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Meet the blind piano player who's so good, scientists are studying him

Every so often, someone so young does something so amazing you can't help but wonder, how do they do that? That's what happened the first time we heard Matthew Whitaker play piano.   Matthew is a jazz pianist who is blind, and since the age of 11, he's been performing around the world. He's been called a prodigy and his talent is so extraordinary he's also caught the attention of scientists who are now studying his brain and trying to understand his vision of music.

Whitaker doesn't just play music, he plays with it. Twisting melodies, crafting complex harmonies and improvising at lightning speed. It's acoustic acrobatics performed over 88 keys and it is not for the faint of heart.

Matthew Whitaker

This past spring, Whitaker made his first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

"It is amazing to be here. Like, this is where jazz started," Whitaker told 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.

Whitaker plays with his shoes off so he can feel the pedals and his head turned so he can feel the crowd. The sheer complexity and spontaneity of his sets make the most seasoned musicians sweat and jazz fans go wild. But even with all his talent, Whitaker said he still feels some nerves before a big show.

"Honestly, I was a tiny bit nervous," Whitaker said. "But, you know, once I started playin', I felt good."

Jazz Fest is a jambalaya for the senses. Whitaker, Alfonsi and her crew negotiated their way through the thick roux of humidity, suffocating crowds and the 14 stages of music that often boil over into the fairgrounds. But as they walked around, Alfonsi noticed Whitaker was able to cut through the sensory assault and identify songs in seconds.

"He's playing 'Just Closer.' Yeah. 'Just A Closer Walk with Thee,'" Whitaker said, identifying a song he heard.

"I heard like three notes and you already know what song it is? Lord," Alfonsi said.

Whitaker grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey. His parents, Moses and May Whitaker, say Matthew had an ear for music before he could even talk.

Moses and May Whitaker, Matthew's parents

"He was playing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' But he was playin' it with both hands," Moses Whitaker said. "Matt was playing the chords and the melody of the song at the same [time.] He hadn't had a lesson or anything. And he was three years old. So my question was, 'Okay, who showed him how to do that? Somebody had to show Matthew how to-- how to play this song.' And nobody showed him."

Matthew Whitaker was born at 24 weeks. He weighed 1 pound 11 ounces. His parents were told he had less than a 50% chance of survival. One of the many complications he faced was retinopathy of prematurity, a disease which can lead to blindness.

"I think at the time I didn't think he was gonna make it," May Whitaker said. "So it was, you know, just very scary."

Whitaker's parents watched helplessly as he braved 11 surgeries to try and save his sight. After two anxious years, they decided they didn't want him to endure any more. Even if it meant he'd be permanently blind.

"We just felt like he was going through too much," Moses Whitaker said. "We were going through too much. Because the doctors weren't seeing it was getting any better. We just said, 'You know what? That's enough. We'll just deal with it as it is.'"

Doctors told the Whitakers that Matthew may never speak, but the challenges didn't end there.

"They said that he might not crawl," Moses Whitaker said. "And he might not ever walk.  Because he needed those things to see. You know most kids learn to crawl, they learn to walk because they want to try to get to something. Well, Matthew couldn't see to get to anything. So a lot of his toys and stuff we had to have sounds. So that he would want to crawl, want to reach those things."

He did start crawling towards music, sometimes sliding up to the speaker to feel the music. No one in Whitaker's family was a musician, but his grandfather bought him his first keyboard when he was 3 years old. It didn't take long for Whitaker to show that he had a gift. 

"They were nursery rhymes more so than anything," Moses Whitaker said. "So they weren't that complicated. But what he was doing was complicated. Because most kids don't play with both hands. And they don't play chords and the harmonies and all of that. And Matt was doing that."

So the Whitakers decided to get Matthew a teacher, which proved to be difficult.

"At the time, we got a lot of answers where people were saying he's too young," Moses Whitaker said. "He was 3 years old at the time. Or, 'I don't know how to teach a blind child.'"

Matthew Whitaker and Dalia Sakas

Dalia Sakas agreed to meet Matthew. Sakas is the director of music studies at the Filomen M.  D'Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York City, a school for the visually impaired. 

"So we brought him over," Moses Whitaker said. "And Dalia played something on the piano… and Matt repeated it. Then she played something else and Matt repeated it. She said bring him in. We'll make the exception."

Sakas has been teaching Whitaker ever since. She is a classically-trained concert pianist.

"I was performing a couple of recitals and the Dvorak Piano Quintet is a piece actually for a piano and string quartet. So there's five of us," Sakas said. "So Matt and his mom came to hear, you know, the night I played. He comes in Saturday morning. I walk into the studio and he's playing the opening of the Dvorak Quintet. You know, and then the cello comes in and he knew that whole thing… And I thought, Oh, very nice."

Dvorak's Piano Quintet is a challenging piece for five musicians. Whitaker was playing his version of all five parts on his piano.

Sakas told Alfosni that Whitaker can listen to a piece of music one time and then play it.

"That's insane," Alfonsi said.

"Yeah, it is insane," Sakas said.

"It could be exhausting?" Alfonsi asked.

"Yeah, well it was scary more than exhausting," Sakas said. "Because you didn't want to blow it. Because you have someone of this talent, of this creativity, this enthusiasm. You don't want to squelch that. You don't want to mess up.  He's obviously, you know, got something to offer to the world and so you want to make that possible."

She did. By the time he was 11, Whitaker was performing around the world. His first paying gig was in Capri, Italy, where he cut his chops with seasoned jazz musicians. Since then, he's played in more than 200 clubs and concert halls around the world.

That caught the attention of Dr. Charles Limb.

Dr. Charles Limb shows Matthew Whitaker's brain scans to correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi

Limb, a musician himself, is a surgeon and neuroscientist who uses MRI brain scans to better understand how exceptionally creative people do what they do.

"I think anytime somebody watches Matthew play piano the first thing that you think is, 'How does he do that?' Except rather than just wondering I'm actually trying to answer the question," Limb said.

Specifically, Limb wants to know why the brains of certain artists seem better wired to give rise to new ideas. In Whitaker's case, improvising. But when Limb approached the Whitakers, they were dubious.

"Because somebody comes to you and says, 'Can we put your son in this scan?' And right away you're thinking, you know, lab rabbit," May Whitaker said. "Or you know, 'What are they trying to do with my child?'"

Once Limb also explained other artists had participated, the Whitakers agreed to let him scan Matthew's brain.
He brought Whitaker to an MRI facility at the University of California, San Francisco and put him in the scanner with a mini keyboard on his lap.

Whitaker played a melody, with his feet keeping time, while Limb and his team recorded his brain's activity levels with the MRI scanner. 

Then Limb put Whitaker through a different series of auditory tests. He showed us the results.

"So we started out not by looking at music but by looking at somebody like this who would give a lecture that most people would consider to be a little bit boring," Limb said. "This is what happened when he was listening to that. And then interestingly because he is blind we looked at his visual cortex. And we didn't see any significant activity there at all."

"So nothing's happening," Alfonsi said.

"Exactly. And then we switched the soundtrack for him. And we put on a band that he knows quite well, Snarky Puppy," Limb said. "This is what changes in his brain."

"Jeeze. Lights up," Alfonsi said.

"Pretty remarkable. His entire brain is stimulated by music," Limb said. "His visual cortex is activated throughout. It seems like his brain is taking that part of the tissue that's not being stimulated by sight and using it or maybe helping him to perceive music with it."

"So he's using that visual part of his brain to kind of see music as it were?" Alfonsi asked.

"Exactly, yeah. And so it's sort of borrowing that part of the brain and rewiring it to help him hear music," Limb said.

Whitaker and Alfonsi

When Whitaker was told about his brain scans while listening to music he was amazed.

"I didn't even know that that was happening," Whitaker said.

What does he think it means?

"I love music," Whitaker said.

His love of music has never been in doubt. But Whitaker's teacher, Dalia Sakas, wanted to make sure Whitaker wasn't just a flash in the pan prodigy. She wanted him to be a literate musician.

So she decided he needed to learn to read braille music. To do that, you have to feel, read and remember dots that represent the music, first for the right hand, and then for the left hand. It's a painstakingly slow process and Whitaker does not like to slow down. When we interviewed him, he was exceedingly polite and exceedingly bored.

Whitaker just wants to play, so he did. At the piano, he is pure joy. Jumping from the classics, to Beyoncé. But what's so special is how he takes those songs, any song, improvising it on the spot to make it his own.

Whitaker's latest album is called "Now Hear This."  One critic noted that it sounds like Whitaker is playing with six hands.

Produced by Katy Textor, Kate Morris and Michael Karzis. Associate producer, Cristina Gallotto. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.

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