If I didn't have music, I'd be a quarter of the way back to where I am now. Music's my life now.
—Connor Derraugh, musician
It's a remarkable story of determination, perseverance and above all, a deep love of music, jazz music in particular.
Connor Derraugh is a 17-year old aspiring musician who plays alto sax and piano. But two and a half years ago he suffered a terrible brain injury during surgery that left him paralyzed on his right side. That meant having to learn how to walk again, how to talk, how to eat. And accepting the possibility that he'd never play music again.
While still in hospital, Derraugh announced to his father that no matter what, he was going to jazz camp, even if he had to play with just one hand. He had been attending the University of Manitoba's Summer Jazz Camp for five years and absolutely loved it.
"Music helped me in a lot of ways," Derraugh said. Once home from the hospital, he realized he didn't have the strength to even make a sound on the piano. Rather than be discouraged he concentrated first on saxophone, because the keys are softer and easier to play. He does have exercises to strengthen his right hand, but it was really the music that pulled him through.
"If I didn't have music, I'd be a quarter of the way back to where I am now. Music's my life now," he said.
Jazz musician Walle Larsson stepped in and offered to give Derraugh lessons on the sax, he even developed a special technique that would make it easier for him.
Derraugh performs onstage at The Orbit Room as part of the Cool Wednesday Night Hang (CBC)
Derraugh found more support from Winnipeg's jazz community, courtesy of Steve Kirby. Kirby is head of Jazz Studies at the University of Manitoba and leader of the Cool Wednesday Night Hang at the Orbit Room. It's a big jam session involving music faculty, university and even high school students. Kirby recognized immediately that Derraugh had an extra spark and offered him an opportunity to play.
"What makes him stand out is that he's got a story. And he really wants to tell it. He's really creative. He has figured out ways of expressing himself with the music when most people would probably have given up. Because of that determination he's created some things that are unique to him.You see that he's really the real deal," Kirby said.
Kirby says Derraugh gets a sense of euphoria when he plays, and that it's really unique to find that kind of poise at his age.
"It's pretty incredible to see how far he's come," said Lori Derrraugh, Connor's mother. She and her husband Jeff have been encouraging him along the way. When they realized he was getting bored with his exercises, they bought him some play-along jazz piano books so he could work on building strength in his right hand. Playing music -- even practicing -- is pure pleasure for him.
"Whenever he plays music he's just in his happy place. He loves it, is passionate about it. And he wouldn't think about that as rehab, but it really is great rehab."
Derraugh has even developed a fun way to improve his right-hand brain pathways - by simultaneously playing cribbage on his iPad with his left hand and piano with his right hand.
"I really want my right hand back," Connor said."I know basically the only way I'll get it back is through practicing. My goal is to be one of the best in the world at what I do. In jazz, especially, you never know everything. You just never stop working."Connor Derraugh performs at the Cool Wednesday Night Hang at the Orbit Room, 2077 Pembina Highway.
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