8-year-old music veteran Blind third-grader takes his gifts in stride

December 27, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

JERMAINE Gardner has done much in his lifetime, even at age 8.

He's a deft pianist, as well as an aspiring guitarist, drummer and clarinet player -- and a wannabe rapper. His audiences have included two first ladies, Stevie Wonder, Cher and millions of TV viewers who've seen him on "Good Morning, America," the "Today" show and most recently, the "Regis and Kathie Lee Show."

Jermaine, who is blind and who was born with facial cleft syndrome, has been tickling the ivories since he was very young, when he climbed on the piano and played a tune he learned from memory. Jermaine's first splash on TV and newspapers came in 1986, and the stories since have focused on his musical gifts and his strength as he has coped with surgery many times.

He's now a third-grader at Garrett Heights Elementary School, learning Braille and Optacon, a computer program that teaches the blind to read.

And although other kids tease him about being blind, his mom, Jacqueline Kess-Gardner, says he's learning to deal with it.

"He has his good and bad days," she says. "Sometimes, kids can be cruel."

In his spare time, Jermaine plays the piano at benefits and charity functions. He's a regular on the "700 Club," a religious television program. A manager schedules his appearances.

He also composes music. He's even written a piece for his mother, entitled "Mommy." It's a hurried, fast-paced song because it reminds Jermaine of his mother's footsteps.

His mother says he takes his gift -- and fame -- in stride.

"He likes what he does, and we don't push," she said. "We've heard of prodigies who burn out before age 12. I want him to be happy. And if he decides next year he doesn't want to do this anymore, then he won't do it."

He used to practice the piano regularly. "Then as he got older, he stopped practicing," Kess-Gardner said. "He said he practices in his head."

"I know what I know," Jermaine quipped. "I have it in my head."

Kess-Gardner and her husband, James Gardner, noticed Jermaine's rhythm when he was 5 months old, when he was swinging his feet to the music. At 8 months old, he developed tone -- the ability to distinguish pitch.

"We knew then he had a gift," said Kess-Gardner. "It just took convincing other people."

It didn't take much to convince his brother, Jamaal, now 13, who abandoned playing the piano at age 10 because he was intimidated.

"I would be working at a song for a long time," Jamaal said, "and he would play and get it in one day."

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