Piano teacher, students find healing in the music

Aidan McCurley of Palatine ran through his recital piece during a recent piano lesson with ease. The 10-year-old boy played the simple melody softly, but he ended it with a resounding chord.

His teacher, Alexis Ross of Arlington Heights, was impressed.

“You must have been practicing a lot this week, Aidan,” she said.

Aidan is on the autism spectrum and he is one of nearly 20 students with disabilities that Ross teaches as part of the music program offered by the Northwest Special Recreation Association, which serves special needs students.

“I never would have dreamed he could play the piano, let alone take lessons,” says his mother, Arron McCurley, who chairs the ESL program at Fremd High School. “But I play piano and his father plays guitar. I thought it would help with his fine motor skills and his reading.”

In fact, it has, Ross says. As Aidan learns to read music, he sharpens his reading skills by identifying the notes. He also is learning to play with both his left and right hands and strengthen individual fingers.

“It's like learning a different language,” Ross adds. “It stimulates a different side of the brain.”

And she should know based on her own life experience.

Ross grew up playing a variety of band instruments and piano. At St. Viator High School, she played trombone in its symphonic and jazz bands, but she also took lessons in piano, guitar and drums. She majored in music education at Elmhurst College.

While she could have taught music at a school, Ross says she chose to teach piano because of its many overall benefits for students, including promoting growth in language, reasoning and spatial intelligence.

After college, Ross developed a studio in her Arlington Heights home and grew her business to include nearly 40 students.

“I really love working with students one-on-one,” Ross says.

Nearly two years ago, however, tragedy struck when Ross was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. She was rear-ended by a driver traveling at 50 miles per hour on the expressway that hadn't seen Ross stop for a traffic backup.

The accident left Ross with a fractured right pelvis and left collarbone, as well as six fractured vertebrae, two torn eye muscles and massive bleeding in the brain, resulting in traumatic brain injury.

Her recovery has been slow, but steady. Music has helped, Ross says, describing how she played piano to strengthen her right hand and how reading music helped her to overcome double vision caused by her eye injury.

“I'm still healing,” Ross says, “but it has been one very intense learning experience and journey.”

Part of that journey has led her to a new appreciation for students with special needs, she says.

“My patience was pretty good before the accident,” Ross says, “but now it's at a new, higher level.”

Her serenity will be tested Saturday, April 30, when her piano students perform at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights as part of a recital for all of the music students taking lessons through Northwest Special Recreation, including guitar, theater and gymnastics.

After Aidan's lesson last week, she expects that he will sail through his live performance. His mother said the recital last year did not frighten him.

“He was fine with it,” McCurley added, pointing to another benefit of his music lessons.

Ross' private students also will perform in a pair of recitals May 27 at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library and June 11 at the Steinway Gallery in Northbrook.

  Alexis Ross of Arlington Heights teaches piano to more than 20 students with special needs, including Aidan McCurley, 10, of Palatine, who is on the autism spectrum. McCurley is playing during a recent lesson in Rolling Meadows. Joe Lewnard/
  Aidan McCurley, 10, of Palatine, who is on the autism spectrum, plays piano during a lesson with Alexis Ross of Arlington Heights. Joe Lewnard/
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