Brandon Kozak couldn’t see the colorful hair bows, paper crowns or cartoon backpacks of the preschoolers gathered around his keyboard.
But the 29-year-old singer and musician, who is blind, could hear them singing and clapping on a recent Wednesday morning at Edwardsville YMCA Esic Center.
“Do it again! Do it again!” the children chanted after he performed “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in honor of Dr. Suess’ birthday.
Instead, Brandon invited the class to join in on the counting song “Eighteen Wheels on a Big Rig.” He went from one to 18 slowly, then faster, then really fast.
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“Was that fast enough for you guys?” he asked, prompting a wave of giggles and cheers.
The children were having so much fun with Brandon, most didn’t remember their classroom discussion back in October.
“I told them that he couldn’t see, that it’s something they call ‘blind,’” said Preschool Director Cheryl Ransick, 50. “I think it’s important for kids to know that even if you have a disability, everyone has a special gift that they can share.
“But they forget. You saw them raising their hands (to get his attention). Kids are so accepting. They don’t notice those kinds of things unless you point it out.”
Max Maloney, 4, of Edwardsville, was one of the children who had forgotten. When asked about Brandon, he didn’t even mention his blindness.
“He does my favorite songs, like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and ‘Old MacDonald,’” Max said. “He knows more songs than most people.”
Max was incredulous when his mother, Dr. Becky Hoffman, 40, reminded him that Brandon can’t see. “He can’t see?” Max said. “You mean he’s a blind person?”
Brandon has been working part-time at the YMCA for about two years. He leads singalongs for children but also performs adult music in the Esic and Meyer Center lobbies.
His specialty is Rat Pack-style covers from the ’50s and ’60s. His grandparents in Arkansas got him hooked.
“I also really like Elvis,” Brandon said. “It’s a different style than Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and the others, but I like him, so I do some of his stuff.”
It’s unusual for a fitness center to have live music. Some people do double takes, hearing Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” on their way to racquetball.
It changes the whole atmosphere. It’s more of a community thing. We’ll have kids dancing, and sometimes people put in requests. We are so lucky to have him. He’s just fantastic. It’s really livened the place up.
Natasha Howard on Brandon’s music
Pat Watson, 63, of Edwardsville, and her friends listen to Brandon while waiting for water aerobics on Wednesday mornings.
“I really enjoy his music,” Watson said. “His voice is excellent.”
Brandon uses an electronic keyboard that can mimic all kinds of instruments, allowing him to perform as a one-man band. His father helps him set up and take down.
“Mostly, I’m just his roadie,” said Greg Kozak, 64, a retiree from British Petroleum shipping.
Natasha Howard, 32, the YMCA’s arts and family program director, has been pleased at the positive response from members.
“It changes the whole atmosphere,” she said. “It’s more of a community thing. We’ll have kids dancing, and sometimes people put in requests. We are so lucky to have him. He’s just fantastic. It’s really livened the place up.”
Blinded after birth
Brandon was born nine weeks premature, before his eyes were fully developed. His retinas detached shortly after birth, leaving him blind.
Brandon started singing and making up songs as a toddler. His parents, Greg and Patricia Kozak, signed him up for piano lessons at 5.
“He just gravitated to music,” his father said. “He listened to the radio all the time, and we played tapes of children’s music. His uncle had a piano, and when we would go to visit, he would make a beeline for it and start plunking around.”
Brandon took up trumpet in fifth grade and even played in the marching band during high school in Lemont.
I would have someone guiding me from behind, holding my shoulder. And I would memorize the counts and the moves, and it worked.
Brandon Kozak on being part of a marching band
“I would have someone guiding me from behind, holding my shoulder,” he said. “And I would memorize the counts and the moves, and it worked.”
Brandon learned independent living skills at the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired in Jacksonville. Then he attended Joliet Junior College and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, playing in bands and ensembles at both.
“I fell in love with jazz,” he said. “The improvisation is always fun.”
Brandon graduated from SIUC with a music degree in composition and theory after organizing a recital of his original songs for several instruments.
“I also wrote an a cappella vocal piece based on the poem ‘Out, Out’ by Robert Frost,” he said.
The Kozaks moved to Edwardsville in 2013. Greg and Brandon started working out at the YMCA and met Natasha. She hired Brandon to provide music for the children’s summer camp. Gradually, his duties expanded.
“At Christmas, he played a whole week at each building, and people just loved it,” Natasha said. “I had people banging on my door, trying to hire him.”
Brandon also accompanied the preschool Christmas program.
“It sounded great,” Cheryl said. “I’ve been there 17 years, and it was one of the best Christmas programs we’ve ever had. I was shocked. The kids were just belting it out.”
Beyond the YMCA, Brandon performs at nursing homes and Knights of Columbus fish fries. He sings in the adult choir at St. Boniface Catholic Church.
“You wouldn’t even know that he is blind,” said choir director Marc Schapman, 35, of Glen Carbon, assistant professor of voice at SIU Edwardsville.
“He just has these really wonderful instincts. Other people need to pay attention and watch for cues, but he’s a natural at being part of an ensemble. He doesn’t miss a beat.”
Brandon prepares lyrics in Braille and learns music and harmonies by ear at rehearsals.
“He has perfect pitch,” Marc said. “We’ll be singing a chord or a passage in a piece, and he’ll say, ‘That C sharp is a little under pitch.’ He knows it internally.”