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Musical savant Derek Amato’s ‘bizarrely beautiful’ moment

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A dozen years ago, Derek Amato sat down at a cheap Casio keyboard owned by his friend, and began to fluently play beautifully constructed music. For a guy who had previously only been able to bang out a reasonable rendition of “Chopsticks,” it was an overwhelming but confusing moment.

How did he suddenly know how to play the piano? And not just play it, but create beautiful classically-structured melodies in the moment? The answer is connected to a diving accident Amato suffered just a few days before.

Amato was visiting his mother in South Dakota when he attended a barbecue pool party with some friends. While throwing a football around, one of those friends suggested Amato run and catch the ball over the water. Somehow, Amato hit his head on the bottom or side of the pool. He remembers his friends trying to tell him that he was hurt and needed to go to the hospital. Due to short and long-term memory loss related to the accident, Amato recalls only scattered details about that fateful day.

Diagnosed with a concussion (his seventh since childhood), Amato was sent home where he eventually slept for the better part of five days.

After waking and orienting himself, Amato visited his friend Rick and was drawn to a keyboard in the corner of the room. He sat down and started to play.

In his book “My Beautiful Disaster,” Amato writes of his condition – Acquired Musical Savant Syndrome – and asks the question, “Is it in all of us?” Amato shared his story with The Maine Edge during a recent phone interview.

TME: When you sat down at your friend’s keyboard and started to play, what was your reaction?

Amato: I’ve tried to explain it in different ways. It definitely tested my curiosity level. I can’t define it perfectly with words but it was one of those way-out things. It was a bizarrely beautiful, profound moment.

TME: When the doctors began running tests, what did they discover?

Amato: I had about 35 percent hearing loss on my left side from the impact. There’s some short and long-term memory loss. There are lots of quirky little things associated with the damage. They found these five white spots on my brain. One in particular, they believed awakened these neurons to fire at an unheard-of pace that somehow tapped into my brain in a way that allowed me to compose music.

I’m working with Dr. Berit Brogaard at the University of Miami and Dr. Darold Treffort of the Wisconsin Medical Society. My situation has allowed me to meet these amazingly beautiful medical minds and each of them define my condition a little differently. They’re tapping into some previously undiscovered areas of the brain.

TME: Is the music that you create mostly classical in nature?

Amato: I don’t know to put it in a genre. I can take what sounds like a classically-structured piece and turn it around to a jazz style. I can take that jazz style and turn it into a pop style. Some of it ends up as a wonderful complete piece and some of it doesn’t.

TME: Tell me about your song “The Script” that you recorded with Mandy Harvey. It’s really a beautiful song.

Amato: I discovered Mandy in Denver eight years ago. Mandy Harvey is a deaf jazz vocalist and she did very well last year on “America’s Got Talent.” That particular song is very special because it was by two uniquely gifted people.

TME: Are you at all concerned that you might injure yourself again and suddenly lose the ability to create music?

Amato: Sometimes I think I should hit my head again so I can discover the violin. Who knows what can happen? I’m not worried about it nor am I worried that the musical stuff might go away. I’ve had 11 years of this amazing journey. I’ve reached out to millions of people around the world and have been able to share this gift. I’ve been able to use what happened to me from the accident to touch as many people as possible, to inspire them or just give them a moment of curiosity as it relates to the human condition. But if it goes away, it goes away.

It comes down to this: I think we all have gifts and we all discover them in different ways.

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