A New Brunswick music school helps special needs students achieve more than learning an instrument – opening a world of opportunity

Ariella and Student
Guitar instructor Ariella Gizzi has taught Victor Grigorov, who has autism, for three years.
Photo: Courtesy of Octopus Music School

‘We decided: Why not teach music for music’s sake and if in doing so, we provide something therapeutic, all the better.’
– Joseph Fekete, Octopus Music School owner

Music can be life changing.

Just ask Dimitar Grigorov. When his then-12-year-old son, Victor, asked to take guitar lessons, the Highland Park, N.J., father was skeptical. Victor, who is autistic, was prone to anxiety and had difficulty focusing his attention on one task.

But Victor was insistent: He was going to play the guitar. “There’s no denying Victor when he sets his mind on something,” Grigorov says. “I figured it was worth a shot.”

Grigorov started calling music schools but became discouraged: Most teachers had never taught a child with special needs and weren’t sure they could.

He had almost given up when a friend recommended Octopus Music School in downtown New Brunswick, owned by Rutgers alumnus Joseph Fekete. “It was wonderful to finally hear a yes,” Grigorov says.

The school had never taught a child with special needs. But Fekete and guitar instructor Ariella Gizzi, a fellow Rutgers graduate who works during the day as a special education teacher, were willing to try.

“We are music teachers, not music therapists, but we saw a child who just wanted to learn how to play an instrument,” Fekete says. “We decided: Why not teach music for music’s sake, and if in doing so, we provide something therapeutic, all the better.”

In his early sessions, Victor was anxious and experienced panic attacks. “Teaching him guitar was secondary to keeping him engaged in the lesson,” Fekete says. “But soon, Victor started to express his understanding and appreciation of music. It was pretty amazing what he achieved.”

Today, Victor, 15, practices daily, researches music that he’d like to play and has performed in the school’s annual spring showcase along with his typically functioning peers at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

Beyond the technical skills, Grigorov ticks off the personal benefits: Victor’s communication, patience and interaction with the world around him have improved. And the teen, who at one time could only tolerate the lowest volumes while watching television, now can be found in the audience at rock concerts. “We’ve seen the loudest bands we could – The Rolling Stones, Whitesnake, AC/DC,” says Grigorov. “I have to wear cotton in my ears, but Victor takes his out.”

Since enrolling Victor, Octopus’s special needs program has taken off, primarily through word of mouth: Of the approximately 200 students the school teaches each week, one-quarter has disabilities, such as autism and Down syndrome.

As a Division of Developmental Disabilities service provider, Octopus also offers music instruction to special needs adults attending area day programs.

“Victor opened our eyes to the fact that there is a population of people who want to learn music, but have few opportunities,” says Fekete. “Students come to us from across the state.”

Fekete – a French cultural studies and political science double major who worked his way through college by teaching guitar at his off-campus home – opened Octopus Music School upon his graduation from Rutgers in 2008. Since then, the business has grown from one to four rooms and boasts a stable of 10 instructors who teach guitar, bass, piano, violin, drum and voice.

The quirky name is a nod to Fekete’s original home studio. “The street number was eight, and the room where I taught was so tiny that the equipment cables unraveled all over the place,” he says. “I referred to it as ‘the octopus’ and the name stuck.”

He says the greatest satisfaction comes from watching children, regardless of ability, learn to appreciate music.

“Teaching a special needs student is no different than teaching a typically functioning student,” Fekete explains. “Every person is unique in how he or she learns. We get to know the individual first and create lessons accordingly.”

Gizzi, who previously worked at Rutgers’ Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, draws upon her education and experience to apply instructional techniques to teaching music theory. “Some students do not require modified content,” she says. “For others, I focus more on providing the foundations and basics of rhythm and note reading. I add visuals, body movements and verbal cues to enhance my instruction.”

Beyond music education, students in the program have reaped other benefits, such as improved motor or communication skills.

Gizzi encourages parents to see their special needs children as capable of learning an instrument. “The progress they see is incredible,” she says. “They will leave their lessons with a sense of purpose and with a skill that they themselves have worked to achieve.”

For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or patti.verbanas@rutgers.edu