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?
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 getand 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.
Mize: That makes sense.
Amato: Their reasoning is that when you’re in the media, it’s important to have a product. So we’ve stalled and built the buzz up to the point where we can say, “Okay, now here come the products. We’ll do the TV show, we’ll do Discovery, then we’ll do a ton of TV interviews. We’ll get that word of mouth back up again, and then we’ll do a music tour, send you out for a couple of weeks, and then we’ll go back to TV and do another episode of the show, and then we’ll follow with the book and an album and we’ll keep it going.”
Mize: So now we get to look forward to your book. You sat down and wrote it?
Amato: I’m writing it with Australian author Greg Truman. He was one of the writers of the children’s musical The Wiggles. Matter of fact, I think it sold out in 20 days at Madison Square Garden. Nothing has ever come close. He’s the creative writing mind behind that.
Mize: How did you find him?
Amato: Lois De La Haba. She’s probably one of the most recognized literary agents in the world, an elegant older woman.
Mize: So that’s who we can give our manuscripts to?
Amato: (laughs) Yeah, I’d kind of like for things to move faster. The other day I said, “Come the 15th, if everything’s not done, you’re fired. Greg, you’re fired. Lois, you’re fired.” You know what her response was? “Everything should be wrapped up on the 20th.”
She’s lovely. She has a stable of prominent writers, and she said, “I want you to study these people and look at which one you might fit with.” I actually picked a female first because she had written Tony DeBlois’s book. Her husband’s a trained musician. I knew she would understand it. And I relate to females on an emotional level.
Mize: That’s understandable. (laughs) Enough with the emotional females; let’s talk about your the tattoos.
Amato: They were given to me as a gift right after my accident by a dear friend of mine.
Mize: How did they know a couple weeks later you were going to be so steeped in the music world?
Amato: Because only five days after the accident, I sat down and played the piano as if I had been playing it all my life. That’s when we knew. And then my friend called these people in Los Angeles and said, “You’ve got to check this guy out. This is weird.” And I got a phone call from those folks. That’s when I did the music of Japan and I got, like, Artist of the Year or whatever. That’s when that all started, when I did that soundtrack stuff. So I knew right away.
Mize: Had you had tattoos before this?
Amato: One, which I got after my divorce. I have an angel on my chest.
Amato: And I have one up here that says, “Kung Fu Masters.” First, it’s my father and then me and then my younger brother and then my son. I’m covered, really. I have more tats that go around my body. I have musical stars and writing and I have trees and God’s hand. (showing his tattoos)
Mize: Oh, how cool! This is all after the music?
Mize: And what about your faith; did that escalate after the accident as well?
Amato: I think it’s intensified in some ways; I’m starting to appreciate it on a grander level. Mize: When you say grander, do you also mean encompassing the concept of all religions? Amato: Yes. Because I’m not one of those guys who goes around throwing Bibles. I could care less if a person believes in God. But I think all of us on this planet have to have some kind of faith, and I kind of opened up to other religions. I’ve always loved God. I’ve always had a pretty loving relationship with Jesus. That’s probably why I’m still here. I’ve had some challenging life moments. I was molested at 10, 11 years old. I took narcotics from the time I was 11 until adulthood to control muscular growth and pain so I could keep throwing a baseball. But hopefully my story gives other people who go through difficult times a tiny bit of hope. I don’t do drugs anymore and haven’t in years.
I smoked pot as a teenager. Never was a big alcohol person; I’m still not. I don’t take any medication, though I’ve broken my right femur twice. My shoulder’s jacked, and I’m a beat-up athlete from growing up. Still, I wouldn’t allow my body to rely on drugs ever again. I haven’t taken any kind of pain medication in 10 years. Then, when I had my last knee surgery, I had to have some meds after surgery, but I didn’t stay medicated.
Mize: When I’m having a bad migraine, I will pay any price to take anything that will make it stop.
Amato: I’d rather be dead sometimes; it’s that bad.
Mize: It feels like you’re going to die from it.
Amato: I’ve had migraines since I was a child, and that’s another thing I’ve been asked, “Do you think this is possibly the stimulant that made your brain overreact when you hit that last time?” But I stopped having them; they declined to about one every three months. When I was in my early 20s, they started to go. When I hit my head, they came back again. And then I was getting three to five a day, like every two hours. It was just like, “God, just let me go. I’m exhausted.” And now I don’t get them very often. I can’t remember the last time I had to go in for a shot. Five years?
Mize: How did you manage when your son was injured?
Amato: I put my life on hold. Alex had been in a car accident in June, and I had to put the book and some TV stuff aside. I said, “I’m done for a minute. I’m going to withdraw. We’ll discuss the book options when I can focus on it.” Alex’s car accident was June 20th. I got a call at 6:15, and they told me that I needed to hurry to the hospital. But the hospital was about five hours away, and they won’t tell you if your child’s alive. Alex is 25, meat manager for a large grocery store corporation, he had a son Dallas, he’ll be four in July. Sydney is 19, and getting ready for college. Morgan is my youngest and she is 17 and she is graduating from college and will start college early.
I don’t even remember the drive to the hospital. My brother took me because I couldn’t have operated. That was one of those moments where you say, “Nothing else matters.” God gave me this incredible gift of music, and it’s changed my life, and it’s touched hundreds of thousands of people, and I feel blessed for that experience, but I can also walk away from it at any time. When my son needed me, I spent 120 days as his nurse, working to bring him back to life. Although I knew I might get only one shot at fame, I still put everything aside. And by the grace of God, my opportunity waited for me. So maybe it was that space and experience with my son that taught me not to use my experience to become a rock star or a celebrity and instead to use this as a vehicle to touch and heal others.”
Mize: How is your son?
Amato: Well, he went off the mountain and was ejected at 75 mph. It threw him about 28 yards. The vehicle, the SUV, looked like a little tuna can. I couldn’t even look at it. And he was burned from head to toe from rolling on the cement down the mountain. And when I walked in, they said, “You can’t touch him.” So putting things in perspective, I’ve had five years with this gift. I’ve seen more of the world than some 90-year-old people will ever see. I’m grateful I got to explore that.
Mize: We cover a lot of people who live with a traumatic brain injury. While it normally is associated with a loss, you got this wonderful new gain out of it. I would imagine, though, like you said, in some ways it kind of drives you crazy. You feel like you have to be playing all the time. What are the downsides that came with the blessing?
Amato: There’s a list, and I don’t usually discuss them publicly. Aside from the migraines that are so beyond, fluorescent lighting in large stores makes me very sick; I can collapse at any given moment. If I do go down, my kids hold my head up so I’m breathing. They know what to do. I had my first seizure about eight months ago. My mother was there, and my brother was visiting. I just went into this other space, shaking, my lips turning purple. It was about 25 seconds, and then I started coming to. My mother was like, “What happened?” I said, “I don’t know.”
So I went in, because I had to make sure I didn’t have something going on in my head because of those five little spots that they found.
Mize: Before the music, before your career in business, you considered becoming a professional athlete. What changed your course?
Amato: I hurt my rotator cuff while pitching. I was lower pro material than the kids who come out of these big cities. At 170 pounds and 5 foot 10, I couldn’t keep up with these 240-pound, 6-foot guys. So I had my shot. It was fun. I’m a dream chaser.
But while that dream was still alive, I loaded my wife on the Greyhound bus with $65 and two boxes in Sioux Falls, SD, and I said, “We’re going to California because I’m going to play professional baseball or I’m going to be a rock star or a movie star. If you would like to come with me, let’s take what we have.”
I ended up working a six-figure job in telecom, which I later walked away from. Before that I worked in the mixed-martial-arts industry training fighters and managers. When I walked away from the telecom job it wasn’t a grand life. I never had tons of money, but I was comfortable and I was working, chasing the dollar. As a young guy, I was working 80 to 100 hours a week. And when the accident happened, I felt like I really had to sit down and take a look at my whole life. I knew right away I wanted to leave my job. I wasn’t married, having divorced 16 years ago, and now my children are pretty much all grown.
Mize: How old are they?
Amato: Alex is 24. He’ll be 25 in November, three days before me. My book will come out on my son’s birthday, because we almost lost him in that accident. So it’s kind of a significant date to me, his birthday. That’s when I asked them to release the book. I have friends all around me, advising me. Alex is 25, meat manager for large grocery store corporation, he had a son Dallas, he’ll be four in July. Sydney is 19, and getting ready for college. Morgan is my youngest and she is 17 and she is graduating from college and will start college early.
Mize: Gosh, you’ve got it great!
Amato: I hope this doesn’t sound bizarre, but I feel God had handpicked me.
Mize: It’s almost like he knocked some sense into you when your head struck that pool bottom.
Amato: Absolutely. And that’s when I started reevaluating my entire situation. I’ve come to the conclusion that I really only have two matters to be concerned with in this lifetime, and that’s to serve and to love. Nothing else really does matter to me.