Most musicians will devote their lives to becoming the best artist they can be, negating a social life for a childhood spent figuring out how to use ultimate-guitar.com and playing the same riff over and over again for three hours. But for Derek Amato all it took was a minor concussion, and he literally became a virtuoso piano player in an instant.
Before the accident, Derek had never played the piano. After, he began to notice that musical notes would appear before his eyes, guiding him to play. The music he was making was outside anything that he had ever played before and it appeared constantly. He had taken on the qualities of a savant (someone who has abilities outside of what is considered normal) yet, he found that the music had turned into a compulsion, unable to sit still without playing the pressing his fingers on a keyboard. With the incessant need to play music, also came crippling migraines and a high percent of hearing loss, was this the price for acquiring a talent too fast?
Wanting to find out more about his condition and whether extraordinary musical skill was worth risking his own health and sanity I called up Derek to talk me through what it’s like being a savant.
Noisey: Hey Derek. What was life like before the accident?
Derek: I grew up as a very intense competitor. I worked as a martial arts trainer in youth safety for the French foundation, and managed several mixed martial arts athletes in North America, and Canada. Many of my working years were spent on various entrepreneurial ventures.
Could you describe the day when the accident happened?
I just remember something about the World Series starting and getting together with some high school buddies for a cook out at the swimming pool. Most of that day in particular is vague. I also remember the loudest booming noise when I dove into the shallow end, my ears were bleeding violently. Other than that, it’s just scattered pieces.
What about after the concussion?
It took several weeks to actually start putting some of the pieces together as to what had happened. I was aware I had an accident. For the most part, I have scattered memory situations before and after the accident.
So how did your talent start working?
My mind seemed to produce these black and white squares that moved left to right in sequence. The "squares" seem to represent notation, which tells my fingers where to go on the piano.
Like on Rockband?
Yeah, sort of. I have no idea what I'm going to play when I sit down, each time is different, although, there is a struggle as to capturing everything my mind is producing musically. My fingers don't always move perfectly in sync with the music being produced, I suppose possibly due to the rate or pace that these black and white squares are going by. It’s basically like a non stop ticker tape of musical notation. Some of it I’m able to capture, use, work with, etc but there is just so much that goes right by that I completely miss. It’s somewhat a hard thing to
explain verbally. It seems easier to physically demonstrate the process rather explain it.
I heard it's turned into a bit of a compulsion, constantly appearing before you?
I think compulsion is fairly accurate. my fingers are often doing piano structured immolation even while I’m sleeping. My brain doesn't stop or take a break, constantly composing. When I do go into the studio to rehearse, or vent, I guess you could call it, its a very exciting process. I get so overwhelmed to get in there and start banging away, that I sometimes get physically sick
from being so over stimulated.
How would you describe your music?
It’s all over the map. I personally love composing ballads, and I have a strong interest in scoring for film someday. When I’m playing piano, some stuff is Elton John-ish, with maybe a little Prince and Billy Joel mixed in. When I’m playing guitars I seem to construct more of the Dave Matthews, or even Dream Theater type of sound. I love progressive rock. So much depends on what my brain is composing, sometimes it’s just out of my control, and the end result wouldn't even be considered a genre. I don’t like to classify what I do. I kind of like all types of music.
You also have Synesthesia, right? How has that impacted your view of music?
Yeah. Basically it’s when your brain relates colours, numbers, to a different set of
items than the typical relation. Kind of like looking at the colour red and seeing cherries. My brain correlates squares with musical notation. The synesthesia has been related possibly to a head injury I had when I was 7 years old. I had crashed into the monkey bars running to catch a pop fly on the playground. I had noted the taste of exhaust or gas like fumes when I would get overly angry as a child after that accident. I hadn't given any thought to this growing up, and it was actually discovered when I met a specialist at the clinic. I’m currently getting ready to do another brain study in regard to the synesthesia area of this crazy journey.
I heard you also lost a lot of your hearing from the accident?
Maybe around 35% in my left ear, and of course it has seemingly decreased over the last 5 years. My ego won't allow me to wear a hearing aid yet, I know, they make tiny little ones that no one can see, but it still seems like I'm too young to wear one. I found that wearing a beanie dampened some of the tones that bothered me after the accident. My right ear over compensates, so, when I put a stocking cap on, it’s like my buffer, or balancer I suppose.
I’ve become comfortable with leaning closer into the piano when playing to actually feel the tones physically, as I can usually tell when my left ear is struggling.
How do you cope with all this stress?
I fly fish a bunch. It’s become my therapist in some nutty way. It has become the perfect doctor actually. If I could just put a pair of breasts on my fly fishing rod, I would then have the perfect date even. I try to keep occupied with different stuff. I’m always outdoors. The mountains are where I find my peace.
Would you say having the accident was worth being able to create beautiful music?
You know, what's the price tag on discovering purpose? It’s not like my accident gave me instant fame, wealth, etc. this has become a giving tree, and I've simply utilised this new gift as a platform to bring awareness to the charitable organisations I love to be involved with.
Is going to work at 9 am, getting home all stressed out at 5pm, turning the TV on, hugging the wife, saying hello to the kids, and then doing it all over again worth it? I wasn't designed to live my life by those particular habits. So, in my mind, this was not only worth it, but I would absolutely do it all over again, well, the discovery anyways, I can do without the financial stress that comes with this sort of process and transition.
You had the chance to take some drugs to get rid of your constant migraines, right? But there was the possibility that it might take away from your gift… How would you feel if the condition ended tomorrow?
I never did actually take a medication to deal with the headaches. I just get through them the best I can, but sometimes I have to go in to the hospital for a shot, some I simply can't deal with. If I woke up back to regular you mean? Hmmm, it’s a hard question. Loss is hard on anyone. I’m guessing I would be totally bummed out for a while, but you know, I've learned to cherish this process, and I've adapted to truly enjoying each second, just in case it were to go away. I've got to see so much life the last 7 years, there really isn't much more any person could ask for, it's truly become a treasure box of experiences. Let’s be honest, it would probably hit me like a ton of bricks if I woke up and it was gone. I can’t go without drinking coffee and playing piano every morning of life.
Have you met anyone else with the condition?
I’ve met a few prodigious savants. They are in a completely different category of giftedness to me. Although, there is this strange energy we seem to share. Again, it's one of those things you have to personally be present to experience. I'm fascinated with spending time
with these wonderful people. It's not only personally gratifying, but the musical connection is bizarre to me. Tony de Blois is my favourite gifted artist. I haven't met another acquired savant yet, someday I suppose.
Would all you savants ever form a band?
Absolutely. I cant imagine how it would open up the framework for such a vast contribution of different musical ideas. I've played a couple times with other artists. I usually sit there and stare at them. I don't comprehend what their hands are doing. An educated and trained
musician simply moves differently. It’s like I'm watching them do something I will never understand or know how to do, and yet, they sit there and stare at my hands wondering, what the hell is he doing? I would like to perform on stage with other touring musicians this year.
Basically, joining them on stage for one song. Most people don't know that I love to sing as much as play. Even though I’m not the best singer, it’s just something I love to do. Who knows, maybe someday a few of the big rock star bands may invite me on stage, that would make my whole damn year!
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