Derek Paravicini's Extraordinary Gift

"60 Minutes": Musical Savant Can Recall Every Song He's Ever Heard, Play It in Any Style

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This story was originally published on March 14, 2010. It was updated on July 27, 2010.

There are some people we meet in our "60 Minutes" stories who we just can't let go, whose next chapter we're compelled to follow.

Like Derek Paravicini, a masterful musician who is blind, with disabilities so severe he can't tell his right hand from his left or hold anything but the simplest of conversations.

As we reported earlier this year, "60 Minutes" and correspondent Lesley Stahl started following Derek because of his gift at the piano, but it's what he has taught us about relationships, communication and what music is really all about that has kept us coming back.

Web Extra: "Tick Tick Derek Boogie"
Web Extra: "YMCA" A La Derek
Web Extra: Teaching Derek
Web Extra: Derek & Princess Di
Book Excerpt: In The Key of Genius
Derek Paravicini
Adam Ockelford
Bristol Ensemble
Create Arts

When Derek is playing the piano, it's hard to believe there is anything he can't do, and yet when you meet him away from the keyboard, as we first did in London seven years ago, the contrast is shocking.

Derek is a musical savant, blessed with an island of extreme talent in a sea of profound disability.

"Do you know how long you've been playing the piano?" Stahl asked.

"Was it about a year, wasn't it?" Derek asked. "No it wasn't."

Asked if he knows how old he is now, Derek said, "I don't know how old I am, no."

Today Derek is 31. He grew up in an upper class British family, the nephew of Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall. But none of that matters much to Derek.

"You gonna have pizza tonight?" Stahl asked.

"Yes, pepperoni!" Derek excitedly replied. "In New York, what do they have? If I come next year, what do they have there?"

Derek was excited to show us the skills that make him so exceptional, the ability to instantly call up any piece of music he's ever heard. Like the Village People's "YMCA" or the show tune "My Favorite Things."

But it isn't just that Derek remembers them: he can transform them effortlessly and seamlessly into the styles of different musicians, like jazz greats.

Asked to change to the style of Oscar Peterson, Derek changed style mid-song, playing "My Favorite Things" Oscar Peterson-style.

He also wowed Stahl by playing the tune in the style of Dave Brubeck.

"It's like he's got libraries of pieces and styles in his head," Adam Ockelford, Derek's teacher, told Stahl. "And he can just whip out a piece book and a style book and just bring them together. It just kind of explodes."

How Derek's fingers can do this but can't button a button or zip a zipper remains a mystery. There are lots of theories about savants, but few real answers.

In Derek's case, the problems started early. He was born more than three months premature, weighing just a pound and a half. He hung on, but was left blind and with severe cognitive impairment. Derek's father, Nic Paravicini, says the first thing that really interested Derek was a small toy keyboard.

"My daughter suddenly said one day, 'He's just played one of the hymns we heard in church this morning," Paravicini remembered.

Derek was three years old at the time.

"And he didn't know, 'cause he couldn't see, and no one had told him, that you're meant to use your fingers to play the piano. So he used karate chops and elbows, and even his nose, I seem to remember," Derek's father told Stahl.

Derek had never met a piano teacher, until he literally crashed into one during a visit with his parents to a school for the blind. The teacher was Ockelford, in the middle of a lesson.

"Suddenly I felt a shove in the back. And he literally pushed me off the piano stool, and just started karate chopping the keyboard," Ockelford remembered. "I thought he was mad, actually, 'cause it was just chaos of notes and hair and elbows but then suddenly I noticed out of all of that was coming 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina.' I thought, 'Crikey, he's not mad at all. He's brilliant.'"

Ockelford phoned Derek's dad and told him he'd like to teach Derek. "It was almost as though Derek, through his pushing me off the stool was saying, 'Help,' you know, he was saying, 'I need.' 'Course he didn't, but, 'I need teaching,'" Ockelford said.

"So it was compassion," Stahl remarked.

"It was compulsion, I think," he replied.