Rowan University’s first blind vocal music student inspires his classmates with his talent

Before he could walk, Jake Lapp showed he had a love of music, clapping his hands and tapping his feet to the beat.

By age 3, he could play several instruments, and his family recognized his gift for music.

Born blind as a result of a rare brain development disorder, Lapp developed keen hearing as a child, his mother said. He easily identified sounds on television commercials and voices. But it was the sound of music that would help shape his life.

His parents, Melissa, 42, and Jeff, 49, exposed him to all types of artists, from Beethoven to Sting to Run DMC. Music made their son happy and soothed him when he was bored or upset, she said.

“Nothing was off the table,” his mother recalled with a laugh. “He would calm down immediately.”

Now 20, Lapp is pursuing his passion for music at Rowan University as a vocal jazz major. He is believed to be the first blind or visually impaired student enrolled in the university’s vocal music program.

“I really love everything about music,” he said. “It’s just something that makes me feel good.”

He commutes five days a week from his home in Quinton Township in Salem County to the sprawling campus in Glassboro, with his mother dropping him off in the morning and making the nearly hour-long return trip in the afternoon to take him home.

She initially worried about Lapp navigating the sprawling campus alone his first year, so she remained on standby in case he needed her. But he has become more independent in his second year, now with a full course load, and has made friends who assist when needed. He’s memorized how to get places, she said.

During a recent busy class day, Lapp arrived on time at a studio in the Wilson Music Hall for an instrumental techniques class with vocal professor Annie Sciolla. He practiced with classmate Gustavo Arce, taking turns with the harmony in Everybody’s Boppin” while Sciolla filled in a third part.

At one point, Sciolla instructed Arce, 21, of Hamilton Township, to close his eyes to experience the music with the same perspective as Lapp. Doing so forces a vocalist to use other senses to hone in on the notes, she said.

Arce said practicing with Lapp has made him a better musician. With perfect pitch Lapp plays piano, guitar, drums, trumpet, and yukele.

“Sometimes, I’m intimidated. He’s very talented,” said Arce, a first-year transfer student. “Jake is amazing.”

Sciolla later instructed the duo to perform their own arrangement: showing their personalities with scat singing, improvising melodies and rhythms with their voices as instrument. They critiqued each other, offering suggestions for improvement.

“That was a lot of fun. Holy cow!” laughed Lapp. “This was great.”

Later, Lapp had a private session with Sciolla in a small practice room with a black baby grand. After warming up, Lapp practiced different singing sounds, including falsetto, which he nailed. He also played a melody with his trumpet and the piano.

“Where’d that sound come from? That’s really nice, Jake,” Sciolla praised.

Sciolla used plastic models of the larynx to help Lapp find his own vocal cords by touch. She makes recordings that Lapp plays at home on his cell phone or computer, which has software that reads lyrics sheets to him.

Sciolla and other professors have adapted their teaching styles where needed to accommodate Lapp, who plays and sings by ear, but wants to learn how to read music in Braille, too. He’s been using Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology, which adapts music for blind people.

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Lapp spends 30 minutes weekly with trumpet professor Bryan Appleby-Wineberg for a one-on-one lesson to improve his trumpet chops and hopefully play solos one day.

Although Lapp has perfect pitch as a singer, his trumpet notes were off-key, said Appleby-Wineberg, head of brass and chairman of the music department. But with little instruction, Lapp quickly made the needed adjustments, he said.

From a young age, Lapp wanted to be held to the same standards as other students, his mother said. Appleby-Wineberg does just that. When Lapp was puffing his cheeks like virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie, Appleby-Wineberg instructed him to feel his face and throat to adapt to the style he should use, without filling out his cheeks. Normally, Appleby-Wineberg would have students look in a mirror to grasp the concept.

“I can still do the same amount of work as everyone else,” Lapp said. “I don’t want to be shortchanged or cheat myself.”

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Lapp was about 3 weeks old when doctors discovered he was blind as a result of Septo-optic dysplasia.

After his first birthday, his parents bought the boy a keyboard for Christmas, a music-giving tradition that would continue for years. The following year, he got an acoustic guitar. He would later get a set of drums and a trumpet. His grandfather gifted him a piano.

“It almost became a joke: ‘What is the most bizarre instrument we give Jake and how soon can he play music on it?’ ” his mother said. “It’s his thing.”

After performing in an American Legion concert at age 4, Lapp was hooked. When he started school, he got more involved with music, joining the chorus and a barbershop quartet, the Quin-Tones.

There have been challenges for the family over the years. Lapp was recently diagnosed with epilepsy and occasionally suffers from seizures. Deeply spiritual, the family, which includes sisters Arianna and Brynlee, leans heavily on their faith to cope with his challenges, his mother said.

“He’s just been blessed so many times,” she said. “God wants him on this earth for a reason.”