Born without left ear, Fort Worth teen plays his way into prestigious music school

FORT WORTH -- If you met Samuel Boutris, you would not assume he is a musician.

He was born without a left ear and has a slight misalignment of the jaw.

But this Fort Worth 19-year-old recently gained acceptance to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, a conservatory in Philadelphia where he will continue his clarinet education.

For Boutris, who has played clarinet since sixth grade, acceptance into Curtis came on his third audition.

"It's great," he said. "I was close but never got there. Now I have."

Feeling the music

The road to Curtis has not been easy.

Boutris has suffered the effects of Goldenhar syndrome, a congenital defect that usually involves deformities of the face.

"I don't really let it bother me," Boutris said. "It is just who I am."

For many with Goldenhar, the consequences are merely cosmetic, but for a musician, missing an ear poses obvious challenges.

"When I was learning, I could not actually hear if I was off-pitch. My teacher would intentionally play off [key] and I had to feel it," Boutris said.

Goldenhar affects 1 in 5,600 people worldwide, and Boutris' case is fairly severe, said Dr. Kenneth Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

"The loss of the ear would give him only unilateral hearing. It makes it difficult to localize sound," Lee said. In a noisy room, such as an orchestra hall, it would be a challenge to focus on an individual conversation, he said.

Supportive family

Boutris' family has supported his efforts to be a musician.

His mother, Eva Reynolds, raised him as a single parent. Boutris has never known his father.

"She gave up a lot for me to do my clarinet," Boutris said.

His musical training began in sixth-grade band.

At age 13, he won a chance to play with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Concerts in the Garden. He has performed with the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra and competed in the Buffet Crampon International Clarinet Competition.

His mother also paid for Boutris to be trained by Victoria Luperi, who attended Curtis, and Andrew Crisanti, who attended the New England Conservatory of Music, where Boutris studied for the last year.

But tragedy struck the day Boutris learned of his acceptance to Curtis: His mother, who had been ill, died.

"She never knew" of his latest achievement, Boutris said.

Boutris now lives with his grandparents.

Top school

Acceptance to Curtis is difficult even for those who are not physically impaired.

Well-known in classical music circles, Curtis is the most exclusive conservatory in the nation, with an acceptance rate of only 4 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Curtis admits only enough students to replace graduating seniors, said Jennifer Kallend, the school's public relations manager.

Every student is a member of the school's orchestra. The institute does not charge tuition, and there is no age limit for attendance.

Although few at Curtis know Boutris yet, the school knows what to expect.

"He must have auditioned extremely well to be accepted," Kallend said.

RICHARD YEAKLEY, 817-390-7367