The young man tucks his violin under his chin and begins to play. A hush falls over the few spectators in the largely empty opera house, who turn toward the bare stage. As his lilting notes float through the room, other people trickle in from the lobby to listen.
The young man sometimes closes his eyes as he plays, as if lost in the music. If his audience closed their eyes, too, they would never know the violinist standing before them has no right hand, only a stunted appendage with tiny stubs instead of fingers.
Which is fitting, because Adrian Anantawan prefers to be judged for what people hear, not what they see.
At 28, Anantawan is one of the world's most accomplished young violinists. He has performed at the White House, at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, for Pope John Paul II, for Christopher Reeve and most recently for the Dalai Lama during a private recital at MIT. Anantawan played a piece by Bach, and when he finished, the Tibetan Buddhist leader approached him.
"He put my hands together, and put his hands around mine, and our foreheads touched for six or seven seconds," Anantawan said. "And I'm just thinking to myself, 'My goodness, where has this instrument and music taken me?' I feel tremendously blessed to have had experiences like that."
Anantawan's disability has been with him since birth. Doctors think the umbilical cord wrapped around his hand in the womb, cutting off the blood supply and keeping it from growing properly. To compensate, he uses a simple prosthesis called a spatula, which grips the violin bow.
In recent years, Anantawan has devoted his career to using adaptive technology -- from prosthetic devices like his own to sophisticated computer software -- to aid aspiring young musicians in overcoming a wide range of disabilities. By helping them make music, he believes this technology can help "reveal the inner humanity" of disabled children who struggle to express themselves through other means.
"Accessibility is not an act of charity," Adrian told an audience last summer during a TEDx talk in suburban Boston, where he is now an orchestra conductor at a charter school. "It's one of lifting the ceiling of potential development so that all children can explore this world, but also possibly create new ones."
A 'sonic fingerprint'
Born of Thai-Chinese ethnicity, Anantawan grew up in Toronto. With only one hand, many childhood milestones -- learning to tie shoes, sharpen a pencil in class, ride a bike -- were difficult for him. Classmates made him feel different.
"Growing up without an arm -- it seems trivial now, but when you're in grade one or two, kids can exclude you on many different levels," he said during an interview last fall at the annual PopTech conference in this picturesque Maine seaside town.
By the time he was 9, his parents decided he should learn a musical instrument. The recorder was out, because it's difficult to adapt for two hands. The trumpet was too loud, and so were the drums. Little Adrian didn't have much of a singing voice. So his mother decided on the violin.
His parents took the instrument to a rehabilitation center, where they adapt prosthetics to meet the needs of disabled children. A few months later, engineers there produced a customized device out of plaster, aluminum and Velcro straps. Eighteen years later, he's still wearing the same one.
"Little did my parents know that they had invited a dying cat into their home for the first six months in the form of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,' " said Anantawan in the TEDx talk, squeaking out the melody on his violin.
For a boy with one hand, music became a great equalizer. Suddenly, he could do something the same way as his classmates.
"I had this adaptation. It did look different. But what came out, in terms of the sound from the instrument, was exactly the same as theirs. And we were all trying to make music together," Anantawan said. "Music was my way of sharing my personality with the world. I was very shy. I didn't talk very much. And the instrument, and playing music, helped me come out of my shell."
Adrian learned quickly. In some ways, he was easy to teach, because instructors didn't have to worry about his right-hand technique -- just his left hand and fingers, which press down on the strings of the violin to produce different notes, pitch, tone and so on.
Anantawan's educational pedigree is impressive. He graduated from Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and earned a master's degree from Yale. During two summers he studied under his boyhood idol, renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, at his residency program in Shelter Island, N.Y.
For Anantawan, the key to playing music is merging technique with personal expression to produce something genuine and unique.
"You're thinking, 'What do I want to express?' and then your body finds a way to do it. That happens with everyone," he said. "But for me, it's more explicit. I've had to really think, because there's no manual to (learn to) play with one hand."
As a student and a professional, Adrian has performed as a soloist with orchestras throughout his native Canada, at New York's Carnegie Hall and with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter on a European tour.
He, and others, believe his disability produces a unique sound. Because Adrian's right arm is shorter than that of most people, he draws the bow of his violin across the strings at unusual angles -- not consistently perpendicular to the strings, as most violinists do.
"With the violin, the way that you're built physically influences to a very high degree how you sound. I'm not able to use my entire bow, for instance," Anantawan said. "So therefore I put more pressure on my bow to put more weight onto the string and produce more sound. "It gives me a bit of a sonic fingerprint."
But Anantawan's lack of a right hand hasn't limited his ability to play at a world-class level.
"There's no music he can't play, as far as I can tell," said Professor Lee Bartel, associate dean at the University of Toronto, who is himself a violinist. "There are no limitations with this disability. He has fully adapted it."