Music School Teaches Those With Special Needs

By Lauren Wanko

Three years ago 15-year-old Victor Grigorov didn’t know a thing about the guitar. Now he reads music and plays all sorts of songs.

“I like to play guitar,” he said.

The Highland Park resident was diagnosed with autism as a child. At 13 he told his dad, Dimitar, that he wanted to learn guitar, so Dimitar starting calling music schools. He says the instructors told him they lacked experience in working with a child with autism.

“There’s no training, no manual, for working with children with special needs. No manual; it has to come from the heart,” he said.

Eventually Dimitar discovered Octupus Music School in New Brunswick.

“They actually had the courage, and probably something special, to give it a try,” said Dimitar.

At the time, the music school, founded by Rutgers University grad Joseph Fekete, hadn’t worked with any students with special needs. However, one of their instructors, Ariella Gizzi, is a special education teacher.

“We decided there was a lack of this kind of thing for kids with special needs, kids on the autism spectrum,” Fekete said. “There’s so many types of therapy and things that are very officially therapy, and we wanted to do something that was more music for music’s sake.”

“But with that being said, there is a therapeutic value to playing music and understanding and reading music. It’s calming. It gives you a skill that is yours, and something that is expressive,” Gizzi said.

She says many of her students with special needs struggle with verbal communication.

“Music seems to kind of break down the communication problems,” Gizzi said. “It serves as it’s own language.”

At Octopus Music school instructors teach about 200 students. Approximately 50 are children, teens and adults with special needs. They can take guitar, piano, drums, violin or voice lessons. All the classes are one-on-one and taught weekly.

“I would say the big difference between teaching a special needs individual is that there are going to be certain adaptions that the instructor has to make, maybe certain multi-sensory approaches,” Fekete said.

Dimitar says Victor practices every day. He’s become more verbal, has better control of his temper and can more easily express himself.

“My favorite song is ‘Walk This Way,” Victor said.

Over the years, the 15-year-old has even performed in concerts.

“I’m amazed, I’m amazed by Victor,” his father said.

“I would just love for parents to know that this is possible for their child and there are resources for them to make it possible,” Gizzi said.

Victor doesn’t see an end to his guitar lessons. As for his dad, Dimitar’s thrilled to have a front row seat to what he thinks is the best show in town.