`He is bright, funny and very inspiring'

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Disabled student's talent put on show in composer collaboration

The outstanding musical talent of a Fife schoolboy with cerebral palsy, who is immobile and unable to speak, has been praised after six months of painstaking work on a composition that premiered last weekend.

Eoghan McKenzie, 12, collaborated with composer John Gourlay on A Man and a Brother, having conveyed his ideas largely through technology that detects eye movements. He used Apple's GarageBand software to compose digital music that featured in three of the four movements of Mr Gourlay's orchestral work. Last Sunday, Eoghan (pronounced "Ewan") appeared on stage with his mother to receive the acclaim of an audience of 160 people at the premiere in Kirkcaldy.

Through Jo Boggan, his headteacher at St Columba's Roman Catholic Primary School in Cupar, Eoghan told TESS that he was in P4 when he realised he had a talent for music. In P5 he came up with his first composition, Katy's Waltz, in honour of his school friend Katy Hardie. Katy, herself an accomplished musician, sang to his music on Sunday.

Adept at many musical genres, Eoghan composed a ragtime piece for his headteacher when she celebrated a significant birthday - Mrs Boggan's Boogie - but is particularly enthusiastic about film scores and would like to be a film critic when he grows up. Seeing a live audience appreciate his music was "wonderful", Eoghan said.

"It's been a privilege to work with Eoghan, to see him grow from a little boy," Ms Boggan said. "It was a wonderful moment when he took to the stage with his mother - he was able to achieve the same success and acknowledgement that any child might when they have a skill or talent. With the difficulties life has chucked at him, it has been inspiring to see how he has persevered."

Eoghan's passion for music was clear from an early age, Ms Boggan said. Facial expressions are part of the way he makes himself understood, and melancholy music would move him to tears while he would smile at happier music. Eyegaze technology provides another form of communication, presenting him with a series of questions that can be answered with up to nine different responses - Eoghan's eye movements are tracked to detect which one he chooses.

Eoghan's music was not tried out as part of Mr Gourlay's composition for Kirkcaldy Orchestral Society until a few days before the premiere, but straight away "it really worked", the composer said.

"The process that Eoghan goes through is very much the same as [mine]: you choose an idea, you try it out, you see if it works, and if it doesn't you change it," Mr Gourlay added. "Just the fact that it's a 12-year-old boy who is creating quite sophisticated and very listenable music is impressive in itself."

Mr Gourlay, whose new composition was inspired by the James Robertson novel Joseph Knight, based on the true story of a black slave brought to Scotland and freed under Scottish law, described Eoghan as "bright, funny, quite cheeky and very inspiring".

This August, Eoghan will continue in mainstream education by moving to Bell Baxter High School in Cupar. "We were very keen for him to go to the local high school, and the high school was very keen to include him," Ms Boggan said. Eoghan's story showed how many partners could come together to help a child overcome obstacles and pursue his passion, she said.

Fife's Youth Music Initiative was an early catalyst for Eoghan's interest in music, while specialist education worker and woodwind instructor Ann Rae also offered to help him develop his listening skills. Another key figure was Eric Knussen, a double bass teacher with a passion for music technology, who last year helped a team from Eoghan's school to enter a Blue Peter competition to compose a soundtrack for a clip from a Wallace and Gromit film. Eoghan and three schoolmates won a trip to Aardman Animations' studios in Bristol, which stoked his interest in cinema.

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