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Piano unlocks exceptional musical talent of blind, developmentally-delayed Warm Springs tribal member

by: Photo By Liz Owen - Jeremy Doney plays at Art in the Park in Dallas, Ore., last summer.


Jeremy Doney, 20, of Warm Springs has been blind and developmentally-delayed since birth, yet possesses an amazing musical talent which led to his performance with other concert pianists at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland.
   Jeremy was 9 when he began attending the Oregon School for the Blind in Salem and discovered a piano in one of the rooms.
   "He was fascinated right away by it," said Liz Owens, one of his teachers. "When he put all his fingers on the keyboard instead of just two index fingers, and played little snippets of musical phrases, we all sat up and took notice," Owens recalled.
   Describing his condition, she said, "His daily living abilities are at one level, and his musical ability is way off the charts at the other end."
   The son of Orlando Doney and Lenora Starr, and grandson of Ramona Starr and Cynthia Moody, Jeremy lives at the School for the Blind from Sunday evening through Friday, then lives with his dad in Simnasho on the weekends.
   When he was a preschooler, a therapist had used a Casio keyboard to interact with Jeremy, and his parents said it was difficult at times to get him to leave his bedroom where the keyboard was.
   Wanting to help Jeremy develop his talent, Owens said she approached the blind school's director who had some money set aside for special instructors, and got permission to hire a piano teacher.
   Stephanie Thompson, a piano performance student at Willamette University, worked with him for two years and helped him play his first full song.
   "Stephanie had begun playing at age 3, so she was perfect for him -- she understood `the gift,' and helped him really discover the piano," Owens observed.
   He started playing for school programs at age 11, and his first public performance was in 2001 for the Disability Employment Awards Ceremony at the State Capitol in Salem.
   When Thompson graduated, there was no more funding and Owens struggled to find a replacement that fit Jeremy's needs. He progressed on his own, working on pieces he had heard on the radio, TV and on CDs. "He was starting a collection in his brain," Owens said.
   "He enjoys listening to music, and can hear a piece one or two times and then play it," Owens noted.
   In the spring of 2002, Owen connected with the Snowman Foundation, formed by pianist/composer Michael Allen Harrison, which wanted to support Jeremy by paying for professional piano lessons.
   He studied with three different teachers over the years, then found a perfect match with Jill Hickenlooper a piano instructor and judge from Jefferson, Ore., who is also the daughter of Walt Ponsford of Madras.
   "Jill was great. She accepted him and was able to look beyond his disabilities and not get hung up or be intimidated," Owens said.
   For the past three years, Hickenlooper has taught Jeremy techniques by having him put his fingers over hers on the keyboard. She also stepped his lessons up to a higher level.
   "She works with the most gifted students, and has 20 doing performance work," Owens said, adding, "She worked to get him to play a piece of classical music correctly, and also taught him jazz and improvisation."
   His public performances increased, including entertaining at the annual Tribal Information Day at the Capitol, playing at the Collage of Culture in Madras, and for Christmas shoppers at the Lancaster Mall in Salem.
   Another boost came while Jeremy was in Portland getting new prosthetic eyes and staying with his family at the Ronald McDonald House. He found a piano there, and after the McDonald house manager heard him playing, the organization wanted to help.
   "They found funding to purchase Jeremy an 88-key, full-sized keyboard for him to use at home," Owens said.
   In 2006, Jeremy was able to meet and play at the studio of pianist Michael Harrison, and several months later, Harrison invited the young man to make a guest appearance at the 2007 Ten Grands concert, the Snowman Foundation's main fundraiser held at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland.
   Many in the audience were reported to be moved to tears by Jeremy's enthusiastic performance with the 10 other concert pianists at the glamorous event.
   Since then, with Owens acting as his teacher, booking agent, road manager and driver, Jeremy has performed almost steadily, using speakers and a Yamaha keyboard provided by funds from the Oregon Commission for the Blind.
   "Just the first two weeks in December, he played for a women's church group, twice at Lancaster Mall, at the University of Portland, for two church services, twice at Eola Hills Winery, for two senior citizen centers, and for a wedding," Owens said. "His parents are very generous with sharing him and he has a bedroom at my house," she said, noting some weekends he stays with her family due to performances.
   Looking ahead to Jeremy's graduation from the School of the Blind this summer when he turns 21, a transition team of 12 people from various agencies is working on a plan to help him find employment and return home.
   Last summer, he was able to go to a four-week work experience program put on by the Oregon Commission for the Blind in Salem, during which he attended concerts by other performers.
   His father, Orlando Doney said Jeremy will probably work at the Opportunity Foundation in Madras after he graduates, and he will also look for places for his son to perform.
   "We're looking at moving to Madras or Bend so he will be able to have employment and better access to playing at different venues," Doney said.
   He noted his son's repertoire includes rhythm and blues, rock, classical, adult contemporary, gospel and a lot of his own material.
   "He could probably play three hours from memory without repeating a song," Doney said.
   In the meantime, Jeremy has been invited back to play at the 2009 Ten Grand Concert in April, and is working with Harrison to produce his own musical CD.
   "Michael has a studio in Portland -- MAH Records -- and did one session in November where he laid down about 30 tracks. He will go back to do more in February, and Michael hopes to have the CD ready for the Ten Grand Concert," Owen said, noting Jeremy was excited about it.
   Contacted by phone last week at the School for the Blind, the soft-spoken Jeremy talked briefly about his love of music.
   "I like playing the piano," he said, noting his favorite song was "Lost in Your Eyes."
   When asked about his favorite place to play, he answered, "The winery brunch at Eola Hills is a fun place to play. I play for 3 1/2 hours and get money in the tip jar."
   What does he do with his tips? "I go buy some CDs. My favorite CD is `Seasons of Peace' by Michael Allen Harrison," he said.
   When asked if he would like to perform in Warm Springs or Madras, Jeremy replied, "Yes, a concert recital at the Collage of Culture, and can I play at the Bend Summer Festival?"
   Owens hopes her musical proteg‚ will be able to continue sharing his music in Central Oregon after he leaves school, and Hickenlooper agrees.
   "The community needs to hear about him. He's kind of a treasure," she said.
   
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