The Brilliance that is Derek Paravicini
Born three and a half months prematurely, Derek Paravicini miraculously survived, but his twin sister did not. Technically, he died three times in the hospital and his eyesight was destroyed by an oxygen overdose. He has been left completely blind, partly autistic, can’t tell left from right and cannot count to ten, but despite his disabilities he has an incredibly acute sense of hearing, and is a musical genius.
Now 26 years old, Derek Paravicini has the I.Q. of a 4 year old. His family had little hope that Derek would ever be able to communicate meaningfully, until at the age of two something extraordinary happened! At home with his mother, Mary Ann Hanbury, Derek sat at the piano playing a tune. Soon after this Derek Paravicini was taken to a school for the blind.
At the school there was a piano lesson going on, Derek broke free from his mother and ran straight towards the piano, as if he could see, and pushed the little girl, who was having the piano lesson, out of the way and started to play.
Blind, Autistic and Musically Brilliant
The piano teacher, that day, was Dr Adam Ockelford who remembers the incident well: “He just freed himself from Nic and Mary-Ann and started to play. He was using, not only his fingers but also, the backs of his hands, karate chops, elbows, and at one point he used his nose”. Adam would become Derek’s life-long friend and mentor and he has devoted thousands of hours to nurturing Derek’s talent. It wasn’t long before Derek was acknowledged, world-wide, as a bona-fide musical prodigy.
At the University of Sheffield, Derek’s memory for music is challenged by some doubting musical scholars. He was played a Basque lullaby that he had never heard before which he then replayed perfectly.
Derek’s remarkable talent combined with mental impairment classifies him as that rarest of beings – a savant.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Trinity College, Cambridge explains “A savant is usually defined as someone who has at least one unusual skill that’s out of keeping with all of their other skills. It’s obviously most conspicuous in an individual who has learning difficulties. People with autism tend to be very good at systemising and music lends itself to sequences and patterns which may be why people with autism are attracted to music and sometimes, that can really be developed to a high-level and become savantism.”
For the last six years, Derek Paravicini has lived in RNIB Redhill College for the Blind, just outside London. Left on his own, he would not know how to dress or feed himself. Derek Paravicini needs personal care around the clock, and probably always will. His tendency to repeat everything he hears is called echolalia, a condition observed in 75% of autistic people. Derek resorts to this when he doesn’t fully understand what is being said to him.
Derek’s brain is now almost exclusively dedicated to hearing, processing, and creating music. He possesses an extremely rare gift of universal absolute pitch, which means he’s able to discriminate every note he hears. Not only can Derek Paravicini perceive every different note, he can do this when they are played simultaneously. He can easily recognise ten notes played as a chord. Dr Ian Cross, reader of Music and Sciences at the University of Cambridge observes “Most highly-trained musicians would not be able to do this. They might recognise the top note and the bottom note.” When confronted with a 50-piece orchestra playing a chord he was able to arpeggiate the sound so that he could reproduce it on the piano.
Christopher Fifield, Music Director with the Lambeth Orchestra is amazed.
Can Derek’s musical dexterity truly be called talent? Is he really playing with feeling or does his music lack emotion? Professor John A. Sloboda, Music Psychologist at Keele University considers this “The one area where savants tend to not be as expert as normal musicians is in their emotional palette. Very often their performance are in some sense stilted or lacking in any particular emotional communication”.
Professor Sloboda asks Derek to play the same musical piece in three differing moods: happy, sad, and angry. He does surprisingly well with the first two but couldn’t convey ‘angry’ or perhaps didn’t understand the concept of ‘angry’.
Derek has been booked to play at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas in front of the biggest audience in his life. Adam has arranged for him to partner another musical savant, Rex Lewis-Clack who is ten years old and lives with his mother Kathleen in Malibu, California. Rex is a gifted classical pianist who is also blind and severely learning impaired.
Lili Claire Foundation
The show is in support of the Lili Claire Foundation and it’s a resource center for the families of children with neuro-genetic disorders. Gala tickets for the evening cost $2,000 and it’s a sell-out.
What of the future? Jools Holland says “In music it’s pretty cruel. The first thing you have to do is to love the music and be rather good at it, so Derek’s got that. One of the reasons he’s influenced by jazz people and likes playing jazz is the fact that you improvise in it, which allows him to go off wherever he wants”.
People compare Derek Paravicini with Art Tatum, the great, blind, jazz pianist from the early 20th century. His name is occasionally mis-spelt as Paraviccini.
Derek Paravicini Personal Site – Derek’s (official website)
[amazon template=template&title=-&artist=-&asin=0091796121] In the Key of Genius – Adam Ockelford