Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Derek Paravicini the Musical Genius
More on Derek:
Meet Derek, the amazing human iPod
May 18, 2010 - 3:45PM
Derek Paravicini ... "He can hear a song just once and play it back perfectly". Photo: Getty Images
Blind and severly autistic, pianist Derek Paravicini is on the brink of international stardom.
Blind and severely autistic, pianist Derek Paravicini is on the brink of international stardom.
With his right ear cocked forward slightly and the faintest curl of a smile at the corners of his mouth, Derek Paravicini's fingers dance across the keys of the grand piano. This blind, severely autistic 30 year-old man is coaxing a sad and beautiful tune from the instrument that causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. Exchanging glances with others in the room, it is clear I am not alone.
In this tatty university teaching room in west London, Derek is delivering a performance worthy of a concert pianist. Standing behind him, arms behind his back, his mentor and coach, Professor Adam Ockelford, a music psychologist at Roehampton University, listens intently.
"He's just made this one up on the spot," says Prof Ockelford. "I have never heard anyone play quite like Derek. He can hear a song just once and play it back perfectly, adapting it and improvising along the way. He has thousands of pieces in his repertoire now."
A few moments earlier, Derek had played Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee in C sharp and then in D minor - it was written in A minor - at my request. When he does not recognise the next piece I ask him to play, he assures me he will play me something else he thinks I will like. Entirely improvised, he produces a piece of music on the spot. It is magical.
"I like the piano, Richard!" booms Derek. He is lively and enthusiastic despite his disability, shaking hands with everyone he meets, learning their names, and using them at any opportunity.
Last Thursday, Derek made legal history when his family were given legal control of his affairs in the first case of its kind to be heard in public. Derek's parents Nicolas and Mary Ann, the sister of Andrew Parker Bowles, former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, were given the power to make decisions for him about where he should live and how often he should perform.
Despite Derek's extraordinary talent, he requires round-the-clock care and help with even the simplest of tasks such as dressing and washing. He lives in a residential care home in Redhill, Surrey, run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The charity opposed his family's request to take over these decisions for fear he may fall victim to commercial pressures, and wanted an independent guardian to be appointed - but the court ruled otherwise.
"It is nice to have a say in what happens to our own son," says Mary Ann. "We want to make sure we can give him a wonderful life. It is just a shame we had to go to court to do it, but we understand the RNIB's job to make sure people in their care are going to be all right."
Derek's parents have been caring for him for almost his entire life. Born 25 weeks premature, he was delivered alongside a twin sister, who did not survive. He spent three weeks in an incubator, as doctors tried to keep him alive, but during this time he received too much oxygen, robbing him of his sight and leading to severe learning difficulties.
"It was remarkable that he lived at all," recalls Mary Ann. "He had trouble speaking and still can't read or count to more than a few figures."
Aged two, Derek first encountered a musical instrument - a toy organ. The family had hoped it would help to keep him amused, but instead Derek did something amazing. "He would play back nursery rhymes and songs he had heard on programmes," says Mary Ann.
Derek would sit on his father's lap as Nicolas played the family's electric organ. Aged three, he began taking over, hitting the keys with any part of his body. "He used his elbows, he even used his nose," says Nicolas. "He didn't know you were supposed to use only your fingers, but he would play the most extraordinary music.
"Everything he hears, he retains. He can play something he learnt 20 years ago."
Derek's parents, who are now divorced, say that growing up was difficult and frustrating for the severely disabled youngster. At five years old, he played so hard and with such energy that he broke his first piano three times. The tuners refused to repair it again.
In time, his ability to learn musical pieces by heart after just one hearing earned him the nickname of the "Human iPod". And his repertoire is impressive - everything from the jazz of Art Tatum to the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby. His skill, however, goes far beyond simply being able to mimic music, since he also improvises, adapts and composes.
Performance-assessment certificates from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music line the walls at Mary Ann's house. Dating from 1994, when Derek was 15, they point to his raw talent. One reads: "Consider the composer's different styles. You are there to interpret a composer's own feelings as well as presenting your own."
Derek's verbal skills are limited. Although his articulation is clear, his ability to hold a conversation is impaired, and he echoes everything said to him. Instead, he uses music to express his feelings.
"It is a wonderful compensation for his disabilities," explains Nicolas. "He loves people and his interaction with them is through music and playing something for them."
One of his favourite pieces is Culture Club's Karma Chameleon played in a ragtime style. "It took us quite a long time to teach Derek about styles," says Prof Ockelford. "While pieces are straightforward for him to understand, style is more abstract."
Derek is a savant - a poorly understood condition that gives sufferers extraordinary mental abilities. Neurologists still struggle to explain the combination of extreme talent and disability, but most agree that the brain becomes somehow hypersensitised to compensate for damage to other areas that typically process language and comprehension. Scans on Derek have suggested the part of his brain that would normally be used for sight may have been used to enhance his auditory ability.
"Derek has got absolute pitch," says Prof Ockelford. "It means he can identify every note in a chord. Each one is a different creature for him so he hears them all. It is a rare gift."
To demonstrate, Prof Ockelford plays a nine-note chord on the piano. In response, Derek plays each of the notes individually in ascending sequence. Most musicians can pick out only five notes from a chord. Derek can distinguish up to 20.
As his teacher for more than 25 years, Prof Ockelford has an almost paternal relationship with his young prodigy. The pair met when Derek was four and Prof Ockelford was a music teacher at Linden Lodge - a school for the blind in south-west London. Derek's parents were looking around the school when, on hearing a student playing the piano, Derek rushed over, knocking her off the stool, and began to play Don't Cry for me Argentina.
"He was playing with his elbows, fists and his nose," recalls Prof Ockelford. "At first I thought he was a bit mad, but as he played and I recognised what he was playing, I realised he was unlike anyone I had seen before. I never dreamt he would be on the brink of an international music career 25 years later."
At the age of nine, Derek played his first major concert, at the Barbican in London. The applause had a huge impact, causing him to rise to his feet and tremble with adrenalin.
Since then Derek has played several concerts. He has never been paid, playing mostly for charity, and his audiences vary from dementia patients, who thrive on the old songs he produces on request, to celebrities. He has played twice at Downing Street - for Tony Blair and for Gordon Brown. He has even played requests for Hugh Grant.
"I like having an audience when they clap me," says Derek. "I don't get nervous before playing."
In performance, his personality - a cheeky, happy and rambunctious young man - comes through. He loves jazz.
He also displays flashes of humour. When playing for the former chancellor Alistair Darling earlier this year, he launched into a rendition of Big Spender. Mr Darling apparently quipped: "Not under the current budget."
Derek is excited about two upcoming concerts at a charity auction at Sotheby's and at the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival. And his family hope, with the court ruling, that he will finally be able to earn a living from his talent. He is hoping to do a series of mini-tours in the US where he is well-known after appearing twice on the popular CBS News program 60 Minutes. There is also talk of getting a professional recording deal.
"We hope that he might be able to start earning a living for himself," says Nicolas. "It is a big step towards getting a normal life. With his own income, he might be able to leave residential care, get his own home, and have a carer live there with him. Ultimately, though, this is a chance for him to keep doing what he loves."
When I ask Derek how his music makes him feel, his response is surprisingly muted. "I feel all right, Richard," he says after a pause.
His enthusiasm to stop talking and play me another piece suggests he has understated his feelings considerably. As he plays he rocks and sways his head with the music as he gets into a groove. Then he bursts into song.
Making music is clearly what Derek likes best.
The Telegraph, London
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