It’s a cold and wet Thursday afternoon in Derry’s city centre. Shoppers, tourists and workers scuttle for shelter from the rain but on quiet Upper Magazine Street the sound of someone playing ‘The Town I Love So Well’ on the piano can be heard.
The familiar sounding song is emanating from inside First Derry Presbyterian Church and sitting behind the church’s grand piano is 27 year-old David Friel.
Coincidentally, Phil Coulter, who penned ‘The Town I Love So Well’, played the grand piano when the church was officially opened last year but today it’s David’s turn and his rendition is note perfect.
David is severely autistic and unable to communicate but has an uncanny skill for playing the piano.David can play a piece of music after hearing it once and the guile with which he glides his fingers over the black and white keys is completely self taught.
David attends Maybrook Adult Training Centre on the Racecourse Road five days a week.
When Maybrook contacted the First Derry Presbyterian Church to ask if David could drop in and play the grand piano, the church’s minister, Reverend David Latimer, welcomed them with open arms.
“I think it’s amazing to see David here today playing our grand piano. David might not be able to communicate through speech but he’s able to communicate through his music - it’s just wonderful to sit here with David and his friends and listen to him play - this is a great day.”
Reverend Latimer was so impressed with David’s piano playing that he sang along to several of the songs.
“David proves that no matter how abled, less abled or disabled people are they are all equal in God’s eyes.
“David is outstanding on the piano and I am just delighted that we have been able to welcome David and the rest of the group to the church today.
“I was gob smacked watching David as he played on the piano. The way he can think of the tune and play it using his hands and his eyes is just something amazing.
“Some of David’s friends were dancing and some of them were singing, much better than I was I must add, and it just shows that everyone has a gift and has the ability to make others happy, smile and laugh.”
As David finished each song his key worker at Maybrook, Tommy McCay, shuffles through a list of songs on three sheets of white A4 paper.
“Hey Jude,” shouts Tommy to David.
No sooner has Tommy finished his sentence and David is already two notes into the Beatles’ world famous tune; he follows it up with ‘Cutting the Corn in Creeslough’.
Earlier this year, David’s mother, Celine, passed away and he now lives with his aunt, Kathleen McCloskey, in Drumard Park in Hazelbank.
“David has been involved in music from a very early age and has been playing a variety of different instruments since the age of six years-old, including the keyboard, percussion and the guitar,” said Kathleen.
“David was also encouraged in his musical pursuits by his Celine who sadly passed away earlier this year. His mum was herself a keen and respected fiddle player who was a regular on the traditional music circuit.
“David would have accompanied her at ‘trad’ [traditional music] sessions especially to the Bridge Bar in Ramelton - one of their favourite spots.
“David regularly leads the group at Maybrook Adult Training Centre in music, singing and dancing sessions. Although he doesn’t read music, David picks up tunes by sounding out the melodies. He has a wide-ranging repertoire, ranging from classical/religious to show-tunes, from folk to pop,” she said proudly.
As ‘Cutting the Corn in Creeslough’ comes to an end, David decides to treat his classmates, who are all huddled together on one of the church’s pews, to a few festive renditions of ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’.
“This is the first time that David has ever had the chance to try out something like this,” says key worker Tommy.
“I’ve never met anyone quite like David and I think his mother, Celine, would be very proud to see her son playing the piano inside this lovely church today. I suppose you could say it’s an early Christmas present for us all,” smiled Danny.
First Derry Presbyterian Church is well known throughout Ireland for its amazing organ and Reverend Latimer hinted that a return visit for David and the rest of his group could be on the cards in the New Year.
“I thought it was fitting that the last song David played on the grand piano was ‘Amazing Grace’. John Newtown’s words are tremendously fitting for what we are experiencing here today and I would love to hear David play ‘Amazing Grace’ on the church’s organ.
“The church’s organist was unable to make it here today but I can’t see any reason why the church cannot welcome David and the rest of the group back here again in the New Year.”