|Morgan Fawcett looks at one of his wooden flutes after playing a tune on his front porch in Powers. The 15-year-old has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and while he displays the characteristics of the disease, he is fully aware of the problems he faces. He picked up a flute a little more than a year ago, and it had a life-changing effect on him. It calms him down and he can find solace in the music he makes. World Photo by Lou Sennick
Born to play
By Alexander Rich, Staff Writer
POWERS - Morgan Fawcett was born to play Native American flute. His slender, dexterous fingers easily float over the openings on his Quiet Bear instrument. His lips can contort into an embouchure that produces a vibrato that would make many a woodwind instrumentalist envious. And his 15-year-old imagination can produce melodies and rhythms at once captivating and haunting.
But the same forces that molded his body into a flute-playing dynamo have left Morgan without the ability to read sheet music or remember how to play the very songs he creates.
Morgan is an alcoholic who has never touched a drop in his life. He is a victim of the excesses of his mother, who drank during her pregnancy.
This past winter, he was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. It is a condition that varies greatly from one case to another. Some victims suffer severe retardation while others are uncoordinated and struggle with mathematical concepts. Some never grow hair and have disfigured skulls, but others merely have high foreheads and crooked teeth.
Morgan is not greatly scarred by his condition, though he has a number of bumps and bruises on his legs because of a lack of coordination. He has prominent ears, crooked teeth and no indentation between his nose and upper lip, but he could easily pass for a “normal kid.” Even above-normal.
“I have a normal to above-normal IQ,” he said. “Most people treat me normal or a little bit smarter than the average dog. I'm intelligent enough to fool you.”
But Morgan does not want to fool. Once he realized he was “different,” he scoured the Internet to learn more about FAS.
“After he found the first Web site, he would read about (FAS) for three or four hours at a time,” said Sue Hempel. Morgan refers to her as Grandma, though they are not related. “He would come over to me, point to the screen and say, ‘It's me. It's me.'”
Rather than shy away from this knowledge, Morgan wants to talk about his condition, which he does with a good deal of knowledge. He wants people to know about how the condition has affected him and how he has come to live with it.
“When I play the flute, it lowers my blood pressure and eases stress away,” he said matter-of-factly. “With fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, you could be ADHD, but instead of being on Ritalin, I play the flute.”
Having learned this valuable lesson, Morgan wants to share it with others who suffer from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, especially fellow Native Americans (see sidebar below). He has started a nonprofit organization, One Heart Creations, with the goal of raising funds and awareness about the condition. Morgan has the complete support of Hempel, who first met Morgan when her daughter was engaged to marry his father. Though the marriage fell through, Hempel has remained a prominent figure in Morgan's life. This summer, they plan to visit Alaska, where he will play his flute, bring drums as gifts and talk about FAS.
“I want to go to as many powwows as possible and touch the hearts of the native peoples,” he said. “I want to give them a rundown on the disease and tell them what Web sites they can go to to learn more.”
He plans to share his experiences about doubting his abilities and the immense relief he experienced when he learned about his condition.
“I'm not a retard. There is nothing wrong with me,” he said. “It lifts the weight off your shoulders when you find out and you know, ‘It's not my fault.'”
Finding a flute
Morgan was diagnosed with FAS earlier this year, but it was 12 months prior that he found out how to deal with its implications.
On a family vacation, Morgan and Hempel stopped at the Trees of Mystery in the redwoods of Klamath, Calif. In the museum was a collection of Native American flutes, which immediately attracted Morgan's attention.
Growing up, Morgan had experimented with piano, clarinet and a traditional flute, but none stuck. It was different with the wooden-model flute.
“I heard the music and I wanted to play,” he said.
An obliging museum attendant handed one to the young boy and he spouted forth a compelling enough song that the woman assumed he was long trained in the art form.
“He played a song and she asked him ‘How long have you been playing,'” Hempel recalled. “He looked at her and said, ‘About five minutes.' She couldn't believe he had just picked up the instrument for the first time.”
Since then, Morgan has accumulated a collection of wooden instruments. Unlike a traditional flute, the Native American model has a mouthpiece and is handled in the manner of a clarinet or oboe. Morgan's flutes vary in size, but in general, they produce a lower pitch than the European variety.
Morgan has taken some lessons, learning basic scales and various techniques, but, for the most part, he has taught himself.
“In the music world, what I do is called playing from the heart,” Morgan said. “I just come out with a song and I play it.
“The best way is to clear my mind of all thoughts. You wait, then when you feel you are ready, you play. Don't think. Just let it come out naturally.”
Given the option, Morgan likes to stand when he plays. With his shoulder-length hair swaying gently, he closes his eyes as his first note slowly arrives and then swells into another and another. His legs, perpetually shifting while seated, are still, the only movement coming from his fingers. After completing a piece, he remains silent for a moment, appearing to reflect on what has happened.
“I'm literally addicted to my flute,” he said, without prompting. “Some days I can't get through the day without it.”
Dark side of FAS
As a child with FAS, Morgan is susceptible to many forms of addiction, which he nonchalantly runs through.
“What I deal with is quite painful. Any day, I could ... go to a shop and steal or get something to drink.”
Part of the goal of Morgan's nonprofit organization is to speak with children who might have FAS before they succumb to these temptations.
“You can't fix an adult with fetal alcohol syndrome. You have to get to children while they are still young and still learning,” he said. “Give them something, whether it's a drum, flute or guitar. Whatever.”
Morgan knows all too well how an adult who has taken the first step toward drugs and alcohol can have trouble returning from the abyss. He has traced the syndrome in his family back four generations, including his dad. Although his father was once able to converse eloquently, throwing around seven-syllable words without difficulty, he has given in to the temptations with which he was born.
“My father is literally pickled from alcohol,” he said. “He is just a big sign. I want to learn from my father's mistakes.”
Morgan would like to have a family of his own, but is worried about whether his children will be able to lead normal lives.
“One of my fears is I could have a son who has the same condition as me,” he said.
Playing the flute allows Morgan to allay these fears as well as prepare for stressful situations.
Before stumbling upon that first Native American flute in the backwoods of California, Morgan had a difficult time in school. Although he was able to excel in language classes, he was failing in several others. He could learn concepts, but they would not make a strong impression and he would need to continually relearn them. His resulting frustration left him agitated and unfocused.
“When he started playing flute, it calmed him down so he could sit still in his chair,” Hempel said. “It allowed him to concentrate enough.”
Despite the benefits he has acquired from playing the flute, Morgan will never have a normal life. He has severe short-term memory loss, which limits his ability to perform simple tasks.
“If I put a pen in my pocket, I forget about it,” Morgan said. “I need to have someone around to tell me what to do, how to do it and why I'm doing it. It's like being baby-sat all the time.”
In general, Morgan cannot remember any of the songs he produces. But if he is able to associate a song with a strong emotion, it can leave a strong enough impression that he can access it and recreate the sound. So far, that has taken place only once.
In January, his younger sister, Savannah, 7, left to go live with her biological mother in Juneau. Morgan was unhappy with her departure.
“I was really down,” Morgan said. “It hurt me so much that I played my flute and I wrote this song. It's the only song I have been able to play consistently.”
To listen to Morgan play “Savannah's Song”, visit http://www.theworldlink.com/multi_slide/morgan_music/