HAYWARD, Calif. (KTVU) - Music has been a passion for one Cal State East Bay student since he was a young boy. On Thursday night, the music that played in Ben River's head for much of his life was brought to life during an annual concert put on by the music department.
River's composition was one of six selections featured during the concert. The 47-year-old says he refuses to allow Parkinson's disease to silence the music that's in him.
His composition "Numerical Velocities" was performed by Amoveo Ensemble, a group of professional musicians.
"It's a thrill. It's an amazing feeling," says Rivers.
Composing often starts with the college student at the piano.
"Human voices and birdsongs in the wind; I hear music patterns in all of it," says Rivers.
He has been living with Parkinson's for 16 years. The disease involves the death of vital nerve cells. It causes tremors and impairs mobility and balance.
Rivers can't walk, talk or play the piano like he used to, but it hasn't robbed him of his spirit and creativity.
"I remember walking down a country road as a kid— 5, 6, 7, 8 years old— hearing dum, dah, dum, dah, dum. I said, ‘What's that, someone playing their boom box?’ No, I was listening to an internal rhythm," says Rivers.
He played piano growing up, but didn't pursue music. He got a college degree in sociology and worked for a nonprofit.
It was only after being diagnosed with Parkinson's that he followed his dream of composing music.
"I call it the soundtrack of my life," says Rivers.
He enrolled at Cal State East Bay two years ago to get formal training.
River's tremors are pronounced at times.... as it was briefly during Thursday night's rehearsal.
His professor says Rivers is impressive.
"A lot of students given the difficulties he often has would find it difficult to go on as students, but Ben is really determined to learn about music and be a composer," says Jeffrey Miller, professor of theory and composition at CSUEB.
Rivers says coping with challenges is a message he hopes will resonate with the audience.
"I want them to know something about themselves. Maybe I can be a model— not resist challenges but flow with challenges," says Rivers.
He says to fully experience joy, people need to celebrate the darkness.
"I want to tell them they can. They can surmount whatever obstacles they have. Be who they are to express themselves truly," says Rivers.
He is one year away from earning his master’s degree in music composition.
He hopes to make a living writing music.
Rivers says Parkinson's has changed his outlook on life. He has learned appreciation and gratitude for what he has.