Despite autism, Lynn teen excels in musicBy VICTOR DERUBEIS , Associated Press
Jun. 2, 2013 2:31 AM ET
LYNN, Mass. (AP) — She certainly doesn't look different from any other typical seventh grader, dressed casually in black slacks, a white print top and coordinating sweater.
She is polite, if a bit reserved and quiet upon first meeting, but then she lets her violin do the talking.
Natalia Beos is playing the difficult opening strains of Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor with a jaw-dropping precision and expression that belie her 13 ½ years. It's the piece that got her selected from among 900 instrumentalists and vocalists for Junior Northeast District Orchestra in January. Two other young musicians from Lynn made the cut before the judges of the Mass. Music Educators Association: clarinetist Brandon Von and singer Ismael Aquino, both students at Breed Middle School.
Natalia attends Pickering Middle School, played the Bach piece as a soloist in a recent Lynn Public Schools spring concert.
But here's the kicker: She's only been playing for four years.
And here's the double kicker: She'll also be playing in the Middle School Jazz Band — one of two local string players who are the first to do so.
And here's piece de resistance: Natalia was diagnosed with a form of autism at age 2. While she and her family have had to deal with the struggles of the complex neurological disorder nearly all her life, she certainly hasn't let it define her. Indeed, she acknowledges it may even be helping her.
Her mother, Sunday Beos, is quick to praise the Lynn Public Schools for its Early Intervention Program and recognizing the autism when Natalia was a toddler. Indeed, a byproduct of the diagnosis is that Natalia has been able to focus on the unique demands of the violin. That doesn't mean it's been easy. Her mom says that the family, which includes father Anthony and older sister Nepheli, has had to work through the difficulties associated with autism, such as the emotional miscues, tantrums and extreme sensitivity to touch.
Natalia says she first remembers hearing a violin at age 3 and was immediately drawn to the instrument.
"I liked the sound quality, how it looked — everything about it. It just made me want to do it," she says during an interview last week in a practice room at Breed Middle School.
For years after that she bugged her mom to take lessons and finally, at age 9 ½, she got her wish at the Sisson Elementary School with teacher Toku Kawata. Since then she's had several teachers, including current private instructor Alan Hawryluk, of Salem, and Lynn Public Schools teachers Thomas Pritchard and Mona Rashad. She says each has helped her work on her technique and get over the frustrations that any musician encounters when trying to master an instrument, plus the extra challenges posed by autism.
After a typical day at school, Natalia comes home, does her homework and then practices her violin. Some days it's an hour. Some days it's a half hour. Some days, it's 15 minutes, though neither she nor her teachers seem to be as concerned about the quantity of the practice as the quality, and it's less about the autism than the schedule of a busy teenager. Besides, her mom says she'll often pick up the instrument and work on a passage on the spur of the moment.
She practices scales, which she needed to memorize for her District orchestra audition, and then she will work on a piece she's trying to master — the Bach concerto, for example — and focus on playing the notes precisely, which can be a frustration.
"Some days are not a good practice and I have to take a break. Some days I just have to put it down," she says.
Precision and perfection are all well and good for the classical repertoire, but jazz requires balancing precision with, as Lynn Public Schools Music Director Joe Picano puts it, knowing how to get "into the groove."
That, Natalia admits, is the toughest part about playing with the jazz band, but she loves it nevertheless. Natalia started learning about jazz through a friend, Elena Ueland, and began listening to jazz on her own. The two of them kept asking Picano if maybe they could join the jazz band.
"Realizing that her interest was sincere, I asked her if she would be interested in becoming a member of the jazz band, thus becoming the first violin player in our jazz program," Picano writes in an email. "Without hesitation, her eyes lit up and her response was a definite 'Yes!'"
But string players? In an ensemble that typically only has brass, woodwinds, piano and percussion?
"I had to hand-write the string parts for her, as there is very little music written to include strings in jazz band arrangements," Picano says, noting that while it's rare, string players are starting to make inroads into jazz bands at the scholastic level.
Because it's easy for a couple of string players to be overwhelmed by the volume of a phalanx of saxophones, trumpets and trombones, Natalia's violin and Elena's cello are outfitted with amplification systems to level the sonic playing field.
So far, it's working well. Picano said Natalia, and Elena, too, fit into the ensemble immediately with a natural approach and feel for the music.
"She has added to the sophisticated sound of the group," Picano says.
Natalia's favorite jazz piece at the moment, "Ben's Blues" by Carl Strommen, was one of the three selections the jazz band planned to play at a recent concert. Natalia agrees that the addition of strings adds a richness to the jazz band sound.
As for her future, Natalia isn't sure yet whether she'd like to pursue music as a vocation. Science is now her favorite academic subject, but she does know one thing.
"I'm not going to quit violin," she says. "No matter what."