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.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Mel Jennings sits in his structure during a point-in-time count of people facing homelessness in Everett, Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Mel has had a brain and spinal surgery, and currently has been homeless for a year. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Annual homeless count aims to give snapshot of housing crisis

Volunteers set out into the rain Tuesday to count all the people facing homelessness in central Everett.

Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett, Wa.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Lawmakers push to boost voting in county jails across the state

A House bill envisions an approach similar to what’s been happening in the Snohomish County Jail for several years.

Vandalism at Seaview Park on Jan. 21, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Edmonds Police Department)
Police seek suspects in repeated vandalism at Edmonds parks

Vandals have done over $10,000 of damage to parks across the city, including suspected arson and graffiti with hate speech.

One worker looks up from the cargo area as another works in what will be the passenger compartment on one of the first Boeing 787 jets as it stands near completion at the front of the assembly line, Monday, May 19, 2008, in Everett, Wash. The plane, the first new Boeing jet in 14 years, is targeted for power on in June followed by an anticipated first flight sometime late in 2008.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Boeing workers long-exposed to carcinogen far above legal limits

The company confirmed in depositions that parts of its Everett plant still don’t meet 2010 standards.

CarlaRae Arneson, of Lynnwood, grabs a tea press full of fresh tea from Peanut the server robot while dining with her 12-year-old son Levi at Sushi Hana on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Lynnwood, Washington. CarlaRae said she and her son used to visit the previous restaurant at Sushi Hana’s location and were excited to try the new business’s food. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Peanut the robot waitress is on a roll at Lynnwood’s Sushi Hana

She’s less RoboCop and more Rosey as she patrols the restaurant, making sure everyone has a drink and good time.

Juniper DeCasso, 17, prepares groceries for pickup at the Edmonds Food Bank in Edmonds, Washington on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Scriber Lake High School student Juniper works at the Edmonds Food bank as part of an on-the-job training class that teaches students about career options and goal planning, while also paying them for a part-time internship. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
School program gives Scriber Lake teens class credits — and paychecks

The on-the-job training program offers paid internships and career planning assignments with a real-world feel.

Lynnwood County Council candidate Joshua Binda is the subject of two complaints with the Public Disclosure Commission. (Josh Binda campaign photo)
Binda fined $1,000 for misuse of campaign contributions

The Lynnwood Council member’s personal use of donor funds was a “serious violation” of campaign law, the state PDC concluded.

A big head Buddha turns to the crowd during a celebration of the Lunar New Year on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in downtown Edmonds, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lunar New Year celebrates the Year of the Rabbit

A celebration in Edmonds ushered in the Lunar New Year.

A white lane line juts out of place along I-5 northbound through Everett on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Wonky I-5 lane striping in Everett to get temporary refresh

During weekend work, contractor crews are slated to try to repaint northbound temporary lane striping past 41st Street.

Most Read