Though he’s only seventeen, you may have encountered Connor Derraugh on a public stage by now. He might be at the piano, he might have his alto sax in hand. He’s at The Hang every week, parents in tow, but he’s also performed on the big Lyric Theatre stage with Walle Larsson and in the late-night Jazzmatazz sets at Juss Jazz.
Connor is a veteran of the U of M Summer Jazz Camp—I think he’s attended six years in a row, an impressive count for somebody now in his final year of high school. He’s serious about music, and he’s got the ideas and wit to go a long way as a musician. As Steve Kirby said after he packed up his horn one night: “Connor is a player. He’s still inexperienced, but he’s one of us.”
I will never forget the first time I saw Connor play. I was leaning against the bar at The Hang, watching the jam. The gangly young kid at the keyboard tore into a solo and my jaw dropped: he was playing it all with his left hand! What I learned was that Connor is recovering from a brain injury that shorted out the signals to the right side of his body. His left hand still has much more dexterity than his right, though relentless work and real grit is helping to close the gap. As Connor puts it, “I’m glad this happened to me when I was 15. If I’d been 70, I probably wouldn’t have made a good recovery.”
His parents, Jeff and Lori, credit music with giving Connor a reason to dig in and recover. With limited movement and speech, the only real motivation was his love of music. A friend brought in a flat roll-out keyboard which they placed on the hospital tray, but Connor couldn’t even play that. Yet on one of his first walks in the hospital corridor, he announced to his dad that he would be attending the Summer Jazz Camp. Jeff was stunned: he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t open his right hand, and he didn’t have enough power in his arm to press down a piano key. (When Jeff tells the story, he hops up to demonstrate Connor’s foot-drag shuffle—he wants to underscore the outrageousness of the announcement, but also his pride in this stubborn, gifted teenager. He is also showing me something special about this family—they’ve been through hell, but they’ve done it together, with bouts of laughter and an irrepressible irreverence.)
Connor did attend that camp, just three months post-injury, playing with his left hand only. When he headed to Vincent Massey that fall, Bill Kristjanson knew he had limited stamina so he put him in the band with noon-hour rather than after-school rehearsals. It was a higher-level band, but he knew Connor would rise to the challenge. (You can hear the reverence in Connor’s voice when he says “Mr K.”) Walle Larsson (another of “Connor’s angels,” as Jeff would say) showed up to coach him on the saxophone. And Connor listened to everything he could find, and worked himself relentlessly.
Connor credits the saxophone with the steady improvement in his right hand—that, plus hours and hours of practice, including elaborate exercises that isolate the right-hand-brain pathways. (“One thing I do is play cribbage on my iPad with my left hand while I’m practicing piano with my right,” he says.) He’s eager to tell me that some of the residual awkwardness in his right hand disappears when he’s playing music. It’s true. You wouldn’t know his right hand is at a disadvantage when he plays the saxophone now, and both hands share the work more equally at the keyboard as well.
It’s not his disadvantages that make him worth watching, though. It’s the rhythm that charges through him, the rowdy roll of ideas at the piano, the emotional intensity of his sax solos, his obvious joy at being in this kind of musical conversation with other players. My crystal ball says we’ll be seeing a lot of Connor Derraugh in the years ahead!