Rex was born with an array of problems so extreme it looked as though he might never walk, talk, or do much of anything. And yet he has a talent the rest of us can only dream of. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
We met Rex Lewis-Clack just before his 8th birthday in Los Angeles, where he lives with his mother Cathleen.
Rex is blind and brimming with enthusiasm. But he can't tie his shoes, or dress himself, or even carry on a basic conversation.
But with all the things Rex can't do, he can do this: Play any note on the piano and Rex can tell you what it is.
“F sharp, D flat, F, C sharp,” he says, exhibiting a talent only one in 10,000 people have.
But it isn't just Rex's ability to recognize notes that's extraordinary. His piano teacher, David Mehnert, is teaching him a piece, a Schubert Impromptu, and he’s hearing now for the first time.
Right after, he’s able to play the piece, but he isn’t reading music. He can’t even see the keys.
Rex is a musical savant, one of a handful of people in the world who share a mysterious combination of blindness, mental disability, and exceptional musical talent.
But away from the piano, the difference in Rex is striking.
He needs an aide to accompany him in his second grade special education class, where understanding even simple concepts is a problem.
“What shape do you think that is? Is it a triangle or a square,” asks his teacher.
“A circle,” says Rex.
“No, we just did the circle,” says his teacher.
Rex was born with a huge cyst in his brain, and at four months, doctors discovered he was blind. Over the next few years, the news got worse. Rex didn't learn to walk, or talk, or eat solid food, and he developed autistic-like symptoms – including hypersensitivity in his hands.
It seemed that there was little hope for Rex, until an unexpected breakthrough - a keyboard Rex's father gave him for his 2nd birthday.
“It was like he was being transported into another world. He started hitting it at first. And within two minutes he was actually laying his hands on the piano and holding them there,” says Cathleen. “And he was just like fascinated. You could see it in his face.”
The keyboard instantly became Rex's favorite activity. It was the first thing he wanted to do in the morning, and the thing he wanted to do even when his body couldn't do it anymore.
Rex began puzzling out melodies to songs he'd heard, and when he was 5, Cathleen started looking for someone to teach him. She asked Lynn Marzulli, the music director of her church, who was astonished by how quickly Rex learned scales in each of the 12 keys.
“With Rex, one scale, one time. And then he took it, and he went through every key. That same day,” says Marzulli. “Every single key. It seems like the musical software is already in Rex.”
To Rex, the keyboard just naturally made sense.
“The piano was order, precise order, and he was in control. Five-year-old kid. I can't see. I have no idea what's going on,” says Marzulli. “But this, I'm in control of. And this is my world.”
Rex's current piano teacher, David Mehnert, works with Rex several times a week.
“The first conversations I had with Rex were through the keyboard. He would play a phrase, I would play a phrase. And it was a game,” says Mehnert. “It was totally improv. He would try to force me into a corner. And then he would laugh and laugh and laugh.”
Mehnert thinks he was trying to outwit him: “He's not just as musical as I am. He's 100 times more musical than I am … He's more musical than anybody I've ever met in my life.”
60 Minutes presented a little musical challenge to Rex. Stahl played him a song he'd never heard - "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" - with Mehnert singing along. She played it just once, and he start to play.
Because no one has yet done comprehensive studies of the brains of musical savants, Rex's gift is a mystery. And no one can explain the triangle of blindness, brain impairment, and musical genius.
But if you’re wondering just how far someone with Rex’s limitations can go, take a look at Derek Paravincini. He is what a musical savant sounds like all grown up. At age 24, Derek is even more impaired mentally than Rex. 60 Minutes traveled to London to meet him.
Derek was born extremely premature, weighing just a pound-and-a-half. The oxygen that kept him alive blinded him, and he also suffered massive brain damage. He doesn’t know how long he’s been playing the piano. He doesn’t know how old he is either.
But Derek has, in fact, been playing the piano since the age of two, and like Rex he started lessons at age five. His teacher was Adam Ockelford, who worked with Derek every day for more than 10 years.
“In terms of what he can understand of the world around him, he's sort of like a 2-and-a-half or 3 year old. Of course in terms of his music, he's streaks ahead of most of us,” says Ockelford.
Derek can’t cut his own food, but Ockelford says, “With Derek and people like him, it’s not really whether he can eat. It's whether if someone wasn't there to prompt him, would he ever think of eating? If someone didn't tell him to get up, I don't think he would ever get out of bed.”
Derek remembers every song he's ever heard - thousands of them - and can play any one, seemingly flawlessly, from memory. We tried out a few, including “Getting to Know You,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Getting To The Church On Time.”
Just for fun, we also requested a little Burt Bacharach, and then had another idea. We asked him to play “San Jose” as if Mozart and Beethoven had written it. Derek said he was up for the challenge.
Derek lives at a school called Soundscape, a center his teacher Adam Ockelford started to enable blind and learning disabled people like Rex and Derek to develop their musical talents - and even aspire to paid careers in music.
Some scientists think all of us may have savant skills hidden deep within our brains, but that our ability to reason somehow prevents us from accessing them. Others believe that certain parts of savants' brains become hyper-developed to compensate for the dysfunction everywhere else, resulting in some strange paradoxes.
“He basically gets lost in space. You know, he can be in our apartment, for example, which he's been living in for seven-and-a-half years. And he gets lost,” says Rex’s mother, Cathleen. “I have to continuously be telling him, go right, go left … And even when I'm directing him, he often turns the wrong way, which is incredible.”
But even though Derek and Rex are so dexterous on the piano, they are so clumsy with their hands away from the piano.
“When most children about the age of 18 months to 2 years old start to use language, start to really understand and talk, at that time, that just didn't happen with Derek,” says Ockelford. “And all the sounds, his whole world of sound, which of course is what he's got, became channeled into music.”
Ockelford believes that music was Derek’s first language, and Cathleen believes that music was Rex's first language too. She also believes that his learning music actually rewired his damaged brain so that he now does all sorts of things he was never supposed to do - like feeding himself, running, socializing with other kids.
Experts told us that had Cathleen not brought music to his life, Rex might be all disability, with none of his magical ability. And this may be how he is able to support himself.
Rex gave his first public performance at a benefit last spring.
“I don't know where Rex's music is going in the future. You know, hopefully as far as possible,” says Rex’s mother, Cathleen. “ But I think the most important thing is that it, it connects him to the world, that it gives him a sense of who he is. That it helps him to socialize. You know, he loves the applause. It really hooks him into the rest of the world.”