Derek Paravicini was born blind and with a severe learning disability in 1979, due to his birth being very premature, at just 25 weeks. He is a musical prodigy, having perfect pitch and the ability to play virtually any piece of music after hearing it only once.
Consequently, he has memorised countless thousands of musical compositions, and can play any of them on demand, and in any style.
He astonishes audiences with his musical ability and his ‘party piece’ of being able to play virtually any piece of music anyone in the audience cares to mention.
Derek Paravicini, blind and autistic
… and a musical savant
Derek has severe autism, which might explain his incredible musical ability. But can autism be responsible for his savantism? One theory is that due to the damage caused by oxygen therapy shortly after birth, much of his brain has not developed along normal lines, allowing his remaining mental powers to focus almost entirely on one thing, his fascination with music. This obsession with music began when his nanny gave him a toy keyboard to play with when he was two years old.
‘Perfect pitch’, also called ‘absolute pitch’, is the ability of an individual to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of an external reference. Instead of ‘searching’ for the note, or creeping up on it in stages, a person with perfect pitch has it nailed instantly.
On his very first visit to Linden Lodge School for the Blind, he heard music and followed the sound to the music room, where Alan Ockelford was playing the piano. He joined in, pushing Alan to one side, and virtually took over, playing with his fingers, the backs of his hand, his elbows, and at one point even his nose! Alan encouraged his obvious musical interest and ability, although it was abviously natural and untutored, and started to give him lessons, first weekly and then daily, once he realised the boy’s talent and hunger for more music. As the lessons progressed, it became obvious that he was in fact a musical savant with perfect pitch.
Paravicini’s first major public concert was at theBarbican Hall in London, when he performed with the Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra. He was only nine years old at the time! In the same year, he appeared on Wogan on the BBC, and was one of the stars of a documentary called Musical Savants. He released his first album, Echoes of the Sound to Be, in 2006, and his biography (by his music teacher, Alan Ockelford, who he had virtually shoved off his piano stool at their first meeting!) was published in 2007.
Blind and autistic, but forging a career in music
He has also featured on an episode of the Channel 5 series Extraordinary People, which showed him visit Las Vegas to play a charity concert with another musical savant, Rex Lewis-Clack. In 2010, Paravicini featured in an episode of Stan Lee’s Superhumans, in which he underwent tests to determine just how amazing his ability to recall and play a brand new piece of music really is. He listened to a well known jazz pianist playing a new composition, and then calmly sat down and repeated it with ease, not to mention style and panache, note for note.
And, as the narrator noted, they’d chosen jazz for the test as it is such a complex and difficult genre in which to memorise musical pieces. His rendition of the piece was compared by computer, note for note, with the original composer’s performance of it, and it proved to be about 95% identical.
Speaking as one who has no discernible musical talent (and certainly not perfect pitch!), I find this ability to memorise musical compositions and then repeat them with ease totally amazing. I have a guitar I bought to pursue a long-held desire to learn some musical instrument (any musical instrument), and as far as my musical memory goes, I can barely remember where I left the guitar. Which, as anyone who has heard me practising will attest, is definitely a good thing!
Like many savants, Paravicini is a calm, relaxed individual, with a peaceful and simplistic outlook. All he wants is to create music and make people happy (actually, I share the same desire, but my chosen way of making people happy through music is not to play it – works for me!). Due to being deprived of much of what we take for granted (being able to communicate easily and relate to one another effectively), Derek has found contentment and a means of communication through his first love, music. He is able to focus his mind power almost entirely on this one thing, and he does it with a skill and talent that’s virtually unmatched.
You don’t have to be a musical savant to be successful
… but can autism take all the credit?
Can autism account for the fact that Derek isn’t just a musician with perfect pitch but is actually a musical savant? It’s a factor, undoubtedly, but you have to take into account his deep love of music too, and his strong desire to use it as a means of communication. Derek Paravicini has achieved something extraordinary, apart from his incredible ability to remember every note of thousands of musical compositions. He has reached out from his autism ‘prison’ and made friends with the whole world. How many of us can say we’ve done as much?
I suppose this just shows the latent potential that we probably all have. Since we generally have so many things on the go at one time, it’s not easy to focus our attention on one important thing. The more successful among us do manage to concentrate on one thing, and do bring to bear the incredible powers of the mind and the memory. The result, as in Derek’s case, is sometimes awesome. It seems there are virtually no limits to what a person can achieve if they simply focus on one overriding desire.
If you want to read more about Derek, or find out where and when he’ll be appearing next, go to his website for details.