Local musician with Down Syndrome gains national attention with harmonica

December 17, 2018 | 3:00 am

Updated December 17, 2018 | 9:20 am

Leland Isbill plays harmonica with caregiver Nick O'Nan at a fundraiser at Towne Square Mall on Saturday. | Photo by AP Imagery

Leland Isbill, 20, is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children club at Daviess County High School. He participates in the Special Olympics of Kentucky and attends Puzzle Pieces. But maybe his favorite hobby is playing the blues harmonica, a talent that has garnered him national sponsorship and local notoriety.

“Music has totally included him as an equal,” said Deanna Isbill, of her son Leland who has Down Syndrome.

Deanna said Leland received his first harmonica when he was 2 years old and he started really playing at 8 with local musician Andy Brasher, who got Leland in the local limelight according to Deanna. Then local musicians Leland Herzog, Jim Beckner and Randy and Barry Lanham mentored Leland in his musical pursuits.

“I like being on stage,” Leland said.

As it became clear that blues harmonica would play a big part in Leland’s life and future, Deanna began seeking opportunities for her son to hone his talent. The Isbills found friendship and welcomed advice from Nashville’s Bean Blossom Blues Festival. And it wasn’t long before Leland received scholarships to attend music workshops across the country. In 2015 Leland attended the Pinetop Perkins Foundation in Clarksdale, Miss., participating in their annual masterclass music workshop. Leland was the only student with special needs in the three years that he attended and he will travel to Pinetop again in 2019.

Last year Leland was offered a full scholarship to attend Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH), the largest harmonica conference in North America.

“He has a bigger musical family than blood family,” Deanna said.

It was at SPAH that the owner of Lone Wolf Blues Company approached the Isbills, offering to endorse Leland. According to Deanna, this means that Lone Wolf not only financially supports Leland in getting him to his harmonica workshops and keeps him in the latest musical equipment, but also promotes Leland in the musical community.

“The owner of Lone Wolf is trying to get Leland on the Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Deanna said. “He says you’ve got to keep going upward.”

But Deanna, who has taken on the role of “mom-ager,” wants to keep going upward by taking one step at a time. She was surprised that a recent social media post of Leland playing the harmonica in his bedroom was shared more than 40,000 times.

“I don’t want his celebrity to have any negative effects on our life,” Deanna said. “I want his success to be a blessing every step of the way.”

Part of that progression has been discovered with Nick O’Nan, Leland’s caregiver, who happens to play jazz guitar and is crossing over to the blues. Deanna says the two have developed a bond over music that can’t be denied. She said the two hope to build a song list and play throughout the community, eventually adding other band members to complete their sound.

“We already have a band name,” Deanna said. “‘Blown Away’ — we just kept hearing that term when people would see Leland play. People tend to dismiss his talent because of Downs, but when he gets up there he blows them away.”

Deanna said she is not sure where Leland’s harmonica talent will lead him. While she said he hopes to continue to pursue the harmonica, Leland also hopes to get a job in the food service industry.

“He would love to work at Texas Roadhouse, Chick-fil-A or Cracker Barrel,” Deanna said. “Maybe the two careers will converge to a regular gig at a local restaurant where he is part-time host and his band plays at night. That would be beyond wonderful!”

Deanna said the soon to be 21-year-old is looking forward to finishing school (students with special needs can remain in the classroom until they are 21), getting a job, spending more time with his girlfriend who also has Down Syndrome and visiting Puzzle Pieces.

“I don’t ever want to stifle his light in bringing joy and awareness to the abilities of those with special needs,” Deanna said.

Leland excels with a musical instrument that is often considered simple accompaniment in a genre that is often forgotten, according to Deanna.

“And he represents people with special needs, who are often marginalized, undervalued and their potential is underestimated,” Deanna said. “He is opening people’s minds to so many things.”

December 17, 2018 | 3:00 am

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