alcamo, Joseph’s SK teacher at Holland Bloorview School Authority and close friend. They are two pals, constantly teasing, testing, and yes, teaching other. Paul is special, anyone that knows him will tell you that. For my son and all of his students; Paul is a constant source of inspiration, creativity, motivation and possibilities. A teacher devoted to creating the conditions for growth, success, and confidence in his students.

The following is an excerpt written by Paul Alcamo for a Global News story on Joseph, his music, and Joseph’s relationship with both himself and music Producer Adrian (AJ) Moody.

Paul begins by speaking about a CD project he was leading aimed at developing student pride and involvement:

“During the rehearsals, a very articulate , voice device using boy named Joseph told me that he couldn’t sing. I was temporarily stumped to find a way to get him into the songs and encouraged him to use his voice in his way . The accuracy of the notes didn’t matter as much as he made a joyful sound with us.   That didn’t sit well with this very soulful and intelligent boy. For close to 6 months that also stayed with me in the back of my mind.

Joe was then placed in my class for his Senior Kindergarten year. His group table was close to my desk, so I was treated to an unending dialogue of topics that included spies, war, theology, love and very funny nonsense. At one point early in the year I decided to save some of the writings of this witty and profound child. As well, the nagging feeling that I had to find a way for his voice to make it into music stayed with me.

I went to ask a favour from my dear friends at the Ashley Ingram School of Music. My primary contact was Adrian Moody.   I set up a meeting with Adrian and Joseph and his family. Joe shared all of his lyrics with Adrian and completely captivated him with his soul, wit and brains.”

The meeting with Adrian (AJ) at the studio was unforgettable. It was of course exciting, but I was little uncertain about the whole thing – how could I take this seriously, Joseph had a handful of lines, hardly a cogent song idea, and we had no musical arrangement. Studio time is incredibly expensive and producers are incredibly busy, so why would anyone commit to this I thought. Joseph was just 5 years old at that time, so I assumed this was all in the interest of humouring a little kid and his family. What else could I think?

What I didn’t count on was meeting one of the most positive, talented, and generous, people I had ever met. We were greeted at the studio door on cold January morning by a cheerful and enthusiastic young producer. AJ was very warm and welcoming, treating us to a tour of the studio complete with gold records on the walls and photo’s of some of the biggest pop stars in the world who had recorded there. AJ and Joseph hit it off immediately. It was obvious they were kindred spirits. Both fed off the others’ enthusiasm, and sense of humour, both completely fascinated by the other. There was no rush, no pressure to get in and get out. In one of the many rooms filled with instruments and gear AJ treated Joseph to a demonstration of a variety of instruments from drums (traditional and electronic) to pianos, keyboards and guitars – Joseph was in heaven, a kid in a musical candy store.

After what seemed like hours we finally entered the studio where AJ and Joseph would record together. I apologized for not having a clear musical idea or even a complete song and handed over Joseph’s lyrics. Despite my trepidation AJ was immediately excited and optimistic that something special was about to happen. Once again there was a demonstration of the wall of recording equipment and computers in the room and then it was time to get to work – first transferring Joseph’s Lyrics as spoken by his computer into one of the studio computers, then a request from AJ for more lyrics.

“Ok, um. . . we’ll get going and let you know when Joseph comes up with something and get back to  you . . . “ I said,

No, no, no Joseph let’s do it now, AJ said, “gimme something” and Joseph responded. This was the best part of the whole experience for me, the sincere gesture of trust and respect AJ demonstrated toward Joseph in that moment. And, with AJ’s support and encouragement – Joseph delivered.

After all the lyrics were recorded AJ demonstrated how he would manipulate the voice recording to make Joseph sing. It was of course a transformative moment. A moment where everything changed. I had never heard or imagined anything like it. In an instant a world of possibilities opened up. In an instant a wall of limitation came crashing down. AJ Moody and Paul Alcamo had in an instant changed the world for Joseph and the multitudes that are sure to follow.

AJ Moody:

“When Paul first approached me, he indeed sounded stumped. He had these fun and deep lyrics written by a 5 year old boy but he didn’t know how to help him transform them into song. Instead of just making some kind of beat, I invited Joey and the whole family to the studio. I had been trained to treat everyone in the studio as an artist, and I was determined to approach this project with the same level of care and professionalism. I had no idea Joey had been diagnosed with CP but only that he communicated through an electronic device. When Joey and his family arrived, I knew that I wasn’t just treating someone like a star: Joey is a star. He was engaged (more so than some professional artists!), energetic and was inspiring to work with. Using technology and software we often take for granted in the studio, I was able to work with Joey in creating a song that gave him his musical voice.

I had no idea of the impact it would have on him, his family, his peers, or myself. Joey taught me that expression is not about what we see or what we expect, but truly about being free to express what lies directly in our hearts. In fact, the result was so powerful to me, I quit my job and founded a nonprofit organization – Music Without Barriers – to help Joey and people all around the world find their voice, access music no matter the barriers, and give everyone the chance to shine. None of this could have been possible without people like Joey, his parents, Paul, and the amazing community and staff at Holland-Bloorview. They say it takes a village; in this case it’s true.”

I had no idea of the impact it would have on him, his family, his peers, or myself. 

-Adrian Moody, Executive Director, Music Without Barriers

Joseph presented his song “That Thing” at the Breaking the ICE (Independence Community and Empowerment) conference in Toronto in 2012. At just 5 years of age he introduced it by saying he “wrote it to get rich” and was “still waiting”, to uproarious laughter, and then his song played. It brought the roof down. What Joseph, AJ, and Paul accomplished together changed the lives of many of the people in that conference hall that day. It has that kind of power because it’s not just a great piece of work for alternate communication users; it’s a great song, period. And, at the heart of it is a young boy with a big voice, big ideas, and lots of swagger, who just may represent a new beginning in what’s possible, and a new attitude in what’s acceptable, for this generation and future generations of alternate communication user’s.

The song “That Thing” is now available on iTunes – buy it to support Music Without Barriers!

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superfriendsFeatured Story: Birth of an Artist