On the day his dream came true, Jordan Smith enthusiastically did a little jerky dance, his star-adorned cane helping him balance.
“I walk in three-quarter time,” he tells a dozen of his students during the A Positive Note music class at Colorado Springs Conservatory. He created the class for those with disabilities.
The students clap, whoop and call out “Yea for Mr. Jordy!”
Smith, 25, who is paralyzed on the right side, wants to show his students what is possible with music.
“Music saved my life,” he says matter of factly.
On the first day of class the students sit in a circle on the floor and create rules. Don’t make fun of anybody. Be gentle with the instruments. A teacher adds, “If anything gets too loud for you, we will help you find a quiet place.”
When they are told that the goal is to have a public concert in eight weeks, they cheer. Some have played instruments before, others not at all.
The youths, with disabilities that include such things as autism, Down syndrome and brain injuries, divide into groups to try piano, rhythm instruments and guitar.
Before class, instructor Kristianne Birkhimer, a social worker in Academy School District 20, says, “Music is an untapped resource for the students. It builds self-esteem, lowers stress, provides interaction with others, and helps them express what they can’t verbally.”
Four young women troop into a classroom where Smith and David Musante, a high school senior, are waiting with guitars for the youths.
The two raised the money to make this class happen; a half-dozen conservatory instructors have donated their time to teach the A Positive Note class.
“OK you guys, are you ready to rock?” Smith says enthusiastically.
“Yesssss,” the students yell.
“That’s what I want to hear,” Smith says.
With much patience, Smith and Musante show the students how to hold the guitars and find the chord.
Within minutes they are all strumming and singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
“Beautiful. That is what I want to see,” Smith enthuses.
He has them tune their instruments to an open C, which helps them because they can lay a finger down and get a major chord wherever they want one.
Later, he says, “It’s amazing to see this go from an idea in my head to manifestation.”
Jim Cara, whose daughter Kelsey is in the class, says she is inspired.
“A friend came over to play and (Kelsey) said, ‘No, I have to go play music.’”
Smith has been making music since he was 3 years old and used pots and pans for drums. He carried his guitar everywhere, including to high school. A Woodland Park teacher complained to his parents: “He needs to put his guitar down.”
Instead he left school, received a GED diploma from Palmer High School’s alternative program, and continued to play gigs and worked to market an album.
In 2006, he and longtime friend Kevin Keplin headed to California. They started a band called Greycase. Smith worked in a music store and taught guitar at an after-school program for kids in Santa Barbara.
But then one November night in 2007, the car he was in was hit from behind. “I flew out and hit my head on a guard rail,” Smith said.
Details are sketchy. Police said those in both cars had been drinking, said Smith’s mother, Lisa Smith of Colorado Springs. Jordan Smith doesn’t recall what happened. As he lay in the dark by the side of U.S. Highway 101 medics had to restart his heart.
When his mom received the news to come as quickly as possible, she says, “I couldn’t stop screaming.”
He was in a coma for 13 days. The prognosis was dire, a chance that even if he did wake up, recovery might be minimal.
Lisa Smith recalls what happened in the days after he woke up. “Kevin took his guitar and laid it on Jordy’s chest and said, ‘Play a chord’ and with help, he did.”
Jordan Smith, paralyzed from the top of his head to his feet on the right side, continues with cognitive and physical therapy; there are days of sadness, frustration and anger.
“I had to learn to do everything over. Feed myself, walk, dress, everything like a baby. But being 66 inches off the ground, I feared falling.” Learning to walk to the car without help was a milestone.
Learning to play guitar again was discouraging, he says. It took two years to develop a style. “I use my left hand, hammer on and pull off technique. Hammer on is an attack to get the sound out of the note you want. And pulling off is the opposite.”
He says he has changed. “But me now as compared to me then, is like two different people. I see it as a challenge – how am I going to defeat the problem, as opposed to crying about it.”
Lisa Smith says she was surprised when he came to her two years ago and told her he wanted to start a nonprofit to help kids with disabilities play music. “I said, ‘OK, Jordan,’ not sure of how he would pull that off but knowing he had the passion required to try.”
A friend typed his mission statement, and he contacted the Center for Non-Profit Excellence, which in turn pointed him to Linda Weiss, head of the Colorado Springs Conservatory. She introduced him to Margo Musante, a conservatory volunteer and occupational therapist.
Jordan Smith and her son David Musante hit it off. They researched special needs music programs. They raised money from local businesses, private parties, and a $3,000 ingenuity grant from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
Last summer the conservatory offered a short pilot program, and decided to proceed, offering A Positive Note to students 12 years to adult.
“I have learned that patience is the mother of perfection. Quite amazingly, I’m patient with them and they are patient with me,” Jordan Smith says.
He is studying music at Pikes Peak Community College, and is taking some classes over again, not because he didn’t pass them, but because he is now retaining more. He’s in a jazz band and taking trumpet lessons.
He notes a bit wistfully that his friend Kevin is playing with a band in California and recently had a song that hit the local top three there. Jordan says he thinks about that as a goal. But then he talks just as enthusiastically about forming his own nonprofit music organization.
“Seeing the students work through their challenges in class is amazing to me. It’s a confidence builder for them and for me. They give me inspiration every second for my own challenges.”