Standing in a tuxedo in a Penfield High School hallway on Friday night, Dennis “D.J.” O’Keefe sways back and forth.
His head cocks up and down between sentences, and he fiddles with his lapel as he talks. His speech — quick and clear at times, choppy at others — is often interrupted by a nervous clearing of his throat.
O’Keefe was diagnosed with autism shortly after his second birthday. The Penfield High School senior has faced his share of resulting adversity, and has plenty of challenges ahead of him as he prepares to enter college and life beyond.
But if you whistle a tune, he can name every single note.
And in the 32 years that Jim Doser has taught music in the Penfield Central School District, O’Keefe is the most talented timpani player he’s ever had.
“As a timpanist, he’s the best ever,” said Doser. “He has a future in music as much as anyone else does. We’ve all been encouraging him to go this route.”
O’Keefe, 18, is no savant. He’s got some innate talents, for sure — the most impressive being his ability to identify the music note of any sound that’s played for him, a trait commonly called perfect pitch.
But when he’s in front of his percussion instruments in the school music room, or the pillows he sets up as makeshift drums in his bedroom at home, he’s just another teenager trying to hone his musical skills.
“Two hours, Monday through Friday,” he said.
The combination of talent and tenacity has led to some substantial opportunities for the teenager. He’s won scholarships to summer music camps and practices with some of the best percussionists in Rochester.