Magoosh English Class: Matthew Whitaker’s Life as a Blind Jazz Musician

Welcome to the next lesson in our free English class series about Music in America! In this lesson, we’ll look at Matthew Whitaker. He’s one of today’s hottest jazz musicians, and his talents are so phenomenal that scientists are actually studying his brain!

Goals:

  • Explore the life and talent of one of the youngest up and coming jazz pianists
  • Learn new words in the world of music
  • Review of modals

Difficulty Level:

Advanced

Time:

Approximately 15 minutes

Matthew Whitaker: Jazz Prodigy Against All Odds

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

No one will ever say Matthew Whitaker had it easy. Born three months premature, Matthew was given less than a 50 percent chance of survival. He survived but a short time later, was diagnosed with a disease that caused him to go blind. Matthew went through eleven surgeries before he reached the age of two to correct his blindness. Nothing worked. Doctors even said that he would never learn to speak or crawl.

But Matthew overcame the odds and not only lived through his disabilities but also thrived. At an early age, he would crawl towards speakers playing music in his home, so his grandfather bought him a keyboard when he was three.

Discovering Music

It didn’t take long for Matthew to play nursery rhymes. Not only was he playing them, he was playing them with both hands and playing full chords on the keyboard. This was rare for a 3-year-old.

Soon after, his parents sought out a piano teacher. However, the task proved to be difficult. Many teachers said he was too young or that they didn’t know how to teach someone who was blind. Finally, they found Dalia Sakas. who taught music studies at a school for the visually impaired. She found that Matthew could play literally anything he heard once. Even though his abilities have since reached an exceptional level, she is still teaching him to this day.

By the time he was 11, Matthew was playing concerts all around the world. Now, he’s played in over 200 clubs and concert halls. However, he’s not just a musical prodigy. Matthew is a trained and talented musician who can read Braille music and play both jazz and classical piano. He can also play the organ, percussion instruments, the clarinet, and the bass guitar.

Currently, Matthew is 19 years old and the sky’s the limit for him. He recently released an album titled “Now Hear This” that became a huge hit in the jazz music scene. A music critic said it sounds like Matthew is playing with six hands on the album. You can hear his music on Spotify and YouTube.

Learn more about Matthew’s life in this 60 Minutes special they did on him:

Word Focus

  • Nursery Rhymes – (noun) – Short rhymes written for children that have a story and sometimes a song.
    • My mom used to read me nursery rhymes from Mother Goose when I was a child.
  • Chords – (noun) – A group of notes that sound harmonious and like they’re being played simultaneously.
    • It took many years of practice, but I know pretty much every chord that can be played on a guitar or piano.
  • Sought out – (phrasal verb) – Past tense and past participle of seek out. To look for.
    • After the accident, my mother sought out the best attorney in the area.
  • Prodigy – (noun) – A person (usually young) with extraordinary talent or ability.
    • Mozart was considered a musical prodigy.
  • Braille – (noun) – A system of writing made for the blind that consists of raised dots in a specific number and arrangement that indicate characters. There is also Braille made for musical notation.
    • My brother was born blind, but he can take notes on his Braille notetaker.
  • Organ (instrument) – (noun) – An instrument played on a keyboard with sounds typically created by moving air through pipes.
    • My mother plays the organ for our church services every Sunday.
  • Percussion Instrument – (noun) – Musical instruments whose sounds are made by striking or scraping.
    • In high school, I played all of the percussion instruments for the school band.
  • Clarinet – (noun) – A woodwind instrument with a straight tube that was developed in Germany around the year 1700. It’s played using a single-reed mouthpiece.
    • My sister used to play the clarinet when she was younger, but I’m not sure if she can still play.
  • Bass Guitar – (noun) – An electric guitar (typically with four strings) that is tuned one octave lower than the four lowest pitches on a guitar. It is played by picking the strings with a guitar pick or with the fingers.
    • Sting has a great voice, but he’s also one of the best bass guitarists in the world.
  • The sky’s the limit – (idiom) – An idiom meaning anything is possible.
    • She’s young and her game just keeps getting better and better. The sky’s the limit for this softball player.

Grammar Center: Modal Verbs

Read the sentence from the passage below:

Matthew is a trained and talented musician who can read Braille music and play jazz and classical piano. He can also play the organ, percussion instruments, the clarinet, and the bass guitar.

As an advanced speaker, you know what the word can means, but do you understand its function in grammar?

The auxiliary verb can is part of a set of special verbs known as modals. They’re auxiliary verbs that can only exist as a helping verb (meaning they can’t be the main verb in a sentence). They exist to indicate a mood or tense and express things like prohibition, permission, obligation, possibility, ability and a few others.

The most common modals are: can, may, must, should, would, could, might, will, and shall.

Modals never change form and have no infinitive or participle, so you’ll never add things like -s, -ing, or -ed.

As I said, modals exist to indicate expression, but more than that, they can change the meaning of the verb they help. Look at the sentences below:

  • Matthew Whittaker plays tonight.
  • Matthew Whittaker should play tonight.

Those two sentences have very different meanings, and it’s all because of the modal.

Modals are a very complex topic within English grammar, and we explained it in depth in our last blog post.

Quiz

1. Based on your understanding of the passage above, how would you say the writer feels about Matthew Whitaker:

A. Indifferent

B. Perturbed

C. Inspired

D. Confused

 

2. Which of the following statements would you say best summarizes the passage?

A. Matthew Whitaker will continue to play jazz music for the rest of his life.

B. Matthew Whittaker had a rough start, but he worked hard to develop his talent.

C. Matthew Whitaker’s parents had a hard time finding a piano teacher.

D. Matthew Whitaker’s new album will be released next fall.

 

3. Which instrument is most commonly found in a church?

A. Clarinet

B. Percussion instruments

C. Bass Guitar

D. Organ

 

4. Which of the following songs is considered a common English nursery rhyme?

A. Tiny Dancer

B. Mary Had a Little Lamb

C. Hi-Ho

D. She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain

 

5. Which form puts sought out in the present participle?

A. Seek out

B. Sought out

C. Seeking out

D. Seeks out

 

6. Read the sentence below: She might come if you call and invite her. What does the modal verb might express in this sentence?

A. Possibility

B. Prohibition

C. Ability

D. Permission

Show Correct Answers:
  1. C
  2. B
  3. D
  4. B
  5. C
  6. A
Jake Pool

Jake Pool

After working in the restaurant industry for over a decade, Jake left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. He now creates content that informs, inspires, and educates ESL students on a wide range of topics. Jake also records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension.
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