Mubarak Farah was eight years old when he began teaching himself to play the piano. A refugee who came to Ottawa with his family when he was three, Farah listened to the Somali folk music played from his family’s cassettes, matching the notes on his keys and eventually figuring out the chords being played.
An impressive accomplishment for a child to do on his own, but Farah had something else setting him back: he was born with glaucoma and had lost all his vision by the time he was six. Unable to read music, “everything was done by sound and touch,” he said.
Lat week, Farah, now 30 and a professional blues pianist, opened Ability Through Music, a music school for children and adults with disabilities, and hopes to empower people by teaching them piano. The academy welcomes people of all skill levels. Though it’s currently offering piano lessons, it’s trying to expand its lessons to other instruments.
Farah understands the impact playing music can have on anyone, especially people with disabilities.
While his brothers played sports, Farah was stuck inside, unable to participate. “I never really felt like there was a place for me,” he said. But music was always something he loved, and he knew it was something he could work on.
“As someone with a disability, music saved my life,” he says. “It gave me an identity.”
The idea to open the academy came last year when he had trouble finding work as a music teacher. “As soon as I mentioned the visual impaired, (potential employers) shut the whole thing down.”
Farah saw Ability Though Music as an opportunity to find himself work while giving back to the community.
When he began taking music lessons at age 12, his instructor at the time had trouble adapting to Farah’s vision impairment. He would grab Farah’s hands fumble them around the keys, adjusting their position. “They had no idea how to teach me.”
But his second teacher took a radically different approach: He began by familiarizing him with the instrument, teaching Farah the feel of the piano and its mechanics before he delved into theory and scales. It’s an approach Farah said he’s “stolen.”
Farah believes his firsthand experience in having to adapt around his disability gives him an edge in teaching others with disabilities to learn music.
“It’s about learning together,” he said, adding that the process of teaching requires both he and his students to work around other’s needs.
Michael Wood, one of Farah’s former professors at Algonquin College, believes Farah carries the qualities of good teacher. “He was always the most positive person in the room,” Wood said. “He can really play, too.”
Farah has always been trying to help the community, said Wood, who recounted a time when he helped Farah to set up a piano at a blood clinic to ease the minds of nervous donors.
“There are people who are given every opportunity to succeed in life, but don’t.” Farah is the exact opposite, according to Wood.
Because the school just opened, Farah is still waiting for students to sign up, but he’s optimistic people will take interest.
Farah still plays in a blues band, Airliner, though he’s stepped back to pursue the academy full-time. He still enjoys playing Somali folk music, but his palette has expanded to include blues, roots, a little jazz and country — “not popular country though,” he says. “I’m talking Hank Williams, Willie Nelson.”
Asked if there are any misconceptions about musicians with a disability, he says the biggest one is that musicians like him have heightened senses. “I know people are well meaning,” he said, “but I just don’t understand. How can I compare my hearing to other people’s?
“I can’t just put other people’s ears on.”
Farah doesn’t see his disability as an impediment to playing music. “Music is very accessible. If you’re blind, you can still hear. If you’re deaf, you can feel the vibrations of the music.”
The entire purpose of Ability Through Music is to prove that, Farah said. “My school is about empowerment through music.”