Phil McCarten/AP
Savant pianist Derek Paravicini

Unlocking the Talent of a Musical Savant

March 14, 2010 08:08 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Nicknamed the “human iPod,” pianist Derek Paravicini is wowing audiences with his extraordinary repertoire of thousands of songs he can play entirely by memory.

A Musical Gift

Derek Paravicini has a rare musical gift called absolute pitch. If someone plays a chord with ten notes in it, he can decipher each one individually, when most professionals can pick out around five, according The Daily Mail. He only needs to hear a song once before he can play it by memory himself.

Paravicini is a musical savant, a person who, although he has a variety of physical and mental challenges, has displayed exceptional talent at the piano.

Now 30, Derek was born several weeks premature, and doctors questioned whether he would survive infancy. Oxygen used to help him after birth caused a condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, which left him blind. Additionally, Derek can’t read Braille, and has autism and limited verbal skills. He doesn’t think much past the immediate future, which means he doesn’t really get nervous before a piano concert.

The Daily Mail writes that Derek’s nanny, Winifred Daly, was the first to help him unlock his musical gift. When he was almost two, she found a toy organ for him to play with, and his interaction with the instrument eventually progressed from just pounding on the keys to playing hymns he had heard in church.

Daly also sang to Derek incessantly, and the hours he logged just listening to music helped form unique neuronal connections in his brain, professor Adam Ockelford, Derek’s teacher of 26 years, explained to the Daily Mail.

Ten years passed before Ockelford was able to help Paravicini learn to play the piano correctly, The Independent reported. Now, Derek’s knack for improvisation makes him a hit with concertgoers who listen to him play.

But interestingly, Derek often can’t remember what he’s playing at his next concert or who will be playing with him. Qualities like these could be hard for the musicians who will go on tour with him soon, but it makes Paravicini a distinct player, The Independent stated.

“This gives the music Paravicini plays a unique freshness, as at every performance audiences will effectively be hearing a totally new improvisation.”

Paravicini was featured on 60 Minutes on March 14, 2010. He demonstrated for Lesley Stahl his ability to play any song he's ever heard, whether "YMCA" from the Village People or "My Favorite Things" from the Sound of Music. More impressively, as CBS News wrote in a piece on its Web site, he "he can transform them effortlessly and seamlessly into the styles of different musicians, like jazz greats." Stahl has been following Paravicini for six years; CBS reports that it "started following Derek because of his gift at the piano, but it's what he has taught us about relationships, communication and what music is really all about that has kept us coming back." 

Background: Musicians with disabilities

Many musicians throughout history have found success despite their sensory impairment.

Ludwig van Beethoven created some of his best work “during the last 10 years of his life when he was quite unable to hear,” noted. The famed composer had considered taking his life when he realized how serious his deafness was, but said he felt he couldn’t do such a thing before he knew he was done composing.

In his later years, Johann Sebastian Bach faced diminishing eyesight and attempted to have the problem fixed by a traveling English surgeon. Unfortunately, surgery left Bach completely blind, but he continued to compose by dictating his work to a pupil.

Stevie Wonder is another famous musician who has overcome disability to showcase a great talent. Wonder, who was born prematurely like Paravicini, was placed in an incubator and also experienced retinopathy of prematurity.

Related Topic: Other savants

Rex Lewis-Clack is another young musical savant. In a 2005 story about the boy, “60 Minutes” began, “The human mind can be mystifying in its capacity to accommodate both disability and genius in the same person.” Rex was born blind, and his brain was so damaged that some wondered if he would be able to walk or talk. Music became his realm, however, and he could play back songs by memory the way Paravicini does. With practice, Rex learned how to stop just repeating music and improvise and be creative.

Understanding how the mind of a person with Savant Syndrome works has been challenging at best, CBS News stated. Savants generally can’t explain how they are able to do what they do, but interestingly, Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant, has been able to do just that, according to The Guardian.

Tammet, who “can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds,” and who could speak seven languages as of 2005, spoke to The Guardian about how his mind worked. Scientists were excited to work with him, thinking he “could be the Rosetta Stone” in understanding the savant world.

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