If you clicked for snark, better hit the back arrow, for to witness Scott MacIntyre in action is to be swept up by a wave of earnestness and optimism, intelligence and talent that he cannot keep to himself.

All this from a just turning 24 year old (Happy Birthday!) with a lifelong vision impairment whose stunning performances on American Idol came less than two years into recovery from nearly fatal kidney failure. But who wants to dwell on that when there’s music and friends to be made, a world to be savored, and kids to be inspired?

Not that the pianist/singer/composer isn’t busy enough already, what with preparing for American Idol’s Season Eight Top 10 tour (coming to Staples Center, July 16th). But with a rare free Saturday evening, MacIntyre chose to spend it with some 60 other finalists: the vision-impaired youngsters who qualified for the championship round of the Braille Challenge, the nationwide competition for excellence in literacy through sense of touch.

“Congratulations to all of you,” MacIntyre said repeatedly as he spoke to the finalists and their families during the awards banquet Saturday night at the Universal Hilton Hotel. No patronizing here. MacIntyre knows all too well the feeling that a challenge is too tough, that maybe it’s too hard to pursue a dream. He has nothing but admiration for youngsters who’ve already proven they have the moxie to push through that doubt, as he has.

MacIntyre also has warm feelings for the Braille Institute, which provided him help during his grade school years growing up in Redondo Beach. It was there that MacIntyre began playing the piano by ear at age 3, making his first TV appearance at age 6 in a profile broadcast by CNN. In recounting the story, MacIntyre still chuckles at the memory of the reporter’s line that little Scott “enjoys playing for his family and girls he likes.” At six!

So how bad are his eyes?

MacIntyre explained that he does have some sight across a very narrow range.  How narrow? He likened it to “looking through a coffee straw” (not a regular straw, mind you, but one of those oh so tiny stirrers).

Paying rapt attention, the Braille whizzes also learned that the pop star’s affection for pop music came relatively recently. From the beginning his focus had been on classical piano (Chopin and Bach among his repertoire faves), and continued when his family moved to Toronto, and later while studying piano at Arizona State University (where his academic prowess and maturity earned him an early admission). MacIntyre’s musical horizons broadened after a Fulbright Scholarship took him to London, which he explored voraciously by foot and by the Tube (that it was called a “subway” by Simon Cowell–who, after all, SHOULD know better–mortifies MacIntyre, as he holds his tongue in cheek).

MacIntyre credits the friends he made in London with showing him the power of setting stories to music. And it was there he began writing songs and performing them in local clubs.

Did we mention that MacIntyre got his ASU bachelor’s degree at age 19?

In urging the youngsters to pursue their dreams, MacIntyre revealed his is sharing his music. And for that opportunity, he’s grateful to American Idol, and ecstatic over the upcoming summer of concerts in stadium venues.

McIntyre warned his audience that life will bring them some patronizing they’ll have to deal with. He said it really didn’t bother him the first couple of weeks of Idol to be known as “the blind guy.”  He did enjoy how quickly people started paying more attention to his music than his lack of sight.

And what about that uncomfortable YouTube moment when Ryan Seacrest put up his hand for a high five, and it just hung there because MacIntyre could not see it? MacIntyre takes it as flattery when people forget his vision impairment. To this day he also remains bemused that incident attracted so many YouTube hits the very same week Capt. Sullenberger safely landed that powerless jetliner in the middle of the Hudson River, something that sure impressed MacIntyre. “Come on, people, let’s get our priorities in order!”

The younger Braille Challenge finalists had been in stitches all evening from the antics of cartoon voice wizard Jim Cummings, serving as the main awards presenter, along with Nancy Niebrugge, Braille Challenge Director and Assistant Vice President of Programs and Services for the Braille Institute.  The teens nodded knowingly when they heard Winnie the Poo and Tigger commenting on the event.  But when Cummings introduced MacIntyre,  even Challenge veterans had a hard time keeping their cool.

And when it came time for MacIntyre to wrap up, he wasn’t ready to go. Stepping down from the podium, he hung out in foyer to talk to the kids and pose for pictures snapped by proud moms and dads.  Among the honored Braille SuperStars: Temple City middle-schooler Tiffany Zhao, winner for the second time in three years of the NBC4 Award for the highest score overall in reading comprehension.

If there was one piece of advice MacIntyre wanted to leave the Braille Challenge Finalists, it was this: “Never let anyone else set your limits for you!” (Editor’s Note: Kickboxer Baxter Humby–who does not let a missing arm stop him in the ring from kicking butt and winning world championships–uses a similar phrase. Don’t know who came up with it first.)

As for MacIntyre’s 24th birthday this week, he thanked Paula Abdul for an early present. The impressed Idol judge had pulled some strings to arrange a much sought after guide dog for him.

And the present he’d like from you? Just the chance to share his music. And don’t be embarrassed if you forget his vision impairment.

– by Patrick Healy


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