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Austin girl playing Carnegie Hall Friday with students from Orpheus Academy of Music seven years after stroke

Nicole Villalpando

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Well, for the more than 40 kids from Austin, it’s taking lessons from Orpheus Academy of Music and lining up to get one of the slots in Orpheus’ first Carnegie Hall concert. The classical music school is celebrating its 15th anniversary in a big way with this concert on Friday at the famed New York City venue.

Klondike Steadman director of musical arts at Orpheus, said the music school allowed students to secure their spot by registering in person at 8 a.m. on a Saturday months ago. People started lining up, sitting in their lawn chairs outside the school, at 10 p.m. the night before.

“What we go for is how dedicated will you be,” Steadman says, of how students got picked for the concert.

The performance will be extra special for 12-year-old Casey Irwin and her mom Julie. On Friday, Casey will be singing “My Funny Valentine.” She likes the song for its humor and because it fits with her voice and her range.

Casey began voice lessons when she was 7 as a way to help her talk again after she had a stroke when she was 5.

“She couldn’t talk at all,” Julie Irwin says of her daughter when she first had the stroke. “She couldn’t read, she couldn’t make a word.”

Yet, at Casey’s first singing lesson, the teacher told her to take a pencil, read the lyrics and make notes in the sheet music.

Irwin says she didn’t think Casey could do that and wanted to jump in and try to explain the limitations Casey faced, but she didn’t. “The teacher was nonplussed by it,” Julie Irwin says of the stroke.

Irwin walked away and let the lesson happen, and Casey, who has lasting damage to her right hand from the stroke and had to learn how to write with her left, sat down and made notes on the sheet music.

“She was so motivated to do it,” Irwin says.

Casey’s musical ability was part of her even before the stroke, her mom says. As a preschooler, she had a male music teacher and she would sing exactly an octave up from what he was singing. That’s rare, Steadman says.

Everyone had told Irwin that some kind of music would be helpful for Casey to regain language. Music and singing use a different part of Casey’s brain, and singing could form the bridge between.

“Music really helped me,” Casey says. She was motivated to learn how to read by reading the lyrics.

“It helped her healing,” Julie Irwin says.

The stroke happend July 11, 2011, the summer after Casey’s kindergarten year. She was in the pool at Reed Neighborhood Park.

Luckily, Julie Irwin was right there when Casey came up out of the water. Casey couldn’t walk or talk. “Her whole face was drooping,” Julie Irwin says. Casey started crying, but she couldn’t make a sound.

“I knew it was extremely serious,” Irwin says.

Irwin was screaming for people around her to call 911.

Casey says the stroke didn’t really hurt, but she remembers thinking, “I’m going to die,” she says. “It was very scary, but then my mom was right there, and I knew I was going to be OK.”

They went by ambulance to Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and Casey stopped breathing along the way. Doctors got Casey stabilized and the recovery began.

Casey couldn’t make any sounds at first, but then a week later, she made a grunt while playing with a balloon with her grandparents. Then with more therapy and time, and she learned how to point with her left hand to get what she wanted. Then in another month, she could say 10 to 15 words.

Julie Irwin likened it to her daughter suddenly being an infant again and learning to talk: first grunts and babble, then pointing, then a few words. “She had a fairly strong accent,” Irwin says, like she was drunk, for a very long time.

Casey was in therapy constantly, first at Dell Children’s, then at a specialized rehab center in Dallas, then outpatient therapy back home.

She relearned how to walk, first with six people helping her, then on her own with a specialized electronic boot to stimulate the nerves.

Her speech began to come along, but she would mix up words or be searching for a word, which still sometimes happens. She’ll be talking about Niagara Falls when she meant Neanderthals.

And she still has weakness in her right hand, which she holds in a fist close to her chest.

“Doctors said it was going to get better,” Casey says of her hand. “They don’t really know,” Julie Irwin says.

In addition to taking voice lessons and music theory at Orpheus, Casey has now started taking piano. Her teacher gives her music that is written for or arranged for people with the use of only one hand. Again, like that first voice lesson, Julie Irwin walked out of the room and let the lesson happen. Casey was able to play with her teacher. “It’s helpful to have a place that didn’t make (the effects of her stroke) a thing,” Julie Irwin says. “They aimed a little higher,” she says.

Steadman says he has learned a lot from his wife, Wendy, who is also a music teacher, and got her start teaching adult with disabilities. Now 50 percent of his wife’s students would be considered on the autism spectrum or having another disability. “Everybody is special needs,” Steadman says. “Every single student has areas where they excel and areas where they need to learn,” he says.

Casey is now playing Bach on the piano, about a year after starting lessons, and it has helped strengthen her right hand.

“It shows what I can do in a different way,” she says. “I tried it out and I really liked it,” she says of piano. Julie Irwin says Casey already plays better with one hand than she did with two hands when she took lessons as a child.

Casey is a bit nervous to play at Carnegie Hall. “Am I sure I want to do this?” she’s been asking herself.

Performing regularly is part of Orpheus’ curriculum. Students play for one another regularly as part of music theory class and in regular recitals. It’s all about confronting stage fright, and as Steadman says, being a part of something bigger than yourself. “Together we inspire,” he says the school’s philosophy is. “Casey’s been such a big part of it.”