In 2006, Derek
Amato got together with some friends for a party. After diving into
a swimming pool, he apparently struck his head on the bottom. When he
came up, he remembers seeing all his friends faces and trying
to tell them he was hurt. He managed to make it to the side of the pool,
and then they pulled him out. Later he was diagnosed with a serious
concussion and hearing and memory loss. But four days after the accident,
he sat down at a piano, on which he had previously only been able to
bang out Chopsticks, and began to play as if he studied
the instrument all his life.
Today, some call him Rainman Beethoven, and he has been
medically documented as having sudden musical savant syndrome, which
he mysteriously acquired as the result of a brain injury. Selected as
the 2007 Independent Artist of the Year by the LA Association of Independent
Artists, Amatos first album was called, Full Circle,
and hes currently preparing for the release of a new album and
book. His music is played in countries throughout the world, and he
continues to be active with charity events that advocate for traumatic
brain injury. Hes currently taping the Nova scienceNow,
PBS TV show How Smart Can We Be. ABILITY Magazines
Donna Mize caught up with him recently in Fallbrook, CA, a little ways
north of San Diego.
Donna Mize: The concussion you sustained that started your journey as
a musician was not your first; can you tell me more about the others?
Derek Amato: Ive had about seven concussions since I was a child.
One of the very first ones I got was running on the playground. I was
trying to catch a ball and ran into the monkey bars. Over years of working
in mixed martial arts, playing baseball, getting elbowed in basketball,
and diving, Ive had six or seven concussions. Theyve created
scar tissue and some cerebellum damage, which affects my balance and
other things. I dont pay much attention to it because I feel pretty
healthy. But once or twice a year, when I start to feel a little weird,
I go in so doctors can do their scans and make sure Im okay.
The damage has affected my memory. Sometimes I can recall things from
way back, and sometimes I cant remember what you said five minutes
ago. I also lost half of my hearing during that last concussion. Thats
why I watch you when you talk. I liken it to Beethoven (who also experienced
hearing loss.) Thats just one of the things I accept. I still
feel young at 45. I feel wonderful. I feel strong and healthy.
Mize: Did you have a baseline to look at to know if any of those
scar tissue spots were acquired from the pool?
Amato: Yes, Id had prior MRIs.
Mize: Thats the first thing our medical editor,
Dr. Chappell said when he heard about you: What baseline did
they work off of? Because when you have new scarring, you want
to know, What was he like a year ago?
Amato: Thats a fascinating question. Im going to have to
ask Dr. (Andrew) Reeves at the Mayo Clinic. That makes me curious.
Mize: Were here to help.
Amato: When I get home, Ill look into the earlier MRIs. I do remember
the doctor saying to me, I can tell your brain has been battered.
It was intense, because I didnt know how I was going to get through
being told that information on the (Discovery Science Channel reality
TV show Ingenious Minds) without breaking down, because I knew my mother
was watching, my children were watching.
Mize: Were you watching?
Amato: I had this bond with the doctor, this comfort thing, and I could
feel that it was going to be okay. I knew he had looked at the results
before he came in to tell me, and I whispered to him-
Mize: To make sure he wasnt going to tell you anything horrible
Amato: Yes, because I wasnt sure. Sometimes reality TV producers
will do certain things. For instance, they broke me down emotionally
one time. They wanted me crying, because then they could get me talking
about What would you tell your children if Dr. Reeves told you
you could be gone within two weeks? And they were very soft about
it, and the producer I connected with, a lovely woman,-matter of fact
I knew her. She was one of the girls in Freddy Kruegers dream.
Shes working in TV now and is a lovely producer. She knew how
to get in my head and in my heart, so they pulled that out.
Im not scared of that stuff. I felt that doctor was going to be
light on me because he knew I was a wreck and I was trying to be the
best boy I could with all these people. He knew it. I whispered, You
know, Doc, when they turn all this stuff on and start recording me,
will you give me some kind of clue that Im okay now before we
do this? And he put his hand on my leg and said, You can
Mize: Tell me more about being at the Mayo Clinic.
Amato: They wanted to do all those tests so I would have an understanding
of what was going on, but the MRI actually made me ill. Those tones
the machine makes-doo-doo-doo-doo. Its a very low frequency, and
it struck me emotionally. What you dont see during the TV show
is that when theyre doing those tests Im in a tube and Im
crying the entire time, but no one knew. Then they asked me if I wanted
to listen to music while I was in there, to see if that helped. But
when they put the music on, I was overloaded, so they turned the music
Later we sat down to look at the results so they could explain to me
what was happening. It was odd to look at my own brain. Especially since
I was finding out what was wrong with my brain at the same moment that
viewers were, too. I didnt know if they were going to say I have
a tumor the size of a grapefruit or that I was dying. But it came down
to the fact that my brain was firing so many neurons that the best option
would be to give me seizure medication, which would kind of put a blanket
over it all and not allow so much activity. That way my brain would
not be firing on 12 cylinders. And they were right about the seizure
medication, because three or four months after we filmed that, I had
my first seizure. Im actually at risk for more, but I choose not
to be medicated.
Mize: It sounds as if music is your therapy, too, and if youre
not playing, you might tend to have more seizures.
Amato: Exactly. Though when I have migraines, it slows the music down
a little bit. Its still going, but not as fast. When I say intense,
I dont mean bad intense. Its just busy in my brain. When
Im humming a song, Im composing 20 violins, along with the
percussion lines, the violas and maybe 60 different instruments. And
then I go on to the next movement.
Mize: Tell us more about the aftermath of the accident.
Amato: I dont think my mom thought I was going to make a full
Mize: Were you in a coma?
Amato: No, but I wasnt all there. I do remember her looking at
me as if I dont think my sons coming back. And
I remember that lost look on her face. Theres something very special
between my mom and me. She always told me that God had a different plan
for me, that I was a special angel put here to touch people in a different
way. It never made sense to either one of us when she said it. And then
when I hit my head, I said, This is what you meant all those years.
Mize: But you didnt have the music in your head until then?
Amato: Not until right before my 40th birthday, on October 27th, 2006;
my birthday is November 19th. The music started five days after I recovered.
And I could hear all these sounds. I didnt know what was going
on. I knew it was music, but I was overwhelmed: Wow, what is going
on? It seemed to be going so fast. My hands were doing this (plays
imaginary piano keys). I was catching myself dozing off every now and
then, and Id be doing that on my leg or my arm. My hands were
working. I wanted them to stay still. Now I do that in my sleep sometimes,
even when Im taking a nap Im still playing.
Mize: Is it music that youve heard before or music that was
just being made up at the moment?
Amato: It is new music. Composition, if you will. It isnt like
a song Ive just heard on the radio. It is like I can hear these
violin parts, percussion instruments, bass lines. I knew where the breaks
were. I knew what came next. I thought, This is weird. And
then I went over to Ricks house, my best friend, and thats
when I sat down and began playing his piano.
Mize: How do you write the music when its coming to you so quickly?
Amato: Apple has been kind enough to give me some stuff that transcribes
it for me. So when Im playing, it writes and notates. So if I
want to play with an orchestra, I can send them music sheets and say,
This is what Id like to record with you. And then
I sit down and start writing the instrumentation for each-like the string
section. Ill change my piano to strings. The Apple programs help
with all that.
Mize: Is that Garage Band?
Amato: Garage Band is one of the programs I use, I carry it with me
on this old ghetto RV-a 30-foot Winnebago-which is the only thing I
own. Its my traveling studio and houses the piano. I just record
everything when Im in there.
Mize: Have you always had a love of music?
Mize: Have you ever considered that you had an innate ability that
was never developed and that your accident switched it on?
Amato: Absolutely. I was musical as a child. My mother bought me a snare
drum in fifth grade. She thought that school band might be good for
me in junior high. And I always wanted to be a rock star. I wanted a
drum set so bad. But we just couldnt afford it, so I didnt
have the opportunity.
Finally, a man that I grew up with in South Dakota took me under his
wing. He wasnt rich, but he purchased my drum set for me when
I was in seventh grade. He knew I was one of those kids who needed to
be doing something musical. But I dont care how good you are,
there are only a few people who get to play professional baseball, become
a rock star or a successful actor in movies. I knew that, and I was
like, You know what? I could care less, because I am that one
person. And I dont know how Ill make it happen, but someday
its going to. And I guess God finally chose me.
Mize: When you thought: Im going to be a rock star, were you
thinking in terms being a drummer?
Amato: I was thinking any way that I could make it happen. I wanted
to play guitar, too, so I dabbled in guitar. I played in a couple rock
bands like AC/DC, nothing too grand at all. Whether it was on the TV
screen or playing in a band, musics always been important. My
mom played on the church piano. I grew up singing with my grandma and
Mize: Did you dabble in piano as a kid?
Amato: I could play Chopsticks, but I never sat down and
tried to really learn the instrument. Underneath it all, though, I felt
like I had musical talent. I look at it as a gift from God, but from
the scientific perspective, when I hit my head that seventh time it
was a magical moment where the wires crossed and created that little
window of space for something grand to happen. Ive looked at it
like that since then. What I see in my head are these little black and
white squares. Its like a revolving circle going nonstop.
Mize: This is how the songs come to you. If you go on tour, are you
able to redo those same songs?
Amato: Yes. I dont even have to play them for years. Its
almost like you took a musical notation brand, if you will, and just
stamped it in my brain. Its almost like tattooing me. Itll
stay. So last year I played in New York for the National Brain Injury
Foundation charity. That was in March. I didnt touch a piano until
some time in August, and thats a tremendous challenge for me,
because I have to play to release or else I just get-and they think
thats a possibility of what causes a seizure, that overstimulation
to the point where Im firing so many little neurons. Im
firing so many that if I dont play its almost like an addict
that cant find drugs.
Mize: Its a compulsion. So, where do you think your style of
music comes from?
Amato: If I play guitar and other instruments, I compose more like John
Coltrane or Dave Matthews, kind of that hippie-ish or pop-ish rock.
When Im playing piano, its almost like a cross between Elton
John and Billy Joel, a ballad-like style. Its storytelling music
and the lyrics I fit in as I go. I dont sit for hours and write
them. I sing them as I play and I replace the words that dont
quite fit. If you sit down and read the words by themselves, youll
find that its really my life story and whats going on in
my head. I like all genres: classical, jazz, rock.
Mize: I just saw Taj Mahal in concert. It was great!
Amato: I enjoy concerts, and I also enjoy listening to street musicians.
I could sit there for hours. I think we all have those abilities, and
I think tapping into that human potential is what were all after.
We all want to find those things we can do beautifully, to achieve the
divine, whether it be a talent or how we express ourselves as people.
I also relate to special musicians, and when I say special I mean people
like Tony DeBlois, whos a blind autistic savant who plays 20 instruments.
Mize: Hes British?
Amato: No, thats Derek Paravicini, whos also blind and an
autistic savant. I havent had an opportunity to meet him, but
I hope to this year. I feel a connection to people like him and Tony.
Im not quite sure how to explain it. But when I touch them, literally
put my hands on them, theres this energy thats beautiful.
So after I had hugged Tony, I looked over at his mother, and she was
in tears. I knew something special was happening. Ive had that
with a handful of these people.
And to begin with, autistic people have a hard time with confinement
and touching. But for some reason, theyre drawn to me like a magnet.
This is a true story. I didnt know Rex was coming to the Mayo
Clinic. The TV show producers treated it like a little surprise because
they wanted to capture the moment. So Rex is blind, and I hear his cane
tapping the ground. Finally, he comes through the door, and I was almost
overwhelmed to see him.
I reached out to shake his hand because I know the deal about touching.
Ive been researching autism issues for years. And yet, even as
I reached to shake his hand, I had this intense desire to hug him. I
was drawn to him and felt I have to hug this kid. I dont
know why. He said, Hello, and he was just the sweetest
person. Then we went up to the room, and I was sitting with one of the
shows producers, and I said, You know, Id like to
hug this kid. Im not sure why. The producer was crying.
She was like, Geez, Derek, the way you said hello
was so powerful that it was almost godly. But I still hadnt
hugged the guy and still really wanted to.
The next morning I went down to the lobby early. I was checking my e-mail,
and the elevator opened and I heard Rexs cane tapping again as
he came out of the elevator. He must have sensed me there in the lobby
and said, I would love to start my day out with a hug, Derek.
And he hung on to me almost as if he wasnt going to let go. The
same thing happened with Tony DeBlois, to the point where I started
bawling like a baby. I wasnt making any noise, but the tears kept
coming. The media people were crying, his mother, my children. Everybody
was like, What is going on?
Mize: What do you feel was going on?
Amato: This might sound weird, but I think I was handpicked by God to
touch these people and to love them. And not just them. I think my whole
experience has made me softer with people. Ive always been nice,
but the compassion runs deeper now. I think of it as a divine intervention.
With Tony, in particular, we have a mutual understanding and trust.
He doesnt get that from anybody but his mother and his brother,
who is a quadriplegic. His mother takes care of both of them by herself.
Dr. Reeve at the Mayo Clinic told me, Your empathic connection
to people is off the charts. I dont know how to explain it.
We sat down and looked at those colors when they did those scans and
my brain was fiery hot. I dont get it. Im still adjusting.
Mize: Im sure that somewhere in the back of your mind youre
always mindful that this could all end.
Amato: Absolutely. Loss is hard on all of us. And that would be a loss,
because Ive grown comfortable with this new purpose. But at the
same time, Ive had five years with it, so if it goes, it goes.
Mize: And you still have your kids and have all these other wonderful
Amato: Absolutely. Ive loved every moment of this. And it has
been challenging. Im tired, and I go and I go and I go. And now
I sleep two, three, four hours a day, and I go. And for some reason
Im still able to do that. Itll slow down later, I think,
right about 50.
I dont want to play full-time. I dont want to perform 500
days a year. I want to do a handful of select, intimate performances.
I want to spend the rest of my life giving. I want to feed homeless
people. I sleep on the streets with the homeless. I give them every
last dime in my pocket. The material side of it all doesnt matter.
I havent had a car in five years. I dont own a home. I float
between my sons house and staying with friends in northern Colorado.
I only have a cell phone, so the kids can get me if they need me. I
have nothing, and yet I have it all.
Mize: Thats beautiful. It sounds like a wonderful life to me.
Amato: Its lovely.
Mize: I know it has its challenges.
Amato: Yes, but they work themselves out.
Mize: When does your second album come out?
Amato: They want to release it after the book is published
in ABILITY Magazine
click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or
get a free digi issue with a "Like"
from the Joe
Therapy Horses Help Vets to Heal
Pantoliano He Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional
A Teacher Who Moves Mountains
Saudi Arabia A Princess Seeks
a World of Change
Amato He Sees Music
Humor Adulthood is Overrated
George Covington The Thing About Getting Old
in the Geri Jewell Issue; Humor Adulthood is Overrated; Ashley
Fiolek Balancing Work and Play; Sen. Harkin The Affortable
Care Act; China A Teacher Who Moves Mountains; Saudi Arabia
A Princess Seeks a World of Change; George Covington The Thing
About Getting Old; Derek Amato He Sees Music; Joe Pantoliano
He Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional; Asylum Book
Excerpt; Geri Jewell A Good Act to Follow; Brad Hennefer
Loves His Tee Time; Equine Therapy Horses Help Vets to Heal;
ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...