FRANKFORT — Every Thursday at 11:30 a.m., Tony Lovello packs up his accordion and heads out Military Pike. He’s on his way to give a music lesson to a student unlike any he’s ever taught. Every Wednesday she calls to remind him, even though the chances of his forgetting are nil. The weekly sessions are his first priority; he arranges his schedule around them.
"I’m really proud of this girl, what she’s gone through, what she’s doing," he says as he drives toward Frankfort. Lovello is widely known in Lexington for his 30 years as hotel manager of The Campbell House, from which he retired about 10 years ago. But in different circles he’s known as "the Liberace of the Accordion" for his banter with his audience and the sparkles on his clothes. He’s an old-school showman who’s been entertaining since his father put an accordion on him at 5 years old and made him learn to play.
His father, who was even older school, often would apply a ruler to his son’s knuckles when he didn't like what he heard. Lovello knows that even a mild expression of impatience with this student could bring her to tears. His destination Thursdays is the Stewart Home School, a private, 118-year-old institution for people with special needs. His student is Gloria Lenhoff, 56, and she’s a celebrity in her own right among those who have any familiarity with a condition called Williams Syndrome. Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder that results in what neurobiologist Oliver Sacks calls "an extraordinary mix of gifts and defects." The defects come in the form of cognitive disabilities and chronic health problems. But the gifts are remarkable; among them are advanced verbal and aural skills, and a profound connection to music. In rare instances, people with Williams are what the world terms a "savant." Savants can wow an audience with a particular talent but need assistance in tasks of day-to-day living. Dustin Hoffman played a savant with an affinity for numbers in Rain Man. Lenhoff is unable to subtract 2 from 5, and her IQ has consistently measured 55. But she can converse in a half-dozen languages and sing in a lovely lyric soprano. She has a repertoire of hundreds of songs on the accordion and has perfect pitch, but she can’t read music. "When she’s playing, ask her to change key, and it’s like " Lovello snaps his fingers while waiting for a light to change.
Transposing a song — which means different notes must be played as flats or sharps — in the midst of playing, and when there’s no music in front of you, is no small feat. "You know, this girl really amazes me," he says.
Nearing the turnoff for the school, Lovello pulls into a gas station. "I have to bring her some sugarless gum or she'll be upset with me."
At the school
The entrance to the Stewart Home School is through two imposing stone pillars. In late March, the campus' 850 rolling acres are starting to turn green, and redbuds are revealing hints of purple.
As Lovello pulls into the parking lot of one of the main buildings, Lenhoff comes out, bundled in a down coat. Some of the physical traits of Williams Syndrome are visible but not glaring: a small build and facial characteristics sometimes described as elfin. She has a nose that's broad at the tip, a long upper lip, a small chin. What's most striking are her cultivated voice and wide smile. Lovello gives her a big hug. "How you doing? Did you miss me?" he asks.
They head down a long hall to a tiny room, nearly filled by a keyboard, a piano and shelves of music. Teacher and student get out their accordions. Lovello suggests she play Sway. Lenhoff quickly launches into Lovello's arrangement of the popular song from the '50s, looking over at her teacher for signs of approval. Lovello smiles as he nods his head to the mambo beat, and Lenhoff smiles back.
"When she's happy, she's something else. She has the biggest smile," says Lovello. "But songs get to her, too. If I played a sad song, like Feelings, she'd cry in a heartbeat."
Strong emotional attachments, warmth and empathy are other characteristics of Williams, and with them comes heightened sensitivity. So Lovello, who has worked with taskmasters including Lawrence Welk and hardened show-business types like Eddie Cantor, has learned to choose his words carefully and not give in to impatience when teaching Lenhoff.
"In the years I've taught her, I had one incident where she was crying from frustration, and I started to put away my accordion," Lovello says. She stopped crying right away. It hasn't happened again.
Over time, he has become wise to her ways.
"She'll tell me something I'm asking her to do is too hard or that she doesn't like it. Sometimes I have it recorded on a CD and I'll give it to her. Then I'll come back the next week and she'll play it like she wrote it."
Lovello asks her to play the Russian folk song Kalinka, and Lenhoff sings in Russian as she plays. Then she practices another piece she was preparing to perform at a Williams conference last month in France. She proceeds to sing the refrain in a half-dozen languages.
"You're only as good as your last show," the seasoned performer reminds her.
Made for each other
Lenhoff, 56, has been at the Stewart School and taking lessons with Lovello for about three years. For most of her life she lived with her parents, Sylvia and Howard Lenhoff, moving with her father's career in academia from Connecticut to Florida to California.
In the magazine Exceptional Parent, her father described an early assessment by the medical establishment. After extensive tests, the specialists sat the parents down and told them that their 7-year-old girl was mentally retarded and that they should simply take her home and love her.
"Love her we did," he says, "but none of them had advised us to look for any unusual strengths she might have and to focus on helping her to develop those strengths."
At that time, Williams Syndrome had just been given a name, and awareness of its characteristics was in its infancy.
Her parents say they became aware that their daughter was musically gifted when she was about 11. "It was mostly her voice, her lyric soprano" her mother says by phone. "We noticed how she could retain and recall everything without cues." At age 12, she performed Song of Songs in a synagogue chapel for her bat mitzvah. For her mother, it was a revelation. "I knew it was music for Gloria," she says.
They sought out the best voice teachers for her. At times it was difficult to find anyone flexible enough to teach without the use of books or sheet music, but they persisted. They also exposed their daughter to various instruments.
"We tried her on the piano," her mother says. "She was a tiny little bird of a thing. She slid around the piano bench." But when she picked up a small accordion, it seemed as if player and instrument were made for each other.
Word of Gloria Lenhoff's exceptional abilities spread over the years. In 1988, she was the subject of a PBS documentary, Bravo Gloria, which brought the family in touch with others like Lenhoff. Her father co- authored a book about her development and became a crusader for people with Williams Syndrome. "I tell Gloria, 'Nobody can do what you do,'" he says.
Although her parents are her biggest boosters, her fans include former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford, who was so moved by her performance of a Puccini aria that he asked her to appear with the band at a fund-raiser, singing the Aerosmith hit I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing.
Lenhoff's parents live in Mississippi. They followed their daughter there from California about 11 years ago. She had seen a choral group associated with the Badour Center for adults with intellectual disabilities, The Miracles, and she wanted to be a part of it.
"We had never dreamed about living in Mississippi," her mother says, but they packed up and settled there. For the first time, their daughter lived away from them, at the center, and she sang and traveled with the group.
After about seven years, Gloria Lenhoff was ready for something different. She found out about the Stewart School and its many activities, and she told her parents, "I want to go there."
Although not ready to move again themselves, they agreed to let her go. They looked around for an accordion teacher and soon found Lovello, the "king of the bellows shake."
A gift from God
After their lesson is finished, Lovello treats his student to lunch at a nearby steakhouse. The menu is an obstacle. Lenhoff reads at a fourth-grade level, but the pictures and descriptions are confusing. With some encouragement, she settles on a shrimp plate.
She is comfortable discussing her talent and speaks confidently about performing: "I've sung with many opera companies, in San Diego, in Memphis. ... I've done four operas with the Memphis company. I love to perform. It's the best gift God ever gave me. When I speak to God at night he says, 'My child, You just keep on going, you don't let anyone stop you.'"
In preparation for her recent trip to France, she studied with a French teacher. But, she says, "All I do is listen to a person speak in another language, then I know it."
She changes the subject. "I have a boyfriend who has Williams Syndrome in Mississippi," she says. "He plays the drums. He sings me a love song on the phone."
"Have you told him about me?" Lovello asks.
Lovello's accordion has taken him far in life: to showbiz heights as a member of the once hugely popular group The Three Suns; to the infield of Yankee Stadium to perform the national anthem. He has shared a bill with the likes of Jimmy Durante and Kate Smith, the Ink Spots and Lionel Hampton. During the Korean War, he was given a non-combat assignment, entertaining the troops. Now 78, "The Liberace of the Accordion" performs about 20 paid concerts a year.
Part of his routine onstage is to describe how his father taught him to play: "Put some pep in it. Repeat. Now put some flash in it. Repeat." His father taught "with ruler in hand," he says, and didn't hesitate to use it.
"But my father always said, 'Junior, when you put on that accordion, I want you to make it sing.'" Lovello says. "He taught me to play from the heart, and so does Gloria. In that way, we're on the same page."