Perfect pitch helps 3 boys fight learning disabilities

When 4-year-old David Heiligman heard a noisy leaf blower outside his home, he ran to the piano to match the pitch.

As a toddler, Sammy Teffs preferred to absorb the vibration of the television, applying both hands and an ear on the speaker, rather than watch the action on the screen.

"Ethan" by the age of 2 had learned enough music to recognize the faint background melody in a restaurant as the work of Jewish composer Henri Wieniawski.

The three boys, all of whom live in Hayward, have the rare gift of perfect pitch perception. Only one in 2,000 people are said to possess the trait.

The boys' similarities do not end there. All three are Jewish, are 4 years old, possess learning disabilities and see the same Oakland music therapist.

Their therapist, Susan Rancer, also is Jewish with perfect pitch. Having worked with learning-disabled students for 16 years, she's seen her share of kids with the trait. This is the first time she has had so many Jewish students — four in all — who she believes have perfect pitch.

The boys have come to Rancer at a unique time. Bay Area Jews have been cast into a scientific spotlight as UCSF researchers try to pinpoint the gene responsible for perfect pitch. The researchers believe the incidence of perfect pitch is slightly higher among Ashkenazi Jews and are seeking Jewish subjects as part of their study.

Having participated in the study herself, Rancer invited researcher Siamak Baharloo, a graduate student at UCSF, to observe her students. Baharloo accepted the invitation, but could not accurately assess the boys; his test was designed for adults.

"My gut feeling is that they do indeed have perfect pitch," he said in a recent interview.

He contests, however, some scientists' suggestions that kids with learning disabilities have a greater incidence of the trait.

"[Psychology pioneer] Oliver Sacks thought that some kids with developmental disorders like autism are more likely to have perfect pitch. Unfortunately, the data on that is very anecdotal," he said.

The learning disabilities of some, he explained, may make their perfect pitch more noticeable.

"Whatever is destroying the parts of the brain that are involved in normal communication, it leaves the music part of the brain untouched."

The boys' parents hope that Rancer can build up their sons' musical abilities in a way that will compensate for their disabilities.

Said Sammy's mother, Geri Teffs, "Sammy will be slow and different, but he will be smart enough to know he's different. I'd like him to learn how to use the gift to bring himself pleasure and make others happy," by performing.

Teffs and her husband were told when Sammy was an infant that he had a heart problem and would soon die. Miraculously, his condition disappeared. But while the Teffs were still rejoicing their turn of luck, doctors during a routine checkup diagnosed the 18-month-old with Williams syndrome.

The neurological disorder encumbers the learning of language and fine motor skills such as hand dexterity. Williams kids usually have heart problems at a young age.

"The diagnosis was devastating," Teffs said. "Even when your kid is a baby, you have dreams that they will do X, Y and Z at a certain time. You have to go through the mourning of losing the child that you thought you were going to have and then accepting the child that you have."

As he grew older, Sammy became frustrated with his inability to articulate his thoughts and would misbehave. But he found in music a predictably rhythmic world where everything flowed.

"Whatever music was going on, he would be there," Teffs recalled. And "if he couldn't get to the [room where the music was playing] he would scream. His first words were `More. More,'" when he heard music.

At a recent music therapy session in Rancer's Oakland studio, Sammy pounded on a lap drum — ta ta ti-ti ta — tinkled "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on the piano, sang songs and strummed on the guitar while Rancer fingered the chords.

The kid carries a tune.

"He knows the notes. I'm not teaching him," Rancer called out in between lines. "Either you're born with it or you don't have it."

Doctors suspect Ethan has a mild form of autism. Nevertheless, the quiet boy cracked a smile and began singing as soon as Susan launched the first song "May There Always be Shemesh," or sunshine.

He tapped out a rough version of Bach's Minuet in G and a portion of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano before becoming more interested in a metal triangle that he clanged to the beat of "It's a Small World."

None of Ethan's playing and singing was the work of a practiced virtuoso. But the music possessed him, at times hauntingly. He clearly was in his own world, when he departed for several minutes from sheet music to play a self-created rhythm on the piano and again when he thumped a tribal drumbeat on the body of a mandolin in between strumming the instrument.

Rancer hopes that Ethan's singing will make it easier for him to talk and make sense of the spoken word, something he rarely does without music.

"For a couple years all I did was sing to him," his mother said. "If we could sing [or write] the whole conversation, he would be able to participate all the time."

David Heiligman's parents have had similar problems.

David's mother, Joanne Heiligman, hopes that the music therapy together with an intensive language program will help land her son in kindergarten this fall along with others his age.

Joanne Heiligman, a rabbi who works with Jewish inmates at the federal prison in Dublin, isn't worried about David's intellectual ability. At 4, he reads in both English and to a lesser degree in Hebrew. But she worries that his speech disorder will keep him from making friends.

Such social problems could permanently scar David's self-esteem, according to Rancer.

"Kids need to have something that they can be a success at," Rancer said. The learning disabled "realize that they are not at the top and are self-esteem sufferers.

"This will build their self-esteem. Once you build it, you can do anything."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.