Thursday, March 17, 2011

NY man with Down syndrome finds success as musician, teacher

From the Buffalo News:

WHEATFIELD, N.Y. — Sujeet Desai (pictured) plays seven musical instruments and has a second-degree black belt in tae kwan do. That’s despite having Down syndrome — or maybe, in a way, because of it.

His mother, Sindoor Desai, a just-retired dentist, was determined not to have her son, now 29, fall into the trap of negativity that was marked out for him right after he was diagnosed.

“I was given a list of all the things you cannot do. So I had all those thrown at me,” she said Monday. “I have written papers about the myths connected with Down syndrome.”

“I can improvise on any instrument,” Sujeet Desai said. “I picked up the trumpet last year and taught myself to play. The same day, I picked up the alto sax.”

His musical arsenal also includes violin, clarinet, bass clarinet, drums and piano.

He earned a degree in music and human services from Berkshire Hills Music Academy in Massachusetts in 2003, after having graduated with honors from Fayetteville-Manlius High School outside Syracuse. “He was the only student who had A grades in music from fourth grade until graduation,” his mother said.

He will appear at tonight’s meeting of the Niagara County Legislature to help accept a proclamation for Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara, marking March as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Monday, he opened a new phase of his career as a volunteer teacher at Opportunities Unlimited. Once a week, he will teach a class combining music with tae kwan do for some of the 100 program participants at the Niagara Falls Boulevard center.

“He earned that black belt. It wasn’t adapted for him. He earned it like every other student,” said Roxane Albond-Buchner, manager of communications for Opportunities Unlimited.

Monday, he also presented a choreographed program of tae kwan do moves to a hip-hop soundtrack.

Sindoor Desai and her husband, Sharad, also a dentist, started their son in music at age 9 with the Suzuki method of violin training, which emphasizes memorization. They reasoned that would stimulate his brain cells.

“The only instrument that was hard was violin,” Sujeet Desai said. “It’s hard to keep it up with your arms.”

“Down syndrome children are born with hypertonia — floppy muscles,” his mother said. “The clarinet strengthens the facial muscles . . . His teacher said he has beautiful tone and didn’t want him to take up any more instruments.”

Sujeet Desai ignored that request and continues to stretch his musical horizons, although he said he likes the clarinet the best of all. “I like the tone and the sound quality,” he said.

He picked up his violin Monday and played a variety of classical pieces, as well as the country tune “Orange Blossom Special” and the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

“It was good! I clapped!” said Liz Green, an Opportunities Unlimited participant.

“They get so inspired when I play my music,” Sujeet Desai said. “I feel so good for myself that I can stand up there and play.”

Albond-Buchner said Sujeet Desai judged the last Opportunities Unlimited talent show. “He’s a professional, so he couldn’t compete,” she explained.

He practices three hours a day in his apartment and has performed in London, Paris, Dublin, Singapore and Dubai.

He played a duet with soprano sax star KennyGat the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho. He also has performed with singer Candye Kane.

In October, he will travel to Denver to accept the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award from the legendary musician and producer. It’s the latest in a a page-long list of awards had has won.

He has been nominated for other awards. One includes online voting for the public; the link can be accessed though his website,

The Desais moved to Western New York recently. They wanted to be closer to his older brother Ninad, who lives in the area and whose wife recently had the couple’s first child. The baby is the first grandchild for Sindoor and Sharad Desai.

The move derailed a steady music career in the Rome, N. Y., area for Sujeet Desai, who was playing at least five nights a week in local spots.