The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Avett Ray is a self-taught piano sensation at age 7. He’s also blind.

Avett Ray is 7-years-old, blind and a self-taught piano sensation. (Video: Avett Ray/Youtube)

Sara D. Moore was sitting on her sofa reading a book when she suddenly heard the distinct notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” being plunked out on her keyboard across the living room.

She turned her head and there stood her 11-month-old son, Avett Ray Maness, who had pulled himself up to the keys. He was barefoot, on his tiptoes, playing the song from memory with clear joy on his face.

“How could he possibly know the notes?” Moore asked herself.

It would have been a remarkable moment for any parent, but for Moore, who lives in Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton, the elation was twofold: Not only was Avett so young, he is blind.

"He had a toy with that tune on it, so I knew that’s where he learned the melody,” said Moore, 31. “I was mesmerized. I called my mom up and said, 'You won’t believe it! Avett’s playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star!’ "

Six years later, Moore’s second-born son, now 7, has moved far beyond that first nursery tune. Avett Ray, as he is known by his fans, now performs locally in front of hundreds of people, singing and playing songs such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Bach’s Minuet in G.

On April 12 and 13, he will be one of the headliners for a fundraiser benefiting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Dayton. Videos of the young prodigy on YouTube have gone viral, with his rendition of “Happy Together” by the Turtles — played on an antique upright purchased by a family friend who raised funds through a silent auction — recently racking up about 200,000 views.

Avett’s piano teacher, Rebecca James, who started teaching him in September, said she can feel his passion when he plays.

"He likes a good challenge and loves playing music with a more complex structure,” she said. “Sometimes, we just compose or improvise or just jam together.”

Lately, James said, Avett has developed a fascination with Bach’s minuets.

"Every week, there's a new piece he's heard and wants to learn,” she said.

Moore was a single mother when she took Avett, then 2 months old, to an ophthalmologist. Her son’s pediatrician was concerned because Avett’s eyes weren’t focusing.

"The eye doctor had no bedside manner whatsoever,” Moore recalled. “After he looked at Avett, he bluntly said, ‘Yup, he’s blind.’ ”

She was devastated.

Her son’s official diagnosis was optic nerve hypoplasia, an underdeveloped optic nerve. Moore cried so hard on the drive home that she had to pull over.

"I remember thinking, ‘How will he get through life?’ " she said. “ ‘What will his future be?’ ”

Moore thought about her own difficult childhood. When she was 7 and her sister, Samantha, was 3, their mother drove them from their Greenwood, Ind., trailer park one day and abandoned them at their grandmother’s house. Then, when their grandmother decided she could no longer care for the girls, she left them at a local church.

Samantha was adopted right away by a couple in the congregation, and, eventually, Moore was adopted by relatives of the couple.

"Because we were basically adopted into the same family, we're cousins by law now, not sisters,” she said. “Her mom and dad are my aunt and uncle and vice versa. I remember asking my aunt, 'Why didn't you adopt me, too?' She told me she thought that being a single child would be a better fit for me.”

Although Moore is forever grateful to her adoptive parents, Billy and Missy Smith, it took years, she said, before she stopped feeling like a victim of her childhood.

“When I was in the second grade, before my mother decided she didn’t want us, I used to wear my pants inside out every other day, because I only had one pair,” Moore said. “We were very poor — we had nothing. For years, I carried the story with me that nobody wanted me, and I often pushed people away.”

When she became a mother, first to her son Emery, who is in the sixth grade, then Avett, Moore, who runs a home-based marketing business, said she realized the importance of loving herself while caring for her sons.

"I had a journey of self-discovery,” she said. “I learned that my self-care is in direct correlation with the success of my children. And with Avett, once I learned about his talent, I knew that it was important to share him with the world.”

Avett, who is blind in his left eye and has limited vision in his right, progressed rapidly from playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by ear to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and other children’s songs, Moore said.

“Once he listens to a song, he can play it,” she said. By her son’s second birthday, he could play “Happy Birthday” to himself, and, at age 3, he developed a fascination with Adele.

In February 2017, after Avett asked his mom to make a video of him speaking to Adele and singing her “Hello” song, Moore posted it online, and it quickly flew around the Internet. That video was followed by covers of “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.”

Before he had completed preschool, Moore said, she was receiving requests for him to perform at local schools and community events.

"I’d stand there and watch him perform,” she said. “And I was blown away.”

Avett, who is in first grade and learning to read Braille and walk with a cane, said he is currently on a classical kick.

“I love performing Bach’s Minuet in G,” he said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “And at my last piano lesson, I told my teacher that I also want to learn the Minuet in G Minor. I’m not as much into Adele anymore.”

He does enjoy rap now, though, said Moore, and almost every night, he records beats in a basement studio with her fiance, Tommy Ferrell.

“His innate ear for music is unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Ferrell, 40, a commercial construction manager who dabbles in music as a hobby.

Avett's mother marvels daily that although he has never read sheet music and often needs help to get around, he has no problem finding the keys on a piano.

“I sometimes have to remind myself: ‘That’s my kid out there,’ ” she said.