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Gift from a Stranger Unwraps Musical Genius of Blind, Partially Deaf Pianist
Brian Horberg, 30, of Danbury, CT barely remembers chatting with a man at Stop and Shop when was about nine or 10 years old. But the chance meeting led to a gift that would ultimately change the course of his life. Horberg was born blind and is deaf in his right ear. His family received a call from Services for the Blind that the man, Glenn Smith, had a present for Horberg, a 66-key keyboard with preprogrammed songs. This generous act of kindness unlocked Horberg’s natural musical talent that led to his success as a musical entertainer.
Mary Casagrande is a Life Skill Instructor with Ability Beyond who’s been working with Horberg for six years and has been instrumental in helping him grow his business: Brian Horberg Music. Ability Beyond, abilitybeyond.org, is one of the nation’s most respected service providers for people with disabilities in Connecticut and New York.
It’s a 501c3 organization headquartered in Chappaqua, NY and Bethel, CT. It provides a wide range of services for more than 3,000 people with a disability that inhibits their activities of daily living - including numerous residential alternatives, employment training, career counseling, job-placement services, cognitive and life skills instruction, clinical, and therapeutic support, and volunteer and recreational activities. Today its services extend throughout Connecticut and New York’s lower Hudson Valley.
Thanks to Casagrande’s coaching, Horberg performs four to five days a week at 13 local senior centers, nursing homes, schools and Danbury Hospital. He’s even played at weddings.
According to Casagrande, Horberg’s dream has been to play at Carnegie Hall, but he’s content with his current success.
“I’m in awe of his gift, and his playing truly touches people,” says Casagrande. “Brian started taking piano lessons at age seven, but it was the keyboard with the preset songs that really brought out his gift; playing by ear.”
Casagrande explains that Horberg doesn’t even practice; it just comes naturally. He hears a song two or three times then he can play it. Today he knows roughly 300 songs by ear, across all genres. His favorite is Amazing Grace. He also has perfect pitch.
With a nursing home background, Casagrande got Horberg started by offering the activity directors free performances. He quickly became a fan favorite, and today they work together to arrange his paid and volunteer performances at nursing homes and senior centers. Casagrande accompanies him to ensure his concerts go smoothly.
“Because his ability comes to him so easily, he can get bored quickly when performing,” said Casagrande. “I’ll suggest songs and ask the audience for requests to keep him engaged.”
Casagrande also reminds him when it’s time to play the closing song, The Entertainer or We Wish You a Merry Christmas during the holiday season.
Horberg’s family calls Smith “an angel.” When decades ago Smith personally delivered the keyboard - which he still has in addition to several larger keyboards now - they learned that he had a 12-year-old son at the time and was an author living California. Horberg has a signed copy of Smith’s book Discovering Ellis Ruley, the autobiography about the son of freed slaves who was born in Norwich, CT and became an artist.
“It’s incredible that a normal conversation between strangers in a grocery line led to Brian’s discovery of his innate musical genius,” concludes Casagrande. “Brian and I have developed a great relationship over the years, and we’re always remarking about how far we have come.”
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