Child Prodigy in the Spotlight with Space Coast Symphony Orchestra
Meet Jacob Velazquez. He's got a busy upcoming weekend. The nine-year old boy from Pembroke Pines won't be zooming around on his scooter or dialing up his favorite video games.
Jacob has a date with to perform Haydn’s piano Concerto No. 11 in D Major in two concerts with the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra (SCSO). Diagnosed with high functioning autism in 2012, Jacob will be playing the 25-minute movement from memory in his orchestral debut on Saturday, April 8 at 7 p. m at Vero Beach High School PAC and Sunday, April 9 at 3:00 p. m. at the Scott Center for the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy.
Shortly after Jacob's fourth birthday, Tina Velazquez heard a song coming from the family piano at their south Florida home. Her husband had been playing the night prior, but Willie was now at work. When Tina entered the room, it was Jacob playing.
"I was shocked, couldn't believe my eyes," she recalled. "So I asked, 'How did you do that?' Jacob turned and looked at me and said, 'I watched Daddy.'"
A year after his astonishing piano talents emerged, Jacob was admitted into the National Musicians Guild after perfectly performing ten classic pieces from memory. His parents report Jacob learned to play Beethoven's "Sonata Op. 49 No. 2" in just three weeks.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. The disorders are characterized in varying degrees by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.
Autism Speaks reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U. S. has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That is a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness.
"The day Jacob was diagnosed I was very sad since I didn't know what the future held," Tina Velazquez confided. "But if I could go back, I would tell myself everything will be OK. We hope we can inspire other families with autistic children that they have gifts and talents and to help nurture and grow them."
Jacob will be performing with SCSO during Autism Awareness month to shine a light on the capabilities of those with the developmental disorder. Last April he performed a recital accompanied by a trio of string players from the SCSO. Dressed in a dapper Fedora tugged down over his shoulder-length dark hair, he stole the show.
"Singing, dancing and telling jokes, Jacob received multiple standing ovations from the audience," said Aaron T. Collins, SCSO conductor and artistic director. "He also spoke about his personal experience with autism and his connection to his favorite performer Taylor Swift.
"He stole a piece of our hearts last year, when we sponsored his first solo concert. He is an incredibly talented performer in addition to being a happy little boy who idolizes Yanni and Taylor. We're happy to help him raise awareness for autism, during this all-classical concert with our impressive guest conductor, Maestro Michael Hall."
At his elementary school Jacob is an principal's honor role student earning straight A's. He has a couple of close friends with whom he's bonded, enjoying the activities of most nine-year old boys. He practices with a teacher several times a week.
"He will sometime go off and start playing music he's composed, so the teacher needs to get him back on track," said Tina. "He's very excited to make his debut with the full orchestra. He can't wait to see and spend time with Aaron. He vividly remembers his performance last year."
Last October the family flew to Ottawa where Jacob performed at the Shenkman Arts Centre in a benefit to raise awareness and funds for autism. He has been a musical guest at pro golfer Ernie Els's Wine Spectator-Cigar Aficionado Pro Am benefiting the Els for Autism Foundation. He will be performing the national anthem at the Miami Heat game on April 12th for their Autism Awareness Game. Jacob has been invited to participate in the Miami International Piano Festival Academy at Nova Southeastern University over the summer. The program which consists mostly of adults and is by invitation only, attracts some of the greatest pianists from all over the world.
At age seven, he released his first CD "Jacob" of popular classical piano pieces swirled with uplifting electronic dance music produced by Miami multi-award winning producer and songwriter Hal S. Batt.
The boy's biggest hero is pop superstar Taylor Swift. One day Jacob was videoed playing a medley of seven songs from Swift's most recent album, "1989." Autism Speaks tweeted it out and the video went viral. Swift discovered Jacob's tribute and re-tweeted it. She invited the family to meet her at her Miami concert in October 2015. That evening Jacob presented Swift with his own CD. Since Taylor invited Jacob to her concert, Jacob has returned the favor giving her tickets to his concerts this weekend.
"Taylor let Jacob know she viewed herself as different growing up," said Tina. "She told him if you're lucky enough to be different, don't ever change.
"Taylor inspires Jacob to keep striving to be his best. We're hopeful that Jacob will inspire other families that are touched by autism. Just because you are diagnosed with autism, it doesn't mean you aren't capable of great things."