Music is supposed to be a universal language.
So no one said a word when a French-speaking West African teenager sat down to play a piano in front of a small, group of Muslims, Spanish-speaking people and others at International Preparatory School in Buffalo last week.
Everyone just listened while Gabriel Ngandu performed a medley of music – classical, a little bit of salsa and even some country western.
By the time the 16-year-old was finished playing, almost everyone in the International Prep music classroom was tapping feet or swaying to the beat.
Many young people can play the piano. But Gabriel is unusual. He doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t read music. He’s had no formal music lessons. And he learned to play by ear.
“He only plays things he’s heard. I was amazed at what I heard,” said Dr. Leon V. Lewis, an Amherst ophthalmologist who donated the piano to the school.
“My jaw dropped,” said music teacher Paul M. Siekierski of the first time he heard Gabriel play.
Gabriel attends STAR Academy, a nontraditional high school located in the old Grover Cleveland High School on 14th Street along with International Prep, where 566 international students are enrolled. STAR Academy has 50 international students.
This is a story about the young piano player, the teacher who learned to communicate with him through a cellphone app, and the Amherst ophthalmologist who wanted to find a home for a cherished family piano.
On the honor roll
Gabriel shared his story through two translators – Emmaunel Kombi Nzoumba, a classmate and fellow Gabonese native, and Pietro Mendola, supervisor of foreign languages for the school district.
Gabriel’s mother came to America four years ago for the wedding of one of her older sons. Then, about three months ago, Gabriel, his father and one sister followed.
Gabriel’s father is currently searching for a job, while his mother works as a housekeeper. The brother who got married is a civil engineer living in California. Three other sisters and another brother remain in Gabon.
Gabriel entered the United States on Sept. 20 and enrolled in school on Oct. 7. School counselor Cheryl DiMare recalled that he wore a shirt that had the American flag on it on his first day.
His immigration documents say Gabriel was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she said.
But Gabriel said his parents – Regine Mumba and Gilbert – were born in Congo and left when his father found a job teaching French and science at a high school in Gabon, where Gabriel said he was born.
Located on the equator in West Africa, Gabon was a French territory until 1960. Its population is about 1.5 million.
Gabriel was enrolled in the city schools’ STAR program, which is for students who are overaged and undercredited, DiMare explained.
“When Gabriel came to the United States, he came without any academic records. ... He was put in the ninth grade. Typically, when you’re in the ninth grade, you’re 14,” she explained.
Even with the language barrier he’s doing well in his classes, DiMare said.
He has a 94.4 grade-point average, she said, “so he’s on our honor roll.”
‘There’s an app for that’
For a while, Gabriel was the only student in Siekierski’s music class.
Even though they had music in common, the language barrier made it somewhat difficult for the two to communicate.
Siekierski, who is in his third year of teaching music at International Prep, speaks no French, and neither of he nor Gabriel was very good at understanding what the other was saying.
That was until Siekierski remembered “there’s an app for that.”
The music teacher had used the Google Translator app before, when it came in handy for a class he had last year.
“I had a couple of students who spoke French, and I had it on my phone,” Siekierski said.
This year, he uses the computer program.
Siekierski types a question in English, and Google automatically translates it into French. Then Gabriel types in his response in French, and it is translated into English for Siekierski.
That’s how the two became more comfortable communicating with each other.
Soon after, Gabriel expressed an interest in the drums and piano and asked where the band room was.
Siekierski showed him the drums and was surprised when Gabriel knew a little something about the instrument.
“He jumped on the drums and started to play. He learned to play from somewhere because he was playing,” the music teacher said.
Then they went to the auditorium to see the piano.
Siekierski didn’t know what to expect.
But when Gabriel began playing, Siekierski was astonished.
“My jaw dropped to the floor,” he said.
Gabriel played – from memory and to near perfection – about 15 songs that he combined into one piece.
Siekierski recognized a couple of the classical pieces. And he noticed something else about Gabriel.
“I recognized he didn’t know how to read music,” Siekierski said.
Gabriel had learned by watching other people play the piano and copying them, by listening to music on the radio and by watching YouTube videos.
Gabriel’s father purchased a piano for him when he was 14 years old, and the boy taught himself to play salsa, rumba, country.
“Any kind of music,” he said.
The piano was left behind in Gabon. But Gabriel now has others he can use in school and at home.
A treasured Steinway
After word of Gabriel’s talent spread around the school district, an anonymous donor gave him a Casio keyboard synthesizer that he took home to learn to play.
The instrument has 100 songs that can be programmed to play while the keys automatically light up the notes to the tune.
At school he plays a Steinway console, not as tall as an upright or as large as a grand. This particular Steinway model is not manufactured anymore, but it’s in very good shape, school administrators said.
It was donated by Lewis, a retired Amherst ophthalmologist.
Lewis’ father gifted him with the piano when he was a young man, and it’s been a treasured part of the family ever since.
Now in his 80s, Lewis is downsizing and “getting rid of stuff. So I was looking for a nice home for it,” he said.
After speaking with Mark Garcia, supervisor of the music department for Buffalo schools, the piano was delivered to International Prep last month.
It’s a perfect fit for the school.
“Big upright pianos don’t function well in the music room because you can’t see over them,” Garcia explained. “It’s not often someone will call with such a valuable, beautiful gift in mind. It’s definitely the best quality piano that’s been donated in the last 10 years or so I’ve been there. We’ve received some very nice pianos. Steinway is the top American brand and probably of the top brand in the world.”
As an appreciation, Gabriel performed a mini concert for Lewis last month.
When the young man walked into the school’s auditorium, the two exchanged a few words in French, although Lewis doesn’t speak it well.
And then Gabriel sat down at the Steinway and played for about 20 minutes.
“Just off the top of his head,” Lewis said. “He was very impressive.”
By then, Lewis knew he had found a good home for his treasured piano, a place where it would benefit people who maybe could not afford to buy such a piano otherwise, he said.
“I feel lucky in life and thought that would be the best place for it,” said Lewis, adding that he sees a bright musical future for Gabriel.
“This is a talented young man who could probably become very good,” he said.
Siekierski thinks so, too.
The music teacher marvels at Gabriel’s musical abilities, but his student is not exactly a prodigy like some famous composers.
“Mozart had musical training growing up,” Siekierski said.
What Gabriel has is “something different,” the teacher said.
“He doesn’t read music, but he can play music,” Siekierski said. “He plays just by listening.”
Gabriel now is learning at “a very good speed” how to read music, Siekierski said.
In addition to beginning level English as a Second Language class, Gabriel also takes social studies, math, computer skills and health, which are all taught in English, DiMare said. In some of his classes, other French-speaking students translate for him. But his core classes – social studies and math – are taught by ESL teachers.
“He’s learning everything in English and then whatever help he can get from his French-speaking peers,” she said.
Meanwhile, Siekierski’s music class – which has grown to seven students, including three from Puerto Rico, one from an Asian country – is Gabriel’s last one of the day. At the end of each, he treats others to a few tunes on the Steinway, said STAR Academy Principal Teena Jackson.
“And all of the teachers on the second floor open up their doors,” she said. “So they can hear the music going down the hall.”