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Comments on the Musical Potential of People with WIlliams Syndrome

Insights from Howard Lenhoff, and Experts Comments on the musical potentials of people with Williams syndrome

On this page are some observations that professional musicians and teachers have made about our children. Although many of these comments are about Gloria, I find that most also apply to a significant number of Williams musicians.  Depending on the age, ability and desires of your children, do not rush it. First and foremost is their health, safety, and social happiness. But you can always expose (and calm) them by having them listen to good music of any genre. Music therapy can help them in learning some tasks. Some will show an exceptional talent and desire to learn more. You will know only if you give them the same good teaching in music that you would give your non-Williams children

I urge you to read especially the comments of Nancy Goldberg, who directed the first Williams Syndrome Music Camp for 10 consecutive years, as she compares her WS campers with her regular campers and to musicians with advanced degrees in music. Read her exciting list of some of the talented WS musicians present in our community. 

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In my experience, the musical abilities of people with Williams Syndrome are outstanding in the sense that such abilities are remarkably better than general cognitive abilities in this population. The prevalence of absolute pitch among people with Williams Syndrome may also be higher than it is among typically developing individuals.

Glenn Schellenberg, Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto
(Noted authority in music cognition, who, with Dr. Audrey Don, initiated in the mid-1990s, the first serious research on music and WS.)

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An article that Conductor David Amos wrote in 1999 which told of Gloria's first performance with his orchestra and the San Diego Master Chorale:

"When I first heard Gloria Lenhoff singing, I was impressed not only with the accuracy of her performance, but also by her musicality and enthusiasm. This was reinforced when I led the orchestra in a rehearsal with her. Not only was she fully prepared, and she was flexible in adjusting to the accompaniment of a full symphony and my baton, but she was assertive to the point of stopping me and suggesting different tempos, and alternative endings to the various songs. She was an inspiration to me and to TICO [Community Orchestra of San Diego].”

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David Amos review of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (440 words 2 +1)
What was so unusual about this concert, in which Gloria sang Samuel Barber’s historic portrayal of Americana, Knoxville, Summer of 1915, a 16 minute work for soprano and orchestra. is something which I did not fully grasp until it was over.
Little did I suspect not only that Gloria and her family would choose to perform that work, but also that the end results were to be nothing less than outstanding.
This is a grueling difficult work, with unusual rhythms, awkward melodic intervals, and a text by James Agee that would push the memory of any soprano at any professional level. Yet Gloria, with coaching and the practice she did, was able to manage through all these hurdles practically flawlessly.
This is not to imply that Gloria’s performance was wooden and mechanical. To the contrary; her stage presence and conveyance of the text had emotion and communication.
No one in the scientific or medical fields who has an inkling as to the complexity of this work by Barber could have anticipated or believed that this could have been accomplished!
This was not just another good performance of a difficult work by a fine singer. In a soft, locally publicized way, this was an historic accomplishment as to what the mind and spirit with a touch of perseverance and work can do. This should serve to all of us as a classic example of the power of the mind, and even more significant, our perception that the so-called “mentally handicapped” people may have hidden abilities as yet untapped by the rest of us.
May this small, but large discovery serve as a kind of springboard to all of us to improve and enhance the lives of all of God’s people, regardless of the values and stigmas that society tends to earmark the minorities within our ranks.

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Bio of International Conductor David Amos

David Amos is one of the leading conductors to champion the music of America’s major traditionalist composers of the twentieth century. During the past 25 years he has recorded more than 130 compositions, including many premieres, on some thirty compact discs. He has conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Polish Radio, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras.

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Music Review of performance of Musical Savant, Gloria Lenhoff

By Diane Wang, Department of Music, University of Mississippi, Oxford

On February, 2002, citizens of Oxford were treated to a delightful evening of music offered by Gloria Lenhoff, lyric soprano and accordionist. Miss Lenhoff, for her inaugural concert at the universisty’s Meek Hall, Miss Lenhoff sang a broad arrangement of operatic, art and folk songs including pieces by Handel, Mozart, Puccini, Samuel Barber, and songs in the native languages of India, Japan and Jordan.

Again at Meek Hall in 2003, Gloria introduced Oxonians to a concert of music and songs with her accordion, literally from Bach to the Blues and Elvis. One of the highlights was her rendition singing Verdi’s aria Adio del passato while accompanying herself on the accordion. Later in 2003, in another concert at St. Peters Episcopal Church, she introduced locals to the liturgy and songs of the Jewish peoples through the centuries.

In her university recital in 2005, Miss Lenhoff had another surprise, and was featured in five ensemble performances: Sound the Trumpet by Henry Purcell with soprano Lisa Maxedon, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) by Franz Schubert with clarinetist Jill Ward, I Remember it Well from "Gigi" by Alan Lerner and Frederick Lowe with baritone Rick Rogers, Bess, You is My Woman Now by George and Ira Gershwin, with bass Herbert V. Jones (director of the Oxford Community Choir).To end the evening's program Gloria sang and played the accordion in Saint Louis Blues by W.C. Handy. Blues harp player Adam Gussow joined Gloria in this final piece.

Miss Lenhoff sang with enthusiasm and great expression, demonstrating her advanced vocal abilities and musical understanding. With each work, Miss Lenhoff showed various facets of her talent: the Purcell had appropriate Baroque clarity and fluidity, the Schubert displayed Romantic depth and impeccable ensemble, the two theater songs had wonderful character and theatrical flair. Judging by the response of the audience, everyone agreed that the recital was fun and an uplifting experience. Miss Lenhoff's joy and enthusiasm carried over to the audience and people felt her love of music. This was especially evident in their rendition of Saint Louis Blues, where the audience began to clap and sway in rhythm with the music, cheering Miss Lenhoff and giving her a standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance. Bravo, Gloria!

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Article by Michael Ching, Artistic Director of Opera Memphis), appearing in Opera America Newsline (January, 2006)

Mutual Mainstreaming

We Artistic Directors are a skeptical lot. Everybody has a relative who sings opera and wants an audition. Nine times out of ten, those auditions don't work. But when Dr. Howard Lenhoff called me about his daughter Gloria who has Williams syndrome, due diligence paid off.
After her audition and some visits with Gloria and her family, I offered her the opportunity to sing in Opera Memphis’ first production--SAMSON & DALILA. I reasoned that since that it is in part a show about clashing communities, it could be conceivable that the ancient Hebrews and Philistines could have had such a person in their midst.
In order to learn her music, Gloria required a detailed rehearsal CD, with careful attention to her musical line and the French diction. A side benefit of this process was the rehearsal CDs eventually were done for every voice part and helped to improve the regular chorus. Since then, Opera Memphis has prepared rehearsal CD’s for all of it’s production and has rented those CDs to other opera houses. She has since been in three other productions of Opera Memphis, and in every case she learned the music before the other members, and did not need to attend the rehearsals until we rehearsed for the stagings.
At rehearsals and in the recent performances, Gloria blended into the ensemble in such a remarkable way that her condition became invisible. She has beamed with such joy and pride about her participation and she is not averse to declaring these feelings aloud to everyone in rehearsal. It is impossible not to like her. And as conductor of the production I can say she never missed an entrance.
Those with mental handicaps strive to seek mainstream opportunities; opera strives to prove that it is a mainstream entertainment form. But the mainstream is increasingly proving to be nothing if not a collection of smaller constituencies. Including Gloria opened up our company to a new audience and provided a beautiful window into another of the many rooms that is the human condition.

Michael Ching, Artistic Director, Opera Memphis

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Nancy Goldberg, Director Emeritus of Belvoir Music Academy, Lenox, MA.; B. A.. Bryn Mawr; M. Ed. Harvard University. An evaluation comparing innate abilities of campers possessing Williams Syndrome with talented , motivated, high-achieving young women campers.

For the past forty years I have been the director of Belvoir Terrace, a girls’ all arts summer program in Lenox, Massachusetts. In that role I work with 200 talented, motivated mostly private school high achieving young women ages 9-17. Many of these young women major in music at the summer camp where we employ a staff of more than twenty five who possess Masters of Music degrees from the major conservatories. Responding to a challenge of parents, I also ran a summer music week for campers with Williams Syndrome. It was so successful, that I continued to offer that camp for ten seasons.
I am still amazed at the differences in music interest and potential in these contrasting two groups of campers. The Williams campers, are more focused and excited about music, and have a much longer attentions span than my traditional campers. Furthermore, the Williams campers played almost any tune they heard by ear, and were able to transpose music to different keys while none of my traditional campers could do so. Most of the Williams campers harmonized easily while few of the Belvoir girls could. All the Williams campers retained and recalled words and melodies far better than the usual Belvoir campers. Most of the Williams people had a remarkable sense of rhythm; many were outstanding drummers with remarkable limb independence. Compared to the general population, the Williams campers had a higher incidence and high level of absolute (“perfect”) pitch.

It is amazing that in a small group of 40 or so Williams campers, my professional staff and I can name many highly talented, musicians, although most do not read musical notation nor are able to manipulate their fingers easily: Some have marvelous voices: Meghan Finn, Gloria Lenhoff, Rachel Lipke, Lisa Walsh, and Sara Catalanotto. Others excel on the piano and keyboards: Alex Sweazy, Colin Darge, Tori Ackley, and Mary Hendryx. A few also compose lyrics and songs: Cathy Krieger, Brian Johnson, and Tori Ackley. The list accomplished drummers and percussionists goes on and on including: Brenden Lemiuex, Brett Fleming, Ben Monkaba, Jason Dennis, Aaron Antolowicz , Lev Gurka and Jeremy Vest. Performers on the wind instruments are John Libera (clarinet and saxophone), Chris Lawson (Saxophone and bagpipes). Although string instruments require demanding finger coordination, previously thought t be a problem for people with Williams syndrome, there are a number of capable guitar players: Brian Johnson, Robby Belknap, Kyle Archard, Brooks Young . We were thrilled that two were adept playing the violin (Julia Tuttle and Olivia Smulyan). Two are also excellent accordion players. (Gloria Lenhoff and Alec Sweazy), and most of those mentioned here excel in at least two or more musical instruments.

In my Belvoir camper group, I never have had more than two or three girls out of 200 that I can really say are talented in music. My experience at Belvoir over ten years proves that the Williams population has a special musical gift that deserves to be nurtured in other children with Williams syndrome, and investigated by serious scholars of music and the brain. As Oliver Salks once said, “They are a highly musical species.”

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A Day with the Lenhoffs by Jan Carter Hollingsworth, Managing Editor of Exceptional Parents Magazine

On a beautiful autumn day in early October, I drove towards Oxford, a town overflowing with Southern charm and hospitality. Home to the University of Mississippi campus where Dr. Lenhoff and Gloria appeared before an attentive audience of college students. Dr. Lenhoff spoke of Williams syndrome, Gloria’s innate musical talent, and the power of a nurturing family in helping a person with intellectual disabilities achieve their highest potential. As interesting as Dr. Lenhoff’s presentation was, the real impression was to be made on these young minds, not by his words, but by Gloria and her voice. She spoke briefly, answering questions posed by her Dad for the benefit of her audience. Her spoken voice is beautiful, devoid of a regionally-dictated accent, somewhat tentative and reserved. Then he relinquished the floor and turned it over to her completely.

And Gloria sang.

With perfect pitch, her exquisite lyrical soprano projected and filled the jumbo-size university classroom, and her audience was rapt. She demonstrated her range and her wit, moving seamlessly from an Italian aria sung a cappella to a rousing performance of Blue Suede Shoes, self-accompanied on her accordion and complete with an introduction of the song spoken in the most perfect of Southern accents, dripping with drawl.

I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with the Lenhoffs. enjoying some local color at an eatery located, well, downtown, on Oxford’s authentic Southern “square. I found myself, as is so often the case when I’m in the company of exceptional parents and children, impressed and inspired by their ability to meet life’s challenges with gusto and spirit, their ability to love and accept one another. Getting to know and talk with Gloria was a delight. She is a committed professional whose love of music and willingness to hone her skill is evident. She’s enjoying the independence she’s experiencing as she lives away from her parents at her full time residence in Frankfort, KY at Stewart Home School.

Exceptional Parent article (see pdf) See YouTube.

“Your daughter is mentally retarded,” said the panel of psychologists and physicians after having our seven year old Gloria take a battery of tests, “Take her home and love her.” Love her we did, but none of them had advised us to look for any unusual strengths she might have and to focus on helping her to develop those strengths.
Today professional attitudes are changing. In November, 2006, a symposium of experts in the field of mental retardation was held by the Kennedy Center of Vanderbilt University. Their major conclusion: Professionals should focus on what the intellectually disabled can do rather than on what they can not do.
My wife and I were fortunate to learn that approach when our daughter was eleven years old. Finally we had found a professional voice teacher who, from the first lesson, taught our untrained daughter to sing Handel and Mozart without first demanding that she learn to read music. Now with Gloria being taught by university level voice teachers for the past thirty years, we enjoy observing a 53-year-old Gloria performing as a professional musician.
We also get much pleasure in knowing that Gloria is a music savant, that is, a person with a serious mental handicap who exhibits spectacular abilities in music. In that capacity, she serves as a peer model for other intellectually disabled children, and has stimulated hundreds of exceptional parents to provide an advanced music education for their children. Some of those younger savants are outstanding performers. The main difference between them and Gloria is that Gloria has had a thirty year head start of taking professional lessons and practicing daily.
Gloria was diagnosed with Williams syndrome. Individuals having this rare genetic condition, which occurs in 1/7,500 births, exhibit an array of physical and behavioral impairments. Although their mean IQ is 55, they have unusual abilities in language and music.
But you do not need to have Williams syndrome to be a savant. Before I tell you why and how our experiences may affect you and your child, please allow this proud father to brag a little. Today we can tell you that Gloria is an accomplished lyric soprano and accordionist whose repertoire numbers over 3,000 pieces. Gloria sings in 30 foreign languages, providing music for all tastes: popular, religious, folk, classical and opera.
Gloria has an outstanding stage presence, transformed once she is in front of a microphone and audience. She has the rare gift of perfect pitch; if you name a musical note, she will sing that note correctly. She still does not read music.
She first came upon the national scene in the Public Television award-winning documentary, Bravo Gloria, directed by Arlene Alda in 1984. Since then she has been featured on 60 Minutes, Nightline, Discovery Health (2006), The Learning Channel (2006), countless newscasts, and four foreign TV specials: in Chile, Holland, and two Japanese channels (2003-04).
In 1994 her achievements helped stimulate the first music camp for an intellectually disabled population at Camp Belvoir Terrace near the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, MA. Seven years later, as an offshoot of the camp, the Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA) opened its doors. The BHMA is the first of its kind nine-month residential music academy that serves young people having a variety of syndromes who show musical abilities and interests. The BHMA has completed six academic years and now sponsors its own summer music camps. The Williams Syndrome Association also sponsors a summer music camp in Michigan.
Through appearances across the country and abroad, Gloria has influenced attitudes about the potential of the intellectually disabled. She has sung duets with members of the Los Angeles Opera and the Boston Lyric Opera. Her performance venues have included the Wheeler Opera House of Aspen, CO and the Bardavon Opera House of NY, and the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. For three seasons, she was guest soloist with a San Diego Community Orchestra (TICO) and the San Diego Master Chorale. Later she was featured with the Baddour Center Miracles choir at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Gloria has soloed in England, Spain, and Israel, and is scheduled for a concert in France in 2010. With Opera Memphis, she sang in the Soprano I chorus in Samson and Dalila (2005), and Il Trovatore. 2007. In April, 2009, she will be in Gounod’s Faust. She is not stuffy and likes most types of good music. At the Ritz Carlton in Boston she sang and played her accordion with Aerosmith musicians. Recently she wowed the audience as she sang and played the blues with her accordion and the house band at the celebrated “9:30 Blues Club” in Jackson, Mississippi.
If you had asked us forty years ago if we thought Gloria would ever reach those heights that I now describe, my wife and I would have thought you were dreaming. For more about Gloria, read The Strangest Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice, by Teri Sforza, Prometheus Books (2006).

Gloria was our first child, so we thought that her early interest in and love of music was normal, and apparently it is. Scientists admit that they do not understand yet how infants acquire their abilities and love of music. What they do know, however, is that much of the brain development in the first 6 years of a child’s life is devoted to the learning and retaining of music and language. It appears that children have an open window which allows them effortlessly to suck in music and language. That window appears programmed to close at age 6, and the brain then shifts to developing new mental tasks, new windows, such as for logical and mathematical thinking.
My scientific colleagues have gone one step further and use the window analogy to explain why Williams adults possess those remarkable music abilities that normal children lose around age 6. Although what I describe in the next few paragraphs deals with Williams syndrome, it also may apply to children who have other syndromes making them intellectually disabled, but in varying degrees musically talented.
The body and brain of children having Williams syndrome develop atypically because all of the cells in their body lack 20 specific genes. It is the absence of those genes that determines their unique physiology and behavior. The processes that normally would close the window in the brain for learning and retaining music are among those which become damaged. We could say that in individuals with Williams syndrome, the mechanism for closing the window for music gets jammed and it stays open even in adulthood. It is this jammed window, we think, which accounts for them continuing to have those remarkable and large musical capacities normally possessed only by young children.
The window analogy could explain why Gloria still acquires, retains, and recalls music quickly. Her mind does not become cluttered with all of the cognitive activity that occurs with most adults attempting simultaneously to read and perform music. This trait, which I once thought was unique to people with Williams syndrome, is also exhibited to varying degrees by individuals whose brain mechanisms are altered by other genetic conditions.
For example, I am aware of musically talented individuals having Down syndrome, the chromosome 22 q 11.2 microdeletion, and some rarer syndromes as well. More recently there have been reports of music savants who are blind, intellectually disabled individuals with prodigious memories. Some have retinopathy of prematurity or optic nerve hypoplasia.
Others showing musical abilities are have been brain damaged while infants from severe accidents or as a result of a congenital infection. Possibly these environmental shocks to their systems and the effects of an array of genetic errors, may also jam the window for taking in music information. If you know of others, please write about them to

Howard Lenhoff provides tips to help your children explore their musical potential.

How old should they be to start? It doesn’t matter if they’re 6, 16, or 36. Younger may be better, but all those ages are fine because the window of opportunity to learn music remains open into adulthood.
How do we know when to start? Make it easy for your child to hear a wide variety of music - classical, religious, and pop. As your children develop their motor skills, help them play such simple instruments as xylophones. As they get older, you may want to give them their own CD and DVD player and eventually an i-Pod.
What next? Once your child shows some talent, encourage her or him to sing and perform for and with the family and friends. If you or your other children play instruments, start to play music together, giving each child a chance to star. We recall these moments as some of the happiest of our lives. We especially enjoyed Gloria and her brother as toddlers entertaining us after supper by dancing and singing on their special “stage” – our dining room table.
Do we need to purchase any musical instruments? Nothing major at first, but you might get a variety of simple rhythm instruments. For example, when teen-ager Gloria performed at home for family and friends, we helped motivate her and also get everyone involved by having them play along with simple rhythm instruments, such as a toy or professional tambourine, toy castanets, maracas, a variety of rattles, or clusters of bells. Others can beat the rhythm with two sticks, a toy drum, or by striking pots and pans with wooden spoons! Gloria enjoys performing for friends and family who join in by simply clapping their hands.
As they get older, how do we select an instrument for them? Find one that your child enjoys and that fits his or her physical, motor, and cognitive limitations. Voice training is a good way to start. As Gloria likes to quote, “Voice is the only instrument made by God.” Next in popularity are keyboards (piano, electronic, and/or accordion), drums, and some wind instruments such as clarinet and saxophone. Many musicians I know who possess Williams syndrome, have uncanny abilities in singing and playing those instruments. Until a few years ago, I thought that string instruments would be difficult for musicians with Williams syndrome because of their motor problems, but a fair number of them have proved me wrong showing skills with the guitar and violin.
How do we find a music teacher for our intellectually disabled child? I suggest that your child take private lessons rather than group classes. Avoid rigid teachers who insist on requiring the student to read music. You might look for a bright and warm high school or college student; try advertising in a local school newspaper. A good teacher, once informed of your child’s abilities and disabilities, should be of great help. If not, try another until you find the right one for your child. Gloria is fortunate that she has two first rate professional musicians who come teach her at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, KY where she now lives.
Will technology help? It does for Gloria. She records all of her lessons and exercises, and listens to them as guides while practicing. Studying recordings is especially helpful in learning to sing in foreign languages. As your child becomes more proficient, you may find yourself purchasing Karaoke machines, microphones and stands, and loud speakers. But one thing at a time. You will know when.
What is our role? Parents need to be supportive, provide encouragement and praise, and serve as fervent advocates. Show me an intellectually disabled child with well developed musical abilities, and you will always find Exceptional Parents. And isn’t that what this magazine is about?

To read more about Gloria Lenhoff and her journey with Williams syndrome and music, The Strangest Song, by Teri Sforza