Derek Amato interview with Donna Mize

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, Amato’s first album was called, “Full Circle,” and he’s 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. He’s currently taping the Nova scienceNow, PBS TV show How Smart Can We Be. ABILITY Magazine’s 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: I’ve 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, I’ve had six or seven concussions. They’ve created scar tissue and some cerebellum damage, which affects my balance and other things. I don’t 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 I’m okay.

The damage has affected my memory. Sometimes I can recall things from way back, and sometimes I can’t remember what you said five minutes ago. I also lost half of my hearing during that last concussion. That’s why I watch you when you talk. I liken it to Beethoven (who also experienced hearing loss.) That’s 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, I’d had prior MRIs.

Mize: That’s 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: That’s a fascinating question. I’m going to have to ask Dr. (Andrew) Reeves at the Mayo Clinic. That makes me curious.

Mize: We’re here to help.

Amato: When I get home, I’ll 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t going to tell you anything horrible on camera?

Amato: Yes, because I wasn’t 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 Krueger’s dream. She’s 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.

I’m 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 I’m okay now before we do this?” And he put his hand on my leg and said, “You can do this.”

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. It’s a very low frequency, and it struck me emotionally. What you don’t see during the TV show is that when they’re doing those tests I’m in a tube and I’m 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 off.

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 didn’t 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. I’m actually at risk for more, but I choose not to be medicated.

Mize: It sounds as if music is your therapy, too, and if you’re not playing, you might tend to have more seizures.

Amato: Exactly. Though when I have migraines, it slows the music down a little bit. It’s still going, but not as fast. When I say intense, I don’t mean bad intense. It’s just busy in my brain. When I’m humming a song, I’m 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 don’t think my mom thought I was going to make a full recovery.

Mize: Were you in a coma?

Amato: No, but I wasn’t all there. I do remember her looking at me as if “I don’t think my son’s coming back.” And I remember that lost look on her face. There’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 I’d 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 I’m taking a nap I’m still playing.

Mize: Is it music that you’ve heard before or music that was just being made up at the moment?

Amato: It is new music. Composition, if you will. It isn’t like a song I’ve 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 Rick’s house, my best friend, and that’s when I sat down and began playing his piano.

Mize: How do you write the music when it’s coming to you so quickly?

Amato: Apple has been kind enough to give me some stuff that transcribes it for me. So when I’m 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 I’d like to record with you.” And then I sit down and start writing the instrumentation for each-like the string section. I’ll 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. It’s my traveling studio and houses the piano. I just record everything when I’m in there.

Mize: Have you always had a love of music?

Amato: Yes.

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 couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t have the opportunity.

Finally, a man that I grew up with in South Dakota took me under his wing. He wasn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t know how I’ll make it happen, but someday it’s going to.” And I guess God finally chose me.

Mize: When you thought: I’m 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, music’s always been important. My mom played on the church piano. I grew up singing with my grandma and my mom.

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. I’ve looked at it like that since then. What I see in my head are these little black and white squares. It’s 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 don’t even have to play them for years. It’s almost like you took a musical notation brand, if you will, and just stamped it in my brain. It’s almost like tattooing me. It’ll stay. So last year I played in New York for the National Brain Injury Foundation charity. That was in March. I didn’t touch a piano until some time in August, and that’s a tremendous challenge for me, because I have to play to release or else I just get-and they think that’s a possibility of what causes a seizure, that overstimulation to the point where I’m firing so many little neurons. I’m firing so many that if I don’t play it’s almost like an addict that can’t find drugs.

Mize: It’s 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 I’m playing piano, it’s almost like a cross between Elton John and Billy Joel, a ballad-like style. It’s storytelling music and the lyrics I fit in as I go. I don’t sit for hours and write them. I sing them as I play and I replace the words that don’t quite fit. If you sit down and read the words by themselves, you’ll find that it’s really my life story and what’s 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 we’re 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, who’s a blind autistic savant who plays 20 instruments.

Mize: He’s British?

Amato: No, that’s Derek Paravicini, who’s also blind and an autistic savant. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet him, but I hope to this year. I feel a connection to people like him and Tony. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. But when I touch them, literally put my hands on them, there’s this energy that’s beautiful. So after I had hugged Tony, I looked over at his mother, and she was in tears. I knew something special was happening. I’ve 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, they’re drawn to me like a magnet. This is a true story. I didn’t 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. I’ve 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 don’t 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 show’s producers, and I said, “You know, I’d like to hug this kid. I’m 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 hadn’t 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 Rex’s 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 wasn’t going to let go. The same thing happened with Tony DeBlois, to the point where I started bawling like a baby. I wasn’t 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t get it. I’m still adjusting.

Mize: I’m sure that somewhere in the back of your mind you’re always mindful that this could all end.

Amato: Absolutely. Loss is hard on all of us. And that would be a loss, because I’ve grown comfortable with this new purpose. But at the same time, I’ve had five years with it, so if it goes, it goes.

Mize: And you still have your kids and have all these other wonderful relationships.

Amato: Absolutely. I’ve loved every moment of this. And it has been challenging. I’m 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 I’m still able to do that. It’ll slow down later, I think, right about 50.

I don’t want to play full-time. I don’t 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 doesn’t matter. I haven’t had a car in five years. I don’t own a home. I float between my son’s 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: That’s beautiful. It sounds like a wonderful life to me.

Amato: It’s 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
..... continued in ABILITY Magazine click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or get a free digi issue with a "Like" on our Facebook page.

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Excerpts from the Joe Pantoliano Issue June/July 2012:

Equine Therapy — Horses Help Vets to Heal

Joe Pantoliano — He Puts the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional

China — A Teacher Who Moves Mountains

Saudi Arabia — A Princess Seeks a World of Change

Derek Amato — He Sees Music

Humor — Adulthood is Overrated

George Covington — The Thing About Getting Old

Articles 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... subscribe

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