Music helped Rochelle Park girl transcend autism to become music star
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
The pink sequined Converse high tops bounce off the piano pedals as the fingers strike familiar opening chords. In an impromptu performance, 11-year-old Jodi DiPiazza starts singing Katy Perry's "California Gurls."
A couple of verses in, Jodi transitions flawlessly into "Firework" - which she performed in a duet with Perry during the "Night of Too Many Stars" benefit, which aired on Comedy Central last week. That performance has made the fourth grader from Rochelle Park an Internet sensation.
When asked later if she had ever played that Perry mash-up before, Jodi responds matter-of-factly.
"No," she says. "I just heard it and I thought it was fun."
Hear it, play it. No big deal. No practice, no written notes required. Music is that easy to Jodi.
She is a girl with phenomenal talent; she is also a girl with autism. She can get onstage with an international pop star and perform with ease, but crossing the street safely or starting a conversation with a peer takes hours of instruction, repetition and the dedication of her teachers and her parents, Tom and Michelle.
More than 2 million people in the United States have autism, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization. Jodi has trouble making eye contact and appropriate conversation, changing her routine and using expressive language, all of which are characteristic of those with the disorder. But her perfect pitch and musical talent have helped Jodi find a comfortable place both within herself and in the outside world. Her natural ability is also what put her in the spotlight.
The show's producers wanted to catch up with Jodi, who appeared six years ago in a video on "Night of Too Many Stars." This time her appearance turned into much more. Her duet with Perry was released as a YouTube video a few days before the show's airing. As of Friday, it had been viewed more than 4ï¾½ million times. On Oct. 19, Jodi performed "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie" on "Good Morning America"; the rest of the day, Tom DiPiazza fielded phone calls with interview requests. The frenzy continued last Monday, the day after the "Night of Too Many Stars" aired.
"We had to refuse quite a few," says Michelle DiPiazza. "Most important is her health and well-being."
So far, those close to Jodi - her parents and her teachers - says she's handling her sudden fame well.
Learning to handle attention
There was a time, even recently, when Jodi might not have been able to handle the attention.
"You should see her, the other day when she came home from school," Michelle says. "She was so excited that all her classmates and teachers were so happy with her performance."
Not long ago, she wouldn't have been able to share her excitement with her parents. Music, especially writing her own songs, has helped to articulate her emotions.
"Before, she could never tell me how she felt about things," Michelle says.
Hard work and intensive therapy has been the norm for the DiPiazzas most of Jodi's life. Diagnosed just before her second birthday, she had frequent, severe tantrums. At 2ï¾½, she began an outreach program offered by Alpine Learning Center in Paramus, an autism education facility.
"She has come a lifetime in her 11 years," says Bridget Taylor, co-founder and executive director of Alpine, where Jodi started attending school daily at age 3.
There is a striking difference between Jodi now and six years ago when The Record profiled her as part of a series, "In Autism's Grip." At the time, Jodi barely spoke or interacted with other people.
Now she walks up to a stranger, extends her hand and says, "Hi, my name is Jodi. What's your name?" The cadence is slightly halted and awkward and her gaze is elsewhere, but this kind of interaction was unimaginable when that initial story was published. Jodi is, by all standards, a success story; she's also a work in progress. There is no cure for autism and Jodi and her extensive support network must be diligent each day.
This fall, Jodi entered fourth grade at Midland School, a kindergarten through 8th grade public school in Rochelle Park. She attends a few hours each morning with support staff from Alpine, where she spends the rest of the school day. This is her second attempt at public school; she struggled in kindergarten and first grade.
It has gone better so far this time around, but with relatively little socializing among the other kids - until last week, of course.
When Jodi showed up for school at Midland last Monday, her classmates had written her name and congratulatory messages on the dry erase board in the classroom. Jodi signed autographs - something she says she learned how to do from Perry. Now older kids, who didn't seem to know her name before, seek her out and in gym class, when she struggles to finish a run, she is no longer left alone.
"Some of the kids are hanging back now and cheering her on," says Caren Gans, teacher and coordinator of inclusion services at Alpine, who occasionally accompanies Jodi to Midland. "Two weeks ago, I was running next to her."
As kids at school reach out to Jodi, adults across the country are contacting her parents. They get new emails every day through Jodigirl.com, a website Tom's sister created in 2010 to help Jodi learn how to use a computer and navigate the Internet. Tom recounts one from a mother who wrote that she found strength when she watched the video after her autistic son had a terrible tantrum, and another from a parent who said Jodi gives them hope for their situation.
"Every night I go home and read these emails and that's inspiring us - to go out and raise awareness and help people," says Tom.
The DiPiazzas have their hands full with Jodi's schooling and music.
Every day, she has a music lesson or chorus practice after school. She takes jazz piano from Luciano Salvatore in Waldwick and guitar and voice from John Alex in Piermont. They helped her work on the "Firework" performance. She is a member of three choruses - Tom is already worried about the demands of holiday concert season - plays piano, guitar and drums and is about to take up the violin.
She spends Saturdays in Manhattan at the Preparatory School at Mannes College The New School for Music, where she studies voice, piano and composition.
"Forget the autism, she does things well beyond her years," says Kate Sheeran, director of the prep division at Mannes.
The staff there says Jodi's composing ability is most impressive.
"She has a new piece all the time," says Sheeran, who once told Jodi she plays the French horn only to have Jodi return a week later with a piece for a brass quartet. "She's written a wind quartet. She has a string quartet. ... She's working on a piece for full orchestra that the high school kids are going to read in two weeks. It's called 'Raindrops in the Air.' I'm sure it'll be a big hit."
Jodi's parents don't have musical ability, Michelle says. There's no genetic explanation for Jodi's talent. It's just one of those gifts, something they noticed when she was 3 or 4 and could hear a song on TV or the radio and walk over to her keyboard and play it.
Pop music is new to her, an interest Tom credits to the staff at Alpine, which strives to keep its students up on pop culture to help them relate to peers. Before that, Jodi's musical interests were classical and classic rock, her dad's favorite. Jodi likes The Kinks and The Who.
"Come dancing," Jodi sings when Tom brings up those bands. Soon she breaks into a song from The Who's "Tommy."
"See me," she begins the song, perfectly in tune.
There is no doubt, everyone has seen her now.
"I've always been so proud of Jodi, every single thing she's accomplished," Michelle says before her voice cracks. "But this ... I get emotional just thinking about it. She's able to show the world. She has such a special purpose in this life and I'm so glad people are able to see that and appreciate her."
Giving strength to others
Jodi's successes give strength and validation to the many who have worked with her and others with autism.
"Listen, when you are working with folks with challenges and you can see the accomplishments they can make, it's quite extraordinary," Taylor says. "It makes you realize why you're in the work that you do."
The Alpine staff is concerned about what might happen when the attention from her "Night of Too Many Stars" appearance dies down. It's difficult to predict whether Jodi will be affected. Her teachers are already thinking of ways to help her through it; just as they have come up with coping mechanisms for other situations such as singing with others.
At Midland School's girls' chorus practice on Wednesday, there is the kind of noise and chaos expected when nearly 30 students from 4th to 8th grade get together after school. Jodi handles it well, despite kids singing off-key and an imperfect performance.
After practice, she stops just outside the classroom door. Surrounded by students a small group of students, she is putting a new friend's number into her phone.
"She's such a star now," one girl says, trying to squeeze past the crowd.
Baby, you're a firework
Come on, let your colours burst
Make 'em go "Oh, Oh, Oh"
You're gonna leave 'em all in "awe, awe, awe"
Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
It's always been inside of you, you, you
And now it's time to let it through