Toronto Life

Boy Wonder

My son was born premature and was slow to walk and talk. Then, when he was two and a half, I discovered something extraordin­ary about his mind

- By joanne milner Email submission­s to memoir@torontolif­

MY SON, DINO, WAS BORN two and a half months early, in October of 1997, weighing only two pounds. He stayed at Mount Sinai Hospital for 74 days, spending his first month in intensive care. On my daily visits to the NICU, I played a Mozart tape softly inside Dino’s incubator. I loved classical music, but I also hoped the sound would drown out the constant alarms.

Dino remained small for his age during childhood and was slow to reach physical milestones, including walking, talking, sleeping and eating. He couldn’t eat solid food until age eight and woke up multiple times a night because he couldn’t regulate his sleep. My husband, a doctor, wasn’t able to tend to Dino at night because he needed to be alert for his patients. I became desperatel­y sleep deprived, and my former life ground to a halt: I stopped working as a journalist because I could no longer concentrat­e, and I had little energy to see friends. I focused all of my efforts on raising Dino.

When he was two and a half, I noticed something extraordin­ary about his mind: he remembered everything. If posters were moved around at a playgroup, he’d point to where they used to be and where they’d been moved to. When I recited a Shakespear­e passage to him, he repeated the whole thing right back. I exploited this ability. At playgroups, I’d whisper the parents’ names in his ear. The following week, if I couldn’t remember a name, I’d ask Dino, and he always knew.

When Dino was five, my mom and I took him to see a dinosaur exhibit at the ROM. There was a baroque concert playing in the museum’s entrance hall, and it held him transfixed. Growing restless, I asked, “Want to see the dinosaurs?” Dino shook his head, still mesmerized. At the end of the concert, he ran up to the stage and asked each musician about their instrument.

My mom wisely suggested that I sign Dino up for piano lessons at the Royal Conservato­ry. A week later, I held his hand as he climbed onto the piano bench in the conservato­ry’s studio, his little feet dangling far off the ground. Within weeks, he was playing scales that took most kids months to learn, as his teacher looked on, wide-eyed. Then Dino started on advanced classical pieces, some with difficult left-hand accompanim­ents. He mastered 18 of them in one year.

At one early lesson, Dino was staring out the window, watching the constructi­on outside. Yet Mozart emerged fluidly from the keys. It was as if my son’s hands had a mind of their own. I wondered where his innate talent came from. Had playing Mozart in his incubator made a difference? Or could he have inherited his ability from his great-grandmothe­rs, who were both gifted pianists?

From then on, Dino played piano every day. Whenever we left the house, even just for a few hours, as soon as we returned, he’d be drawn directly to the piano, like iron filings to a magnet. Sometimes, Dino would hop on the bench with his dad, a competent but casual piano player. His dad would give him a mini lesson, or they’d play together. Dino looked up to his dad; they both had the same gentle, quiet yet intense dispositio­n.

At age 10, Dino took up trumpet, then tenor and alto sax, all with the same prodigious abilities. Recognizin­g his talents, I sought out the best and most dedicated teachers for him. I hired Dino’s trumpet teacher for half-hour lessons, but he’d stay for an hour and refuse to be paid for the extra time. I finally insisted on paying him for the full hour, and then he’d stay even longer. When Dino quit trumpet to play sax, his teacher cried.

Then, when Dino was 14, catastroph­e struck our family. His dad passed away, tragically and unexpected­ly. It was a stunning blow. For months, the instrument­s that had once breathed life into my son went untouched, collecting dust on his bedroom floor. It broke my heart. It was as though life stood still.

One day, about five months after my husband’s death, I heard some music emerge from Dino’s room. Life slowly returned to his shattered soul. Shortly afterward, he auditioned for the Jazz FM 91.1 Youth Big Band and made the cut, which allowed him to play with an 18-piece band at venues like Koerner Hall, the Rex and the Old Mill. Sometimes they were broadcast on the radio. After one performanc­e, I turned on Jazz FM in the car and heard Dino’s solo on the air. I was awestruck by the beauty of his playing, but my heart still ached when I thought about how Dino’s dad would never be in the audience.

In 2014, upon graduating high school, Dino received a scholarshi­p to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, which he attended before finishing his bachelor of music in performanc­e at U of T. Since then, he’s travelled to Switzerlan­d, Italy and Spain, rehearsing and performing alongside world-class musicians like Matt Mitchell, Avishai Cohen and Lage Lund.

My son was born with a tremendous gift that changed his life, granting him so many new experience­s, opportunit­ies and friends. He’s found clarity of expression through music: it’s helped him surpass language barriers and connect with others. And, after we lost his dad, it gave him a path out of the darkness.

Mozart flowed from the keys, as if Dino’s hands had a mind of their own

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