Brandon Leu wouldn’t team up with just any other musician. As a pianist with autism, 24-year-old Leu sought a musical partner with a shared sensibility.
Someone like Noah Johnson.
Johnson, who is blind, has been taking piano lessons at MacPhail — via Skype — since 2013. Two years ago, Leu enrolled in a certificate program at MacPhail. He first heard Johnson perform at the studio recital of Diana Bearmon, the teacher they share.
Since March, Leu and 17-year-old Johnson have spent hours playing duets. The duo’s challenges, but more so their abilities and shared love for music, have created a special bond, leaving both enriched.
And their teacher enriched, too.
“Seeing them perform was magical,” said Bearmon, a piano veteran who has been with MacPhail for three decades. “They were talking to each other on the piano.”
Leu’s ability to cue Johnson, combined with Johnson’s capacity to hear a wrong note from a mile away, results in “electricity between them,” Bearmon said.
“Come on … 1, 2, 3, 4,” Leu coached his partner, his voice filling the fifth floor studio where he and Johnson rehearsed a piece from Italian pianist Ettore Pozzoli’s “Smiles of Childhood.”
About two minutes in, Johnson suggested that maybe they were playing it too quickly. Bearmon assured Johnson that the pace was fine, especially since it had been a while since they’d played it.
They tried again. This time Bearmon wanted them to slow down a bit. “At this pace, you are [both] running, rather than walking,” she said.
Both young men nodded in agreement.
Leu, originally from Maple Grove, lost both his parents by the time he was 12. He moved in with his paternal aunt, Elizabeth Voss, in Anoka. She quickly identified his proclivity for music.
“I had him hold the cello and go back and forth on it,” Voss said, recalling Leu’s first experience with the instrument. “He didn’t throw it, which was a good thing.”
By 14, Leu had added piano. He was also athletic, pursuing basketball, football, hockey and swimming.
After one of his music teachers moved on, Voss enrolled Leu in MacPhail’s certificate program, a high-level, two-year program that would allow him to consider a career in music.
By then, Voss had transitioned Leu to a group home in Eden Prairie where he still lives.
Johnson is from Isle, Minn., a two-hour drive from MacPhail.
“Noah used to play duets with me,” said his mother, Melissa Johnson, noting that her son also plays drums. “He finally has a partner to play with.”
Bearmon describes Johnson’s ear as accurate as a machine. “He can hear a wrong note even if it is buried in other notes,” she said.
The hardest part of an ensemble — staying together — was never an issue with this duo, said Bearmon.
“They just get it,” she said.
Johnson recently won two scholarships for musicians with disabilities from the National Federation of Music Clubs.
Leu has performed at the Minnesota State Fair and at sensory-friendly venues around the Twin Cities. He is now certified with St. Croix Hospice, which will allow him to play for people in hospice care and at nursing homes. He hopes that Johnson will be able to join him at some point.
Bearmon said Leu’s expressive language and verbal communication skills have greatly improved over the past few years, something she and Voss attribute to his creative and personal approach to music.
The duo play together as often as they can. So now, back to practice. “All right boys,” said Bearmon, continuing her mission to bring out the best in her gifted pair.
“Let’s give it another try.”