Musician Tim Connor: Drumming to the rhythm of life

  • Tim Connor, of South Hadley, left, looks to Tom Slowick, Berkshire Hills Music Academy Troupe Performance Manager, for a signal to begin rehearsing for a performance gig at Blueberry Hill Elementary School in Longmeadow. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Music and human service instructor Aidan Owens, right, demonstrates a drum beat while students Emily Webster, 30, left, Connor, Mark Palardy, 20, and Emma Pignone, 20, all of South Hadley, follow his lead during an African drumming ensemble class.

  • Tim Connor, of South Hadley, completes a performance gig with a flourish at Blueberry Hill Elementary School in Longmeadow. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Connor practices a drum duet at Berkshire Hills Music Academy.

  • Tom Slowick, left, performance manager of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy Performance Troupe, instructs Connor through musical drills on the keyboard during a private lesson.

  • Connor and friends Megan Donahue, left, and Kristen Wilson, both seniors at UMass Amherst, during a visit from The Boltwood Project, a community outreach program.

  • Tim Connor, 28,  of South Hadley, celebrates after mastering a rhythm during an African drumming ensemble class at Berkshire Hills Music Academy. The academy uses music as a tool to help individuals, like Connor, with disabilities develop life skills. Connor has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes health problems including cardiovascular disease, development delays, learning disabilities and distinctive facial features.

  • In the top photo, Connor listens to music on his phone during a break between classes at Berkshire Hills Music Academy, while in the bottom photo, he laughs in response to hearing a joke.

  • Tim Connor, of South Hadley, puts clean laundry in his bureau at his house. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Connor, left, reacts to his classmate Franklin Nichols, 23, of Chicopee, playfully taking his hat during a break between classes.

  • Always being prepared for his next gig takes effort. That’s why Connor folds his laundry straight out of the dryer to prevent wrinkles in his performance clothing.

  • Connor,  listens to music on his phone during a break between classes at Berkshire Hills Music Academy.

Published: 3/29/2017 12:10:23 AM

Even in silence, Tim Connor feels the music.

“I hear it in my head,” he says.

His mother Patti has heard it, too, for many years. A quarter century ago, she discovered her tiny composer at center stage on the kitchen floor — pots and pans removed from the cupboard and reassembled as a drum set.

The 2-year-old’s gift for music quickly became clear.

But shortly after, a heart murmur led to Tim’s diagnosis of Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes health problems including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, learning disabilities and distinctive facial features.

According to the Williams Syndrome Association, one in 10,000 people worldwide and an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 in the U.S. are affected by the condition.

A deep affinity for music is also characteristic of persons with Williams syndrome. Recognizing the connection, Patti got her son involved in music therapy at an early age.

Though Tim’s symptoms were on the mild side of the Williams’ spectrum, there wasn’t much information on the condition in the early 1990s, Patti said.

“It was a bit scary not knowing what to expect,” she said.

In the years to follow, many questions arose around what Tim’s life would be like after high school.

A flourishing musician

From his modest kitchen floor venue in Rye, N.Y, to center stage throughout the East Coast, Tim developed into a seasoned musician.

Everywhere he goes, his headphones go, too.

When he was younger, the headphones served to protect his ears from certain frequencies or noise levels that were painful for him. Acute hearing is often characteristic of children with Williams syndrome.

Now, at 28, the headphones are part of his signature look.

Tim’s ticket to the show business came through Berkshire Hills Music Academy — a postsecondary school that uses music as a tool to help individuals with disabilities develop life skills.

Based in South Hadley, some 55 students from all over the country study there. The campus is just minutes from Mount Holyoke College.

Patti said the school has provided her son with the platform to succeed, in a situation where options can be hard to come by.

“Even though he’s got delays, he thinks of it as his college experience,” she said. “It’s night and day.”

After completing the school’s two-year transition program in 2011, Tim chose to stay on as a long-term student.

He’s found a home with the BHMA Performance Troupe, a nine-person ensemble that entertains at schools, nursing homes, businesses and parties. They educate their audiences on life with disabilities and are paid for each gig.

“He knows this is his job,” said Patti. “It’s his job to play with the Troupe.”

When the crowd reacts, Tim lights up. His lips, once pursed in concentration, give way to a broad smile.

Each weekday, from 9 to noon, members of the Troupe work together to meld their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the points of tension are musical; other times they stem from differences in personality or ability.

“They have ups and downs but they know they have to interact or the Troupe falls apart,” Patti said.

Side by side, the musicians train through their own challenges ranging from ADHD and autism to blindness.

Tom Slowick, one of the Troupe performance managers, said music unites the group.

“Everybody has a role and music is the common denominator,” he said.

Tim learns quickly and plays intuitively but, like several other Troupe members, he does not read music. When introduced to a piece, he tips back his head and closes his eyes, focusing on the rhythm.

“I listen to it in my head and figure it out,” said Tim.

Slowick said that while some musicians can become tied to the printed note, his students are not restricted in that way.

“The music almost comes from their soul,” he said.

Exclamations of glee are not uncommon as the musicians master new pieces.

Tim lives for the invigorating draw of the drum beat, but has learned to stay consistent and thoughtful while performing in a group.

His group classes are supplemented with a slew of private drum and keyboard lessons to advance his own musical career.

“I’m good at drums because I can go crazy but keyboard is harder because of the finger control,” Tim says.

New musical opportunities arise each day at Berkshire Hills Music Academy and he faces them, drumsticks never far from hand.

But the young man’s growth at the school has not been limited to music.

He’s also become better at navigating social situations and functioning independently.

“I’m starting to walk away instead of becoming angry,” he said.

Tim lives with two peers in a South Hadley house owned by the school. A rotation of residential staff members are on-site in the morning, after school and overnight to offer support with some aspects of daily living.

Under their guidance, he has flourished.

He folds his performance clothes straight out of the dryer to prevent wrinkles and heeds the reminders posted around the apartment — which prompt the residents to turn off lights and fans before leaving and to clean up after oneself.

Sometimes before first light, Tim readies his bicycle for the 0.2-mile commute to the Troupe van parked at the academy. A professional cannot be late to an early morning gig.

His busy musical life is balanced with outings to nearby college campuses, where he meets up with friends he’s made in the Best Buddies program. Mount Holyoke College and UMass Amherst chapters of Best Buddies International pair college students with Berkshire Hills students to create one-on-one friendship opportunities.

That partnership, and other outreach programs organized at the school, aim to break through the social isolation sometimes faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I like going out in the community,” Tim says.

People with Williams syndrome tend to have highly social, friendly personalities.

Though he lives two hours from the family home in Rye, N.Y., Tim stays in close touch with his parents and three younger siblings. He travels by train to visit them, every couple of months.

While he’s there, Tim enjoys his mother’s cooking and volunteers to landscape the property — something he’s particularly fond of.

Patti, and Tim’s father Frank, notice the changes in their son’s maturity.

Tim notices, too. He isn’t yet sure what may come after Berkshire Hills Music Academy but he rests assured that music will always be a part of it.

“Music is truly his passion, that is his love,” said Patti. “It’s always been the drums.”

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com.




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