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Unlocking Her Song: Mena’s Story

Ben Garber, owner of Steinway & Sons, has always believed music has the power to communicate in powerful ways, to break down barriers and to express thoughts and feelings we might not be able to find words for. As a piano performer, teacher, technician and store owner, he has seen that happen time after time. But as Ben has watched his daughter, Mena, grow and develop, this has taken on a whole new meaning for him.

It didn’t take long after Mena was born for Ben and his wife, Jung Won, to sense something was different about their first child. By age two, Mena was learning words quickly, identifying items on flashcards and even memorizing entire stories. But while she knew lots of words, Mena wasn’t actually using the words to communicate. She was simply parroting them back. She seemed unable to find her own words to express herself.

Locked inside her own world, Mena sometimes grew frustrated. When words couldn’t reach her, Ben and Jung Won turned to music. It was an integral part of their lives and so they naturally weaved it into Mena’s life from the beginning. Ben sang to her when she was upset and at bedtime, and the music seemed to sooth her.

Right before Mena’s third birthday, the doctors gave their diagnosis: autism. Suddenly what had seemed like a communication delay came into focus as a lifetime struggle Mena would face. Ben felt powerless. He couldn’t change the diagnosis or many pieces of its impact on Mena’s life. Still, he longed for a way to reach through this barrier to her—and a way to help her reach through it to him.

Finally Ben settled on one thing he could do: he could teach Mena to play the piano. So, he sat down beside his three-year-old and began what would become a process of teaching Mena not just notes—but a way to express herself and communicate in music what she would never be able to communicate with words.

Ben and Jung Won were amazed at how quickly three-year-old Mena progressed on the piano. Reading notes came easily to her. Soon after beginning Mena on the piano, they started her in violin lessons. Ben and Jung Won remained her piano teachers, deciding this was something they wanted to do themselves. As time passed, Mena’s skills continued to grow. It became apparent that she was extremely gifted at both instruments, playing with a technical accuracy and level of expressiveness that caught people’s attention wherever she played.

Now at age 14, Mena still says very little. While she repeats lines from commercials or television shows, she only utters a couple of original sentences each day. When she is able to put words to her thoughts and feelings in school papers or assignments, they come back as simple sentences often starting with the phrases: I play the piano. I play the violin.

For Mena, words don’t always work as a way to express herself. If she had to rely on words alone, her thoughts and emotions would remain trapped inside. But Mena has found another way to connect to the world. The notes on the piano, the music she can create, enable her to tell her story.