Blind and autistic, the boy musician who changed my life

Blind and autistic, the boy musician who changed my life


norman lebrecht

November 29, 2013

The Irish baritone Sam McElroy, fiancé of the pianist Gabriela Montero, has been involved for five years with an extraordinarily talented child, a boy called Rex Lewis-Clack. Rex is blind, autistic and a musical savant. Sam wants to put his life on a secure footing. Take a minute to read about a rare gift.
rex lewis-clark
The Genius Next Door.
By Sam McElroy
In 2008, I moved to a quiet corner of coastal Los Angeles, where my neighbor happened to be a young boy called Rex. Rex Lewis-Clack was born blind and autistic. Following post-natal neurosurgery to remove a cyst, the medical community gave him long odds of survival, and normal function was more or less ruled out.
Yet, at the age of two, Rex was given a keyboard for Christmas. What followed was nature’s reminder that for every action there is an equal and opposite one. Rex relaxed his tight fists and began to play the keyboard as though recognizing an old friend. It seemed that, while language might prove an obstacle for him, the syntax of musical harmony and melody were already encoded within him.
Now 18, and recently graduated from high school, Rex is a well-documented musical savant. He has been profiled three times by the CBS’s “60 Minutes” telejournal, and was the subject of a Discovery/Science Channel investigation into “Ingenious Minds”. His mother, Cathleen, a graduate of Stanford University and a former currency trader, became an educator for the blind, and in 2008 authored a moving account of her life with Rex. “Rex: A Mother, Her Autistic Child, and the Music that Transformed Their Lives” has been translated into several languages.

Cathleen soon discovered her new neighbor was an opera singer, and asked me to consider teaching Rex to sing. The account of the subsequent five years merits a book in itself, and maybe one day I will write it, but central to the story was another brush with serendipity.
In 2010, Cathleen invited me to the Hollywood Bowl. The venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero was in town to play with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic, and Cathleen felt Rex would benefit more than anyone from hearing Gabriela give one of her signature encores, an improvisation based on a theme suggested by the audience. Gabriela had also been profiled by “60 Minutes”, in a piece called “The Gift”, and her ability to create new musical content in real time was the sort of inspiration that could nourish Rex’s mind for years to come.
The day after the concert, I ran into Gabriela herself, quite by chance, in a Starbucks on Melrose Avenue. We got talking, and we have been talking, and laughing, and making music, and living together ever since. I left Los Angeles soon after we met, to be with her on the east coast, but just two months ago Gabriela and I moved back west together. Back to where it all began, and engaged to be married.
On December 15th, I will present the launch concert of our new “Rex And Friends Charitable Foundation”, in Hollywood. The foundation aims to provide music education grants to those with blindness or autism. Gabriela will be our special guest, sharing the stage with Rex in what promises to be a deeply touching evening of music-making and spontaneous creativity, and closing the circle on a perfect round of serendipities.
For many of the foundation’s intended beneficiaries, music is the only language which makes any sense, their eyes onto the world we all take for granted. I invite you to take a moment to find out more about Rex and our work at the foundation. With even the most modest kindness, the global crowd of musicians and artists can contribute the gift of music to Rex and his friends. And they will cherish it.
Thank you, on behalf of Rex and Friends.
– “Ingenious Minds”: Discovery/Science Channel
– Rex biography, by Cathleen Lewis:
– Attached photo: a joyous Rex in front of the new Rex and Friends billboard, Los Angeles, featuring Rex and Gabriela.


  • Ziggy says:

    How lucky he is that he’s in the States: I doubt that his rare gift – or any treatment – would be so diagnosed in the UK.

    • Lio Moscardini says:

      I really think we need to move on from talking about treatment and diagnosis. In any case you are wrong to assume this could not happen in the UK. Have a listen to Derek Paravicini and the support he has had from Prof. Adam Ockelford.

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    what an amazing story, so touching, inspirational and moving. i loved it. Thank you for bringing it to us Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Myra Tate says:

    This is in reference to Paul Olefsky who was sitting in the Principal Cellist seat of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music at age 24. I know that as a fact because I married him in June of 1950.