Lighthouse International helped nine-year-old prodigy, Matthew Whitaker, hone his passion for music.
Moses Whitaker always knew his son Matthew had a gift for music. When Matthew was three-years-old, he learned how to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on a small Casio keyboard his grandfather gave him for Christmas. Moses assumed a family member had taught him how to the play the song. "I asked everybody," said Moses. "And nobody taught him." Matthew, who was born blind, had taught himself after singing the song in school. "That’s when I recognized he had a gift," Moses said.
Matthew Whitaker, 9, was born three months premature with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Doctors gave him a less than 50 percent chance to live. He survived, but lost his sight in the process. The next couple of years, he underwent 11 vision related surgeries. "We were just [trying] to keep him alive," said Matthew’s mother, May.
Through it all, Matthew’s love for music persevered. "We would be in the car and he would come home and try to play what was on the radio," said May. "It was a release for him." The Whitaker’s, however, knew they needed some help in order to bring Matthew’s talents to the forefront. That’s when they found Lighthouse International.
Matthew enrolled in The Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School when he was five-years-old. Matthew began studying classical piano with Dalia Sakas, the Coordinator of the Comprehensive Music Program for Young People (CMPYP). "Matthew was a shining star right from the start," Dalia said. "He grasped musical concepts immediately."
As Matthew’s music skills progressed, he eventually took on new instruments. Now he plays drums, bass guitar, the Hammond B3 organ, harmonica, and various percussion instruments. Matthew also writes his own music and is learning to read Braille music. "If it wasn’t for the Lighthouse, he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is now," said Moses. "They’ve taken the time to teach [and] nurture him."
As a result of his tremendous dedication to his craft, Matthew has performed with the Lighthouse Jazz Band, The African-American Legacy Project (AALP) and the Harlem School of the Arts Jazz Band Ensemble. He’s also performed at the legendary Apollo Theater as a winning participant in the Child Stars of Tomorrow event.
In February 2011, Matthew was the first recipient of the Irwin H. Widelitz Scholarship Fund at Lighthouse International. The fund, which is named after a musician and volunteer at the Lighthouse, supports promising musicians who are blind or visually impaired. "Matthew is an exceptional young musician and an outstanding representative of our music school," said Leslie Jones, Executive Director of the Lighthouse Music School. "We have high hopes that he will go far in his career."
Matthew’s high spirits and passion for music has left an indelible mark on the Lighthouse. With the help of the Lighthouse Music School, he has learned to play over a half-dozen instruments, compose his own music, and perform for crowds across the New York metropolitan area. "The Lighthouse has been great," said May. "It’s like our second family. It’s always going to be a part of our lives."
Video by John Munson, The Star-Ledger
Matthew performing at the Fourth Annual Music School Performathon.