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Memoir

“My son was born with a tremendous musical gift. When tragedy struck, it was his path out of darkness”

Following his premature birth, Dino’s childhood was marked by developmental delays—until his mother discovered his uncanny talents. Here, she shares how it helped them both overcome a family tragedy

By Joanne Milner| Photography by Brent Gooden
“My son was born with a tremendous musical gift. When tragedy struck, it was his path out of darkness”

My son, Dino, was born two and a half months early, on October 29, 1997, weighing only two pounds. He remained at Mount Sinai Hospital for 74 days, spending his first month in intensive care. He was so tiny that the nurses bathed him in a salad bowl. On my daily visits to the ICU, I brought a Mozart tape to play for Dino in his incubator. I had no musical talents of my own, but I’d always loved classical compositions, so The Marriage of Figaro and Piano Concerto No. 21 filled the plastic womb that was keeping my son alive. I also hoped the music would distract him from the constant alarms that beckoned doctors to babies whose heart rates had slowed or stopped entirely, occasionally requiring resuscitation.  

Dino was finally discharged the following January, around the time he was supposed to have been born. He remained small for his age during childhood and was late to reach many physical milestones, including walking, talking, sleeping and eating. He drank all of his nutrients until the age of eight and woke up six or seven times a night because he couldn’t regulate his sleep.  

I became desperately sleep deprived myself, and my former life ground to a halt. My husband, a doctor, wasn’t able to tend to Dino at night because he needed to be alert for his patients. I stopped my work as a journalist because I could no longer concentrate. I’d been an avid lap swimmer, but I was too tired to exercise. And despite being a social person, I had little energy to see friends and worried about leaving my son’s side.

With few remnants of my old life remaining, I concentrated all my efforts on raising Dino. When he was two and a half, I noticed something extraordinary about his mind: he remembered everything. If posters were moved around at a playgroup, he’d point to where a poster used to be and where it had been moved to. When he was three, I recited Shakespeare to him: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” and so on. Without comprehending much of the Bard’s meaning, Dino recited it all back. I exploited this ability. When we went to playgroups, I’d whisper the names of the parents in his ear. When we returned the following week and I couldn’t remember a parent’s name, I’d quietly ask him, and he’d tell me.

One afternoon, when Dino was five, my mom and I took him to see the dinosaur exhibit at the ROM—a delight for most little boys. But Dino had no interest. There was a baroque concert taking place in the main entrance hall of the museum, and it held him transfixed, his eyes moving from one musician to another. Unselfconsciously, he danced to the music.

Growing restless, I encouraged him, “Want to go to the dinosaur exhibit?” He shook his head and remained mesmerized. At the end of the concert, he ran up to the stage and asked each musician about their instrument. 

My mom, in her wisdom, told me to sign Dino up for piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory.  A week later, in a deluge of snow, we arrived at the conservatory’s second-floor studio. I held Dino’s hand as he climbed onto the piano bench, his little feet hanging far off the ground. Within weeks, Dino was playing scales that took most kids considerably longer to learn. His teacher looked on wide-eyed. Then Dino started on classical pieces that were advanced for his age, some with difficult left-hand accompaniments. He mastered 18 of them in one year.

Observing one early lesson, I was bewildered. Dino stared out the window, intent on the construction outside, his eyes following the cranes and trucks. Yet his little hands had minds of their own as Mozart emerged from the piano keys. I wondered where my son’s prodigiousness came from. Had playing Mozart in his incubator made a difference? Or could his talent have come from his his great-grandmothers, who were both gifted pianists?

Later that year, after he’d had a bad cold, I noticed that Dino’s hearing had declined. I took him to an audiologist, who told us that he had lost some hearing in both ears, necessitating hearing aids. I was devastated and sunk into a depression. I feared that it would affect his life and music. But Dino remained a happy kid, and we soon learned that he still had perfect pitch. When Dino’s music teacher hit a key on the piano at random, Dino could identify the note without seeing which key she’d hit. 

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Dino played piano for about two hours every day, alternating between classical pieces, scales and improvisation. If he was out for the day or we’d gone on vacation, the piano drew him in as soon as he entered the front door, like iron filings to a magnet. Sometimes, Dino would hop on the piano bench when his dad, a competent but casual piano player, was practicing. His dad would give him a mini lesson, or they’d play together. Dino looked up to his dad, who was also bright academically, having started university shortly after turning 17. Dino’s dad was also his confidant: Dino would confess to him that he liked girls, which my husband assured him was quite normal. The two of them shared a gentle, quiet and intense disposition.

When Dino was nine, I was upstairs folding laundry when I heard him playing an epic new piece. I ran downstairs and asked him where he had learned it. “I just made it up,” he said. He called it “The Ocean That Isn’t Blue.” He could not yet read or write music. And why bother to learn, he figured, when he just could play by ear? Dino soon composed another epic. “What do you call that?” I asked him. “The Heavenly Devil,” he said. Dino entered the two pieces into the Toronto Kiwanis Festival, a celebration of music and arts for youth and young adults, and won gold and silver. Sitting in the audience, I watched him perform his songs with amazement and deep pride.

At age 10, Dino decided that “piano sucks” and took up trumpet, then tenor and alto sax, all with the same prodigious abilities. He was intent on becoming a professional musician. Recognizing his talents, I went to great lengths to seek out the best and most dedicated music teachers for him. To find a piano teacher, I spoke to talented musicians to find out which teacher they’d chosen for their children. To find a trumpet teacher, I asked a girlfriend to speak to her brother, who was a flutist in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He recommended a colleague who had performed with the TSO as well as for movies, TV and radio. 

Each teacher was a gift. I hired Dino’s trumpet teacher for weekly half-hour lessons, but he’d stay for an hour and refuse to be paid for the extra time. I finally insisted on paying him for the full hour, and then he’d stay even longer—not for the money but for the magical musical rapport he shared with Dino. When Dino quit trumpet to play sax, his teacher cried.

Then, when my son was 14, catastrophe struck our family. Dino’s dad passed away, tragically and unexpectedly. It was a stunning blow. For several months, the musical instruments that had once breathed life into my son went untouched, collecting dust on his bedroom floor. It broke my heart. It was as though life stood still.

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Five long months later, I heard some music emerge from Dino’s room. Rusty, but music no less. Life started to emerge from his shattered soul: he auditioned for and was accepted into the Jazz FM 91.1 Youth Big Band, which enabled him to rehearse and perform with an 18-piece band alongside international jazz luminaries like organist Joey DeFrancesco. They played at major venues across the city, including Koerner Hall, the Rex and the Old Mill. Sometimes they were even broadcast on the radio. After one performance in which Dino had a solo, I turned on Jazz FM in the car and, to my surprise and delight, Dino’s solo was being broadcast on air. I was awestruck by the beauty of his playing. Still, my heart ached when I thought about how Dino would never have his dad in the audience. The thought was so painful that I had to distance myself from it. 

As Dino got older, watching him perform was a nail-biter: if he perceived he’d made an error, he’d harshly chastise himself, saying that his playing was terrible. When I tried to comfort him, he was dismissive. “Of course you’d say that. You’re my mom.” The unselfconscious little boy had turned into a critical perfectionist. When I watched him solo at Koerner or Roy Thomson Hall, I could barely exhale. But, as Miles Davis said, “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” With time, Dino learned to better tolerate “mistakes” and integrate them into the jazz art form.   

In 2014, upon graduating high school, Dino received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, which he attended for a year and a half before deciding to finish his bachelor of music in performance at the University of Toronto. Four years later, Dino was accepted into a music program in Frauenfeld, Switzerland, where he played in a big band conducted by Grammy Award–winner Maria Schneider and in smaller combos run by Donny McCaslin, who has played with David Bowie. A summer scholarship allowed him to study in Siena, Italy, where he played alongside world-class musicians including Matt Mitchell, Avishai Cohen and Lage Lund. Unbeknown to the program adjudicators, Dino is hearing impaired in both ears. But he continues to have perfect pitch, and the world remains his stage.

Seeing my son thrive has brought me immense peace and freedom—the peace of knowing that I did some things right and the freedom to let go and follow my own dreams. I recently started travelling again, visiting both the Arctic and Antarctica. I’m also pursuing my passions of photography and writing.

Music has changed Dino’s life, granting him endless experiences, opportunities and friends. And he’s found clarity of expression through music: it’s helped him connect with others and surpass language barriers. I feel content knowing that he is finding his way.

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