When Rex Lewis-Clack accepts his diploma with the other Malibu High School graduates next week, his mother, Cathleen, will have complicated emotions watching her son in mortarboard and gown. Like other parents, she will feel a swelling pride in her son’s accomplishments, which are remarkable: featured three times on the national news show “60 Minutes,” an astonishingly gifted pianist who wows audiences the world over, a regular concert performer for nonprofits around the country.
But, achievements aside, Rex is not like the other students. He was born blind, with severe cognitive disabilities, functions on the autism spectrum and will require personal assistance every day for the rest of his life. But to Cathleen, Rex is just an example of what the human spirit can achieve in deciding not to be defined by disability.
“When Rex was young, his sensory disorder and rigidity made it impossible for him to talk,” Cathleen said. “But it’s like music opened him up completely. He has gone so far beyond what his doctors told me he would be able to do.”
The skills displayed in Rex’s form of prodigious savant syndrome are extremely rare. There are perhaps 100 known such savants living worldwide. His gift allows Rex to instantaneously improvise on given themes or play a selection in a variety of different styles. He can play Mozart or the Beatles.
He recently performed for Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill at a home concert in Washington, D.C. When Rex finished, Biden vowed to install a plaque on his piano noting that Rex had played there.
Cathleen said his genius showed up early, despite an infancy defined by constant struggle to communicate.
“When he was a toddler, Rex kept his hands balled up, so he didn’t have to touch anything, and sounds would disturb him,” she said.“When he was two years old, his dad gave him a small keyboard and it just sort of unpeeled his fingers. Rex was feeling the world for the first time.”
Cathleen had been told Rex probably wouldn’t walk or talk. The piano changed that. He started attending public school. When Cathleen became aware of his progressive musical talents, she found a piano teacher for him and his skills exploded. He could hear a song played one time, then play it back perfectly. He learned concertos within a few hours that take professional musicians months to acquire.
As the years passed, his repertoire expanded to the point that one night, he told his mother he wanted to play the entire Chopin Nocturne suite. He turned on a recorder, sat down at the keyboards and, two hours later, finished the entire library. When his piano teacher, Pepperdine’s Sarah Banta, heard the recording, she said that he got every note perfectly, in the tempo it was meant to be played.
At the MHS Senior Awards presented last week (where he won the Henry Cariati Memorial Scholarship), Rex elected to play a medley of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” with a little Mozart thrown in the middle. He is sanguine about his talents.
“No, I’m not nervous when I perform,” Rex said. “I choose my own composers to play.”
Getting Rex to graduation day has not been an easy journey for Cathleen. A single mom, she left the world of finance to care for Rex as a baby. Then she returned to school to get her masters in education with a specialty in teaching visually impaired students. Today, she teaches in the Oxnard School District. In 2008, she published a book, “Rex: A Mother, Her Autistic Child and the Music that Transformed Their Lives.”
“I am not musical at all,” Cathleen said. “But I’ve learned quite a bit.”
Rex is looking at the Performing Arts Studio West, an institute that provides training to developmentally challenged adults, for his post-high school career. As at Malibu High, Rex will require an aide to help him get to classes, and get through classes.
But Cathleen is not thinking about that now. When Rex receives his diploma next week, she will watch with eyes full of tears, as her son leaves his “childhood,” and steps into an uncertain, but promising future.