Music flows from disability

Nick Baker has an extraordinary, some say genius, natural musical ability.

The blind and autistic 25-year-old Edmonds man also suffers from a condition that severely impairs his social and communication skills.

“His blessing is also his curse in many respects,” said Bruce Spitz, Baker’s music professor at Shoreline Community College.

Baker has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. The condition gives him the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory.

He can listen to a Mozart concerto or Bach prelude once, then play the complex musical pieces on a piano almost perfectly.

Spitz said Baker can hear almost any sequence of notes – be they from chirping birds or a child banging on piano keys – and identify each note and even its loudness.

He said Baker is the most naturally gifted musician he has taught in 30 years of music instruction.

“The battle is getting him to come down from his ‘I-am-better-than-anyone-in-the-world’ place,” Spitz said.

Baker’s condition makes controlling his impulses difficult.

A self-appointed truth teller, he sometimes verbally lashes out at people.

One time, he shouted that an oboist was playing flat at a high school musical recital.

He is easily frustrated. Loud noises, such as ambulance sirens, make him anxious. Stressful situations have thrown him into raging fits.

Despite his challenges, Baker volunteers by singing and playing piano at the South Snohomish County Senior Center in Edmonds every Friday afternoon.

“I think he’s terrific,” said Priscilla Huck, a bright-eyed 89-year-old woman listening to Baker play an old jazz tune. “He knows the words to everything.”

People eating at the cafeteria liked Baker’s playing so much, they lifted piano’s lid for more volume. A few even sang along to his rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

Farrell Fleming, executive director of the senior center, said Baker typically performs for a group of about 75 lunching seniors.

“Some of those old tunes bring back memories that make the music more enjoyable,” he said.

Baker took a break from playing Friday afternoon to eat a sloppy joe sandwich among the seniors.

Wearing a crisp blue dress shirt tucked into khaki pants, Baker methodically recited biographical information about himself, starting on Jan. 9, 1981, the day he was born.

With a wide spectrum of influences, including rhythm and blues artist Quincy Jones and pop group Genesis, Baker said that he particularly enjoys playing older tunes.

“I’m mostly a laid-back kind of guy, if you catch my drift,” he said, breaking into a Harry Connick Jr. shtick.

Baker’s mother, Kathy Passage, said his talents first surfaced when he was about 6 months old.

Sitting on her lap at the piano, he reached out and hit the keyboard. Rather than slamming the keys like an infant, he started exploring the keys one by one.

By 2, he was playing simple song such as “Happy Birthday.”

As he grew older, his mind’s unusual ability became more obvious. He can play difficult songs by ear and remember them, including information about the artists and when the songs were popular.

“He can just call it up like a computer calling up a file,” Passage said.

For most of his life, his musical ability was attributed to his blindness.

He had been diagnosed with “autistic-like” behavior, but wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until a few years ago, after graduating from Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver.

Baker has recorded two CDs and is working on a third, “Happy All the Time.” He hopes that album will generate radio play and get him more paying gigs.

“I’m a musician who is longing for the big stage and for the big crowd and to make it big in the industry,” he said.

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or dchircop@heraldnet.com.

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