Circles of life

Johnny White teaches special education students through his art, music, and experiences similar to theirs.

(From , St. Petersburg Times by By NICK BIRDSONG Published August 21, 2005     Original link: )

ST. PETERSBURG - In 1985 while Johnny White was living in New York, thieves broke into his 1971 Volkswagen Beetle and stole a notebook that contained all of his original avant-garde jazz compositions - 17 years of work gone in an instant.

A trumpet player since he was a teenager, White wouldn't pick up the horn again for 10 years.

"There has been a lot of things in my life that have been taken away from me," White said. "But no one can take my music away from me. I stand on that 100 percent. I'll tell anybody that. That's mine."

But he'll share it with anyone he comes in contact with.

"God sent this as a gift to me, to help others who are just like me," White said.

The folks who are blessed the most are the people he works with. White said he can relate to what he calls the "special population" because unlike any speech pathologist, whom he won't allow to sit in on his sessions, he's one of them. He's struggled with speech difficulties himself. He still does. He says he uses transitions like "as a result" and "surely."

"That gives me time to think about the next thing I'm going to say," he said.

White works for Pinellas Care Systems, helping those with learning disabilities flow into the mainstream by improving their communication skills.

"I told them," he said. "Don't you think somebody with a disability can teach somebody with a disability better?

When White works with special education students, he incorporates music and art all in one, he said.

White and his "guys" - that's what he calls his students - usually go out to North Shore Beach, for their one-on-one sessions. White sits down with his students and pulls out a couple of flutes from his bag of instruments. He doesn't talk down to them or play verbal games. "I never got anything out of that," he said.

Instead, he just plays music for them. And sooner or later they join in, blowing into the small woodwind instruments, sometimes keeping the rhythm with a bongo drum.

"I don't control them," he said. "I just show them we are all as one. The circle is all about inclusion."

The formation of Sound Circle 7 began at a single point, in New York City. He started exploring ways to combat his problems and help himself communicate better after his ex-wife secretly recorded him speaking in their home, more than 20 years ago.

"I didn't know it was me talking on the tape," White said. "I said, "Well, who in the devil is that?' I said, "Man, I really sound that bad when I talk.' She said, "Yeah!' So, that really made me start taking notice of how I pronounce my words and everything, you know."

That's why most people with speech impediments never see any progress, White said. They don't get the chance to hear themselves speak.

Every day, White said he would walk the main stretch across the Brooklyn Bridge to his job on Wall Street singing, holding the notes for a four count and clapping to sustain the rhythm of his speech, all the while listening for inconsistencies to correct.

He later began infusing hand movements into his self-therapy. He noticed that hand movements allowed him to have more control with his words and made it easier for him to pronounce other words.

His breakthrough would come when he had to speak before a gathering of 400. In the audience were professionals, educators and corporate board members, people who "knew their station in life" White said. And he didn't stutter.

Leslie Killian met White at a local coffehouse when he first arrived in St. Petersburg from Chicago seven or eight years ago, she said. By then, he had picked up the trumpet again. He invited her to come and see him - they've been friends ever since.

Killian introduced him to a Peruvian man who taught him how to make the flutes. She's also helping him to focus his passion into a profitable program.

The moonflutes, as he calls them, are just the beginning. Nobody knows how big the circumference of the circle is, White said. He plans to take his program all over the world. There is more by and about White on his Web site:  He sees Florida, a state bordered by water on three sides, as a diving board - giving him the opportunity to connect with others through music. "I'm just opening the door," he said.

"It was kind of an evolution, Killian said. Before his current gig, White worked at the Home Depot and for a mortgage investor. But he hadn't found his niche. "He's finally in a place where he's doing what he's good at. Helping people and doing the music for himself. He's in a really cool place, and I think things are going to take off for him," Killian said.

The more White expands the circle the more people he lets into his. He calls them his "good people." They're the folks who have taken an interest in what he's doing and have decided to help him out.

St. Petersburg Clay Co. lent him supplies and support and fired the clay for White. Originally, White intended to make the multicolored flutes that look more like wall hangings than functional instruments and give them as gifts to his students.

"He started making some really interesting work and we said, "You know what? You need to make more of those,' " said Johnny Hawkins, general manager of St. Petersburg Clay. If you want to call it a return on an investment, he does great work. And transfers that over to the kids."

Hawkins said there are only a handful of musicians doing what White does, and that's with 20 or 30 years of training. White has made more than 50 flutes since he first started making them in 2001.

He flashes his golden smile when talking about his journey from someone who stuttered so badly it "looked like I was having a seizure" to someone who is communicating with people who have been written off as incommunicable.

One nonprofit was prepared to invest thousands in grants to take over White's program, which uses vocal tones and musical notes to boost confidence and increase communication skills, Killian said. But they didn't want to invest any money in White.

"They wouldn't give him an adequate raise," she said. "They literally tried to give him no compensation or education."

When they tried to rip him off, White said that's when he knew he had a powerful program.

One of the compositions that was taken from his Beetle back in 1985 was a song called Heavy Mission.

"We're all on a heavy mission, here on Planet Earth, to try and get to a certain plateau where we want to be or either find our station in life," White said. "Some people really don't find their calling in life until they are older in age. I just happen to be one of these guys that found what I really want to do in life at a later stage in life."