Gifted teenage musician sees talent grow in spite of personal challenges

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DENVER -- He’s a teenage musician whose talents defy description.

"I think he's a phenomenon," said Hugh Ragin, band director at Denver South High School. "He's multi-talented, he's a multi-instrumentalist, it's not just one thing. He is art.”

Seventeen-year-old Dominic Ellerbee, of Denver, plays several instruments, directs several groups and even composes in several disciplines – from jazz band pieces to his own musical.

But Dominic’s most phenomenal trait might be that he hasn’t allowed himself to be defined by his biggest setback: homelessness.

"Music is just like the best thing ever," Dominic said.  "It's a good way for me to just explain everything, because I don't want to just go up to people and be like, 'Hey man, can I crash on your couch for like a week.'"

Crashing on couches is exactly what Dominic has been forced to do, and he only wishes it lasted a week.

"I slept on my friend Ben's couch over the summer," Dominic said. "Since August I've been staying (at another friend’s)."

It may be hard to imagine having to turn to friends for a place to stay as a 17-year-old, but Dominic knows it could be worse.

In January of last year Dominic lived in a minivan with his sister and mother, Madonna Ellerbee. The family lost their apartment after Madonna lost her job and found herself in a dispute with her landlord.

"It gives you a sense of dread, because you don't know what's around the corner," Madonna said.

After a short time trying to live in the cramped, cold conditions, Madonna decided to send her kids to stay with friends and family, while she continued to live in the van.

"That was the best that I could do for them at that time," Madonna said. "I wanted to make sure that the kids had some form of normalcy in their life."

"Sunday is the only day that I really get to see my mom," Dominic said.

Every other day of the week, you can find Dominic at home in the South High School band room. Three years after taking his first formal lesson, Dominic began mastering several instruments, leading numerous ensembles and composing nonstop.

Although the entire family only gets together every couple of months, Dominic has channeled his emotions into noteworthy music.

He is busy composing his own original musical and recently recorded an audition for the Berkley College of Music's prestigious summer program.

"His music, to him, is like how the kids are to me,” Madonna said. “He would be lost without music."

"It's been just about the biggest stress reliever I can say," Dominic said.

Recently Dominic found the biggest relief of all. After 14 months without a home, Madonna was able to save enough money through her new job to secure a new apartment for the family.

"I am so glad that I will not have to sleep in this (van) again," Madonna said.

So far laughter and music are some of the only things filling the apartment, which is still lacking quite a bit of furniture.

"I don't have a place to sit right now. I don't have a chair. I don't have a dining room,” Madonna said. “But that doesn't matter."

Maybe that’s because the house is also full of inspiration.

"I've written like seven songs already,” Dominic said.

Dominic still has a hard time describing his home, but the word certainly has new meaning.

"Coming home. It's actually ... I can say that," Dominic said.

"It feels real good to say that," Madonna said.

Dominic says their home still isn't completely full. His 12-year-old sister has been living with her godmother in Colorado Springs. She'll move in for good at the end of May.

An account for donations to Dominic's family has been set up at



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