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Teenage prodigy was born with challenges, gift for making music

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 11:50 p.m.
Shailen Abram, 14, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, plays keyboards and sings at West Penn Hospital on Friday, December 7, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Shailen Abram, 15, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, plays piano and sings at West Penn Hospital's holiday party on Friday, December 7, 2012. Abram, a musical prodigy, has performed with Stevie Wonder, and hopes someday to be a recording artist. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Nicole Slack, left, 24, of Carnegie applauds for musical prodigy Shailen Abram with fellow Lupus Center employees Linda Santelices, center, 32, of Forest Hills and Nicole Wilson, 41, of Churchill at West Penn Hospital on Friday, December 7, 2012. At 15 and with limited vision, Abram is considered a musical prodigy. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Shailen Abram, 15, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, talks to media at West Penn Hospital on Friday, December 7, 2012. Abram was born at 1 pound 9 ounces in Allegheny General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, now housed at West Penn Hospital. Completely blind in his left eye and with limited vision in his right, Shailen went home to an uncertain future. But before he was even a year old, Shailen’s mother saw he had a precocious musical talent. At 14 he displays dazzling piano virtuosity and received a “Yes I Can” award from the Council on Exceptional Children in Washington, DC. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Sharon Elliot, the mother of Shailen Abram, 15, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, watches as her son performs at West Penn Hospital on Friday, December 7, 2012. Abram was born at 1 pound 9 ounces in Allegheny General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, now housed at West Penn Hospital. Completely blind in his left eye and with limited vision in his right, Shailen went home to an uncertain future. But before he was even a year old, Shailen’s mother saw he had a precocious musical talent. At 14 he displays dazzling piano virtuosity and received a “Yes I Can” award from the Council on Exceptional Children in Washington, DC. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The hands of Shailen Abram, 15, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, play the keyboard as he performs at West Penn Hospital's holiday party on Friday, December 7, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Piano keys are reflected in the sunglasses of Shailen Abram, 15, of Pittsburgh’s East Hills, as he plays at West Penn Hospital on Friday, December 7, 2012. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Shailen Abram is one part miracle, one part mystery.

The two add up to music that may make Abram, 15, Pittsburgh's answer to Stevie Wonder.

Some consider the talkative East Hills teen, a freshman at Brashear High School and Pittsburgh's School for the Creative And Performing Arts, a musical prodigy.

On Friday, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a red bow tie, set off with a Santa hat and dark glasses, Abram took his music to West Penn Hospital's holiday party to pay tribute to those who nursed him from a rocky start.

He was born 15 weeks early at 1 pound, 9 ounces in the neonatal unit of the North Side's Allegheny General Hospital, which moved to West Penn in Bloomfield. Doctors diagnosed him with retinopathy of prematurity. The condition — which robbed Wonder of sight — left Abram blind in one eye and with minimal vision in the other.

His mother, Sharon Elliott, said doctors warned her son could encounter multiple developmental delays. Indeed, they diagnosed him with mild autistic behaviors.

Yet they couldn't predict his musical talent.

Elliott said Abram began humming songs he heard on the radio before he could speak. At 18 months, he'd listen to a song and play it back, note perfect, on a $10 toy keyboard.

Abram, who goes by Shai, can't explain how he can run through genres ranging from classical to jazz to gospel after hearing a composition once.

“I can't really read music. But it makes me very happy. I love to do concerts. I'm a performer,” he said as friends set up his keyboard and microphone at West Penn.

Like Wonder, whom Abram met backstage at a Pittsburgh concert several years ago, the young musician is a composer. When he left the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind to attend public school two years ago, Abram composed a song for his friends to tell them how he felt about leaving them.

More recently, he has dabbled in composing classical-style music.

Elliott said she hopes parents with premature infants will find hope when they learn how far her son has come.

His joy at playing keyboard becomes obvious as he moves into “Jingle Bell Rock,” stomping his left foot and encouraging the West Penn staffers to clap.

“I have never taught anyone like this, but I absolutely love working with him,” said Alaine Fink, one of Abram's teachers at CAPA. “He is a joy to work with musically.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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