NPR logo

Sudden Savant

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/263364530/263365234" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sudden Savant

Sudden Savant

Sudden Savant

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/263364530/263365234" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Although most musicians spend decades honing their craft, musical genius Derek Amato never had to practice a day in his life. One day, he sat down at the piano and his fingers began to fly across the keys with ease. As an immediate musical genius, Derek is one of the few people on Earth diagnosed with Acquired Musical Savant Syndrome. Derek takes us into the inner workings of his amazing gift.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

OK, so it's like this - every single morning, right before I'm on my way out of the door, I reach down in my pocket and discover that I've lost my car keys or my phone or my wallet or my jet pack. Who took my jet pack? So then I tear up the house screaming and cursing until I find the missing item. And I leave several minutes later. And that's all well and good, but what if you find something that you didn't even know you had? Something amazing, something beautiful, something that changes everything. Today, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "Found," incredible stories where people find what they are most certainly not looking for. Get ready. My name is Glynn Washington and to this is SNAP JUDGMENT.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: We're going to kick off today's "Found" episode with Derek Amato who decided to take a little trip back to his home town.

(MUSIC)

DEREK AMATO: In 2006, I went to visit my mother in the Midwest right before my 40th birthday. And I got together with a couple high school friends for a BBQ. And we were at the swimming pool in the apartment complex. You know, one thing led to another. It became doing back flips off the side of the swimming pool into the water. And I went running along the side of the pool, and I dove in towards the shallow end. Well, matter of fact, the very shallow end. And I remember striking the bottom with the upper left part of my head. It was just this enormous bang. It was as if someone just stuck two, you know, sticks of dynamite in my ears and my head exploded. I remember coming out of the water and reaching immediately for my ears because I thought my ears were bleeding. I couldn't hear anything so I absolutely had no understanding of what was going on.

And I guess I made it towards the edge of the pool. And when I got to the edge of the pool, I collapsed and they pulled me out onto the concrete. And I went unconscious. I don't remember anything after hitting my head, but they took me to the emergency room. And I was diagnosed with a major concussion with no bleeding. They sent me home to my mom's house, and I slept for about four days. I remember waking up on the fifth morning, my neck was sore, my head was pretty swelled up in that upper area, my eyes were blackened. And I knew my hearing wasn't right and I didn't know at that time that I had lost almost half of the hearing from the impact in my left side.

Everything was dampened. But I felt reasonably OK, just a little beat up. That evening, I went over to my best friend Rick's house, and I went over to visit him. And he's got a little studio, and he was playing his guitar. And so he sat down to take a break. And I had this incredibly strange, bazaar feeling that I simply needed to go sit down at that little keyboard he had up there. I'd never really been a musician, but it was just - it felt right so I went over and sat down at it. And my fingers began to play as if I had played pretty much all my life. And this is the very first piece that I ever played.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

AMATO: And Rick looked at me and I looked at him, and I didn't know what to say. I was freaked out. What are you supposed to think when you all of a sudden sit down at a piano and you've never touched one, and your hands are moving at a rapid pace and doing things that you've never - never even tried? We didn't know what to think.

It was like eerie, intense and at the same time, beautiful. I wasn't sure how to really explain it to my mom. I didn't know where to start. So I asked her, while we were having a cup of coffee, if she would go to me to the music store, that I would like to show her something. And we jumped in the car and headed over to the music store. We walked in and went over to one of the pianos with my mom. I sat down and I started playing, and she started crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

AMATO: And then the salesman come over and said how long have you been playing? And I said, well, about five hours. And of course, he gave me the strangest look like I was pulling his chain. And my mom sat there crying. I played for maybe 10, 20 minutes for. We got up and got in the car and it was a very quiet drive back to the house. A week or two goes by, and I reached out to Dr. Darold Treffert, whom was the advisor for the film "Rain Man." I was diagnosed with acquired musical savant syndrome, which is immediate musical genius or immediate ability. My mind basically creates a pattern of black and white squares that almost go in like a ticker tape, like in a circle.

So these black and white squares are my brain's musical notation. For some reason, those black and white squares tell my hands where to go. So I don't capture all of them. There's absolutely no way to. They're going at a pace that is so intense that I can grab and display some of it, but certainly not all of it. The doctors refer to this as synesthesia. Those black and white squares dictate what I play. I have no control of what comes next. I have no idea what those notes are going to be so sometimes it's pop and sometimes it's rock and sometimes it's Beethoven-ish.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

AMATO: From my understanding, there's about 30 acquired savants on the planet. And I'm the only one to be an acquired musical savant from a brain injury. Before the accident, I was a pretty typical, aggressive businessperson. I was making great money by going to work and chasing the almighty dollar, and then I'd come home and go to bed and do it all over again the next day. But after the accident because of all the attention I was getting, I just - I never went back to corporate America. It's a challenging road when you just walk away from your job and think you're going to become a superstar because of a gift the next day. It doesn't quite happen like that. It's been a financial struggle. And it's been brutal. I have a 1984 Winnebago. Little did I know, it would become my shelter for, well, quite a while. I was homeless. I didn't have any running water and no heat. I ate nuts and dried fruit and tuna that comes in those little foil bags.

You know, you start to second-guess yourself and you say, am I being selfish? Am I chasing a dream with a gift that may not possibly pay your bills? It's a bit intense when doctors and the world start putting a title on you that is so profound. And, you know, just because you fall under the title of a savant, doesn't mean you're the best piano player on the planet. My skills are above average maybe, but I've never known how to read music. I still don't get it. It just makes absolutely no sense. I can't even get a grasp where C or a D or an E should be on the piano. I can hear the tone, I just can't show you where it is. I'm just able to take what I'm seeing being produced in my mind and make some sense of it with my hands.

People call me and say they wanted me to get involved with their charities. I go in and I do like a 40 or a 70-minute storyteller set. I play a little, I talk, but the work I get is sporadic. And when I get invited to perform or speak or what have you, there's a price tag on everything we do in this lifetime. And I get overwhelmed and overstimulated and sometimes, I'm just exhausted. And I go into my little space where I feel OK, and that's usually in the studio. That's my comfort zone. You know, I get asked often what it would be like if I wake up tomorrow and if it's not here. And when I sit down at the piano, you know, it's always a surprise so I live in the moment. And I think I'm going to continue to live in the moment because that's what brings me joy.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Yes that happened. But please, please, please, please do not try to reproduce this affect at home. Some of the music for that piece, including the song you just heard, was played by Derek Amato himself. If you want to hear more of Derek's music, we've got links on our website snapjudgment.org. That piece was sound designed by Pat Mesiti-Miller and produced by Anna Sussman.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Found" episode continues, someone's going to get rich. Someone's going to find love and someone's going to discover the most important thing of all - for real - when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Found" episode continues. Don't go anywhere. You're not going anywhere. SNAP JUDGMENT.

(MUSIC)

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.