I was surprised by the renown of the musical genius of Derek Paravicini. Within a few months of this documentary he was appearing in televised piano recitals. And, when speaking with a keyboard playing friend, the name of this musical genius arose.

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.

Musical Genius Derek Paravicini
Derek Paravicini

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 Paravicini 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.

Piano Teacher Adam Ockelford

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”.

Piano Teacher Adam Ockelford
Dr. Adam Ockelford

Adam Ockelford 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 what he believes to be autism. He tells us “The definition of a savant is someone who has at least one exceptional skill. A skill that stands out from their normal abilities.

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. This may be why music attracts autistic people.

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.

Echolalia and Musical Genius

Derek Paravicini needs personal care around the clock, and probably always will. He has a tendency to repeat everything that he hears. Derek has a condition known as echolalia. 75% of autistic people have the same tendency.


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.

Derek Paravicini can not only perceive every different note. He can identify the individual note that go to make up a chord. 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.

Musical Savant Lewis Clack
Lewis Clack

Christopher Fifield is the Music Director with the Lambeth Orchestra. The talent shown by Derek Paravicini has left him amazed.

Is this musical dexterity of Derek really a talent? Is he really playing with feeling or does his music lack emotion?

Music Psychologist, Keele University

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. Their performance can appear almost robotic and lacking in 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’.

The Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas is the venue for an upcoming performance by Derek. This will be the biggest audience Derek has ever played for.

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.

Derek Paravicini and Jools Holland
Derek and Jools Holland play us 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.

Jazz music and jazz people influence Derek for one reason. It is the fact that you improvise in jazz. 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. The fact that Derek is blind should be a serious handicap.

But, in the case of the musical genius of Derek Paravicini it appears to be a bonus.

Not all autistic individuals exhibit such extraordinary musical genius. Daniel Tammet has an extraordinarily mathematical brain.

External Links

Derek Paravicini Personal Site – Derek’s (official website)

In The Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini

Roll On (Clickety Clack)

Fela: This Bitch of a Life: The Authorized Biography of Africa’s Musical Guru

Musical Genius Derek Paravicini Concert Piano

Music Psychologist Keele University Lili Claire Foundation

Piano Teacher Adam Ockelford Echolalia Lang Lang

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