A Prodigy Against All Odds

August 29, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

GREEN VALLEY -- The boy in the filthy playpen had only one toy: A plastic piano.

He was nearly 3, yet hardly ever allowed out of his pen in the squalid home for neglected children in Mexico. Attendants once beat him until bones in both legs snapped. He was malnourished. He was blind.

But he had that plastic piano.

The boy is now 11. Adopted by a Maryland couple with five children, Abraham Briggs is well-fed, well-adjusted, loving and loved. And he possesses an extraordinary gift. Abraham plays the piano -- now adult-sized, no longer plastic -- with the grace and conviction of a musician much older. He composes songs with a creativity and flair that his teachers can scarcely believe.

"The first time I heard him play it kind of knocked my socks off," says Margo Hall, music teacher at Frederick County's Kemptown Elementary School, where Abraham starts the fourth grade today. "I'd never heard a child his age play like that."

His private teacher, Jeffrey Chappell, a composer and pianist who occasionally plays with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, says: "He plays from an inner motivation. He also plays with a lot of imagination. . . . He's unique in the sense that the music he's writing nobody else is writing."

Swaying at his electronic piano at home in Green Valley, a quiet community on lush hillsides southwest of Mount Airy, Abraham seems lost in the music. He plays his song that won a contest for young composers.

It's melodic, part classical, New Age and pop. Abraham, shy with a reporter, expresses himself at the keyboard. He calls the song "Family With Love."

How could a child, abandoned shortly after birth and then deprived for nearly three years, develop into a musical prodigy?

"Talent is a mystery," Mr. Chappell says.

Most of Abraham's ability is probably inherited, Mrs. Hall says. But no one can for sure identify the boy's natural parents.

The only one with a concise, assured answer is Jeane Briggs, 37, Abraham's mother now.

"His music is a gift from God," she says.

And who can argue? Abraham was dumped at the home in Mexico probably as soon as his parents realized he couldn't see. Mrs. Briggs was moved to join a missionary team to Mexico in October 1985 to work at the home for one week.

"I think God was working on our hearts for this particular boy," she says, glancing at her husband, Paul, a 39-year-old field manager for IBM Corp. who runs a landscape business on the side.

An earlier missionary to Mexico had named the boy Abraham. Another missionary had given him the plastic piano. And another had taught him dozens of Christian songs in Spanish and in English.

No one thought it extraordinary that a needle-thin boy 2 years old who spoke only Spanish could repeat songs in English merely by hearing them a time or two. It was all anyone could do to make sure he received basic, life-sustaining care.

That was the case in December 1985, when Mrs. Briggs flew back to Mexico, accompanied by her husband, oldest daughter and legal papers, and brought Abraham and his plastic piano back to Maryland.

They didn't make too much of what happened nine days later -- a month before Abraham's third birthday. He sang in English all the Christmas carols he'd heard on the stereo that evening.

"We were simply overwhelmed with everything else," Mrs. Briggs says.

She had to potty train and teach him how to feed himself and chew; he had eaten only soft food in Mexico. Tests revealed that except for his sight, all was normal. The tests, however, did not measure musical aptitude.

Abraham banged on his plastic piano until it broke. For Christmas 1986, a month before his fourth birthday, they gave him an electronic, lap piano.

The next summer he heard Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You" while eating at Hardee's. Abraham went home and played the song note for note. He was 4 1/2 .

"That's when we decided one day we were going to have to get him some piano lessons," Mrs. Briggs says, laughing.

After four years in a pre-school program for the visually impaired, Abraham entered Kemptown Elementary School. Assisted by an aide and a mobility instructor, he quickly made an impression.

In the first grade, he volunteered to play the piano for his music class. Mrs. Hall, the music teacher, couldn't believe her ears. She's nurtured him ever since.

With her help Abraham won two contests. One was a county competition for students. Abraham played two songs, including the Bach Prelude No. 1, and won $400 toward lessons.

The other was the statewide Abell Foundation Student Composer Competition. Abraham won for "Family With Love." The prize was $50. The judges were so impressed they awarded him $75.

"When I first heard him play it I thought, 'My gosh, the judges aren't going to believe a kid this age could ever do this,' " Mrs. Hall says. "And then I thought, 'How am I ever going to write this down?' It was a very complicated piece. I could not believe my ears."

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