A Powerful Melody
HSE Student Overcomes Disability Through Creating Music
Writer / Jocelyn Vare
Photographer / Theresa Treep
There’s a student at HSE High School in Fishers who creates new music every day. Usually, he works on an electronic keyboard, creating melodies, switching sounds and adjusting rhythms as he plays. His creativity and dexterity reflect years of practice. For this 18-year-old, music isn’t just a pastime, it’s his passion. It is his very own way of self-expression, identity and enjoyment. For Danny Riley, music is happily woven into every day of his life.
Music is also a key component to his daily physical therapy and occupational therapy. As he is encouraged to sit upright, to communicate or to walk with assistance during his therapy, music is Danny’s motivator and encouragement. Danny was born with a congenital brain malformation called Dandy-Walker Syndrome. This condition affects the cerebellum, the area at the back of the brain that controls movement. One in 2,500 children are born with Dandy-Walker Syndrome.
Danny was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome when he was an infant. Although he has muscle strength, the condition has hindered Danny’s ability to stand and walk because the cerebellum controls balance and coordination. Swallowing and speech are very difficult tasks for him. Although he is non-verbal, Danny can indeed communicate using gestures, his iPad and especially with music.
At HSE High School, Danny spends four full days a week participating with peers and professionals in intense learning and therapy sessions. Like a jogger who listens to lively music in his headphones to run one more mile, music is Danny’s soundtrack to motivate himself to excel, too. And during his free time, Danny creates his own music on his beloved keyboard.
Playing on a keyboard requires intense motor planning and thought for Danny. He has toddler-level motor skills with advanced creativity and focus as he practices daily, just like any dedicated musician does. He nimbly and purposefully plays the keyboard, adjusting buttons as he creates, to produce his own melodies and rhythms. Despite the mental and physical challenge that playing the keyboard must be, Danny relishes it.
“Danny takes tremendous joy in creating music,” says his mother, Theresa Treep. “But it is more than that. Creating and listening to music not only makes Danny happy, it helps him discover who he is and how to interact with others. Over the years, music has helped Danny grow his confidence and abilities, both intellectually and socially.”
While other teenagers may cling to social media for their personal interactions, Danny lives life in-person, with a genuine openness that draws smiles from everyone he meets. He is also quite well-known in the Fishers community because he has such a busy social life. Some of his favorite activities are ones that he participates in with the “Best Buddies” program at HSE, a national volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships between typically-developing students and students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Danny has enjoyed high school prom, fundraiser events and other social activities with Best Buddies, including an open-mic music night at The Well coffee shop.
Danny also travels very frequently with his family and his favorite destinations are Disney World and the dozens of state and national parks that he has visited. In addition, from a very young age, Danny has enjoyed attending musical performances, like Symphony on the Prairie, Yuletide and Broadway shows. His mom says that his favorite type of music to listen to is “loud and peppy.”
Danny was introduced to music early in his life because music has always been a part of his family’s life. In the beginning, music wasn’t part of therapy or motivation, it was simply something his family enjoyed. His older brother, Tim, played the clarinet and his father, John, was always a music appreciator. Danny’s mom, Theresa, discovered her son’s interest in music as she played the piano at home.
“He always wanted to get close to the piano when I played,” she says. “So, we first purchased a toy keyboard for him to play with and that quickly became his prized possession. He just loved playing it. And, music has been an important part of his life ever since. Today, music is his voice.”
Danny’s first school experience with a keyboard in a classroom was eight years ago. None of the other students were interested in playing it but Danny was. His therapists quickly learned how much music meant to him and integrated the keyboard into his therapies. For example, Danny would be motivated to walk across the room in his gait trainer to reach the keyboard and playing the keyboard while standing helped to strengthen his legs and torso. Today, Danny’s strength can also be found in original music that he creates not as random notes, but as a purposeful self-expression.
All of his family, community acquaintances and peers consider Danny to be a musician and a music creator. Through the joy he shows as he plays, it is clear that Danny must see himself that way, too.
“You can’t tell me that a child who will not hit the typically developing milestones can’t have a joyful and fun life,” Theresa says. “Danny is someone who lives life large in Fishers and is very happy. That’s the power of music.”