Derek Paravicini — He’s Got the Keys to the World

Over recent months, ABILITY Magazine has examined different facets of autism and the arts. That exploration continues via world-class pianist Derek Paravicini who has autism and is also blind. He recently traveled to the United States with his sister Libbet and his teacher Adam Ockelford, PhD, a professor of music at the University of Roehampton in London.

While visiting Southern California this spring, Paravicini performed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), an event arranged by Dana Collinson, the school’s associate director of Special Events, who knows the musician and his teacher. Along with Dean Ralph V. Clayman, MD—School of Medicine and Dean Joseph S. Lewis III—Claire Trevor School of the Arts. UCI billed the gala as “an evening of creativity and magic,” and so it was. Afterwards, Ockleford sat down with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Limón Martirosyan; Paravicini and his sister joined the conversation a bit later.

Chet Cooper: What’s your background?

Adam Ockelford, PhD: I started out as a musician in London 30-odd years ago. Back when I was still a student, I was asked to volunteer at the School for the Blind. They said the kids there were amazingly musical. I managed to put off volunteering for about six months because once you get roped in, you’re there for life. I’m there for life.

Cooper: It’s a life sentence.


Lia Limón Martirosyan: What kind of music did you study?

Ockelford: I’m a classical musician. I studied oboe, piano and composition. But you quickly learn to acquire the skills of playing by ear and improvising, rather than being wedded to notes on a page. Traditional teaching doesn’t work terribly well for people like Derek. You can’t come in with the preconceived notion of—this is how I teach.

check this out

Martirosyan: How did Derek lose his sight?

Ockelford: He had retinopathy of prematurity—abnormal blood vessel development in a premature infant’s retina. But it must have caused lesions in his brain as well, because Derek was developmentally delayed and has an autism diagnosis. He’s not typically on the autism spectrum, but he certainly meets many of the criteria.

Cooper: He has lots of typical characteristics.

Ockelford: Yes, stereotyped behaviors. But I work with a lot of autistic children today and I think people are sometimes surprised how friendly they can be. I think it’s a misconception that autistic children are cold robots. The ones I work with are immensely affectionate. It’s just about giving them confidence. So I got hooked on working at the school and then Derek came along.

Cooper: How long have you worked with him?

Ockelford: Since he was five, and today he’s 33. So that would be 28 years.

Cooper: That’s a good gig.


Ockelford: I didn’t plan it like that.

Martirosyan: How many children are in the school?

Ockelford: At the school that Derek attended there are about 140 students. Lots of kids there are very musical, and I still do a bit of work there now. In the UK, there’s quite good provision for children with disabilities and there’s been a lot of investment in new special schools and in inclusion over the last 10 years. It’s much harder in society for adults with disabilities, so it’s very unusual for someone like Derek to have a public life, a professional life. He’s very special in that way.

I think a lot of people can be quite nervous about doing music, because they don’t think they’re musical, which isn’t true at all. Everyone is musical. If a lot more teachers, practitioners and interveners had the confidence to use music, it would be helpful. Most programs for kids with autism tend to be visual, which can be quite challenging for them. Sound is another way to reach them.

Cooper: What kind of research have you done in this area?

Ockelford: I’ve done everything from psychological experiments to surveys around cognition and perception. I’ve got students studying the relationship between language and music. For instance: Does music help kids acquire language? A lot of those things are anecdotally obvious, but getting the evidence is quite difficult, especially with autistic children because they don’t conform to what you want them to do. As you know, assessing them is difficult. But there’s mounting evidence that music therapy works.

Cooper: Have you looked into ways to connect students to a Web-based program, allowing them to work at their own pace and possibly create a program to reach a larger audience? You could also use the program to measure how much time they’re spending on the program.

Ockelford: I haven’t done that, but other people have. Technology’s brilliant. Every autistic kid I know has iPads, iPods and the like, but the kids spend so much time on them that a bigger challenge is to get them off their technology. The first thing I say when they come in the room is, “Turn off the six iPads you brought in.”

check this out

Some of them are happy to listen to six different pieces of kitsch while taking a piano lesson. I say, “It might be all right for you, but my brain can’t cope with all that.” I think it’s nice for them to have human interaction. I also prefer to use a real piano, not an electronic one. Derek loves the piano; it’s a lovely physical thing. When you press the note you can feel it vibrate, which is really important.

Cooper: Are you involved with music therapy programs, as well?

Ockelford: I’m not a music therapist, but music is therapeutic and a great way to relate to the kids. And some of them may take a year before they start to interact. Finding out what makes them tick is the thing. The kid might be completely obsessed with the Flintstones, so you can say, “Okay, let’s play the Flintstones theme.” If you can do something that a kid’s really interested in, then you’ve got them hooked. It’s not one way traffic. To start with, it’s 90 percent the child and 10 percent ducking and weaving and trying to get a hook in there, so you can gradually lead them in a direction that you think will be helpful.

Cooper: Have you done any work in fMRIs [Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging]?

Ockelford: No, I haven’t. We have done an electroencephalogram test to measure brain electrical activity while Derek played “Moonlight Sonata.” His whole brain lit up with the music. So there’s a huge amount of preconscious stuff going on that’s really important. Derek definitely gets into the zone. It’s lovely to see.

Cooper: Seems like he can get in the zone almost instantly.

Ockelford: Yeah, it’s amazing. Since we arrived in the United States, he’s started thinking about what we’re going to be doing when we get back to Britain. In his mind, he’s done with this trip now and on to the next thing. Before he plays, he may be talking about any old thing, like what we’re doing next Thursday, and then he’ll play “Black and White Rag” and be completely immersed in it. He’s got that performing instinct; he feeds off his audience.

check this out

Cooper: He has an impressive mental capacity. He thinks about the future, and yet he’s in the moment, as well.

Ockelford: He understands the structure of the music and if he forgets something, he’ll make something up that fits. It’s typical of the way we all learn. We can’t memorize tons of surface detail, we just learn a few rules. Derek knows the musical rules, but he can’t simply listen to a Mozart symphony and play it back. If he listened to it 20 times over a year, he would be able to play it back, without ever having played it. And he wouldn’t get nervous. Playing in front of 500 people is a non issue for him.

Cooper: Is it because he’s blind?

Ockelford: I think it’s because he has a learning disability and has always played the piano. It’s easier for him to play the piano than it is to speak or walk. He’d be much more nervous about being interviewed.

Cooper: Do you perform with Derek sometimes?

Ockelford: Sometimes. I enjoy accompanying him and the other kids I work with; there are a lot of talented kids.

Cooper: His performance was really good. You’re very good at knowing in advance what Derek may or may not do, while keeping to a minimum the possibility that an autistic episode might occur. I think it’s part of the excitement that…

Ockelford: …Derek’s unpredictable.

Cooper: What other kinds of events do you do?

Ockelford: We do all sorts of different things, some straight public concerts with other musicians and some events that are more interactive. The size of the audience is definitely a factor; with a big audience, it’s hard to interact. I did a TED Talk in the UK before 1,200 people. With a TED Talk, you’ve only got a quarter of an hour anyway. A lot of the autistic people I work with would be much happier with a set program like, “We’re going to play 10 pieces.” Some of the kids I work with have a playlist.

Derek is way beyond that. He’s completely flexible, which is a great thing. He’s perfectly fine if you say, “Could you play this?” It’s much more difficult working with someone if they have to play a certain piece in a certain order. Or you get to the venue and it’s a different piano than the one they’re used to. You may ask for a piano and get a keyboard. But Derek doesn’t mind. He’s absolutely fine either way.

Martirosyan: How does he react when the forum is a lot larger, like at a philharmonic-level event?

Ockelford: He absolutely loves it. He’s got a performing gene. Quite a few of the kids with autism seem to have it. If you try to do a one-to-one, they won’t look at you, but if you put them in front of an audience, they’re fine. The more people there are, the more excited Derek gets.

Cooper: There’ve been some cuts to social services in the UK. Who pays for healthcare and education?

Ockelford: Derek was assessed as having a need, so the government said, “Yes, we must provide for it.” Everyone gets good benefits because the UK is a welfare state, although they’ve tried to cut back on benefits to people who are unemployed, encouraging them to go and find a job. But people with disabilities haven’t been adversely affected by the cuts.

check this out

Cooper: Is this the first time in the States for you?

Ockelford: It’s the fourth or fifth, actually. I’ve been to LA a couple of times, Las Vegas and Phoenix, where Derek played for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center about a year ago, at a thing called Celebrity Fight Night, where celebrities get together and…

Cooper: …fight each other?


Ockelford: They raise money to fight Parkinson’s. I never thought I’d see Muhammad Ali; it was amazing to be in the same room with him. Though he’s very disabled now, he’s still got a twinkle in his eye.

Derek Paravicini enters


Derek Paravicini: Adam, where are you?

Ockelford: (to Paravicini) Hey! Here comes trouble! I’m talking about you, how boring you are.

Paravicini: I’m not boring.


Ockelford: Derek, this is Lia.

Martirosyan: Hi, how are you?

Paravicini: Very well, thank you, Lia.

Ockelford: And Chet.

Paravicini: Hi, Chet!

Chet: Hi Derek.

Ockelford: Derek, Lia and Chet are doing an interview.

Paravicini: I like playing music or listening to it.

Martirosyan: What’s your favorite genre?

Paravicini: Classical or the cadenza.

Martirosyan: Who’s your favorite composer?

Paravicini: Maybe Chopin.
Martirosyan: Do you like Mozart?

Paravicini: I do.

Martirosyan: What is your favorite piece from Mozart?

Paravicini: Maybe the Pachelbel.

Ockelford: That’s not Mozart. Mozart wrote “Rondo à la Turque.” And someone asked for Mozart’s D-minor “Fantasia” the other day, which you knew, Derek.

Paravicini: I did.

Martirosyan: Do you listen to opera?

Paravicini: I do.

Cooper: Lia’s an opera singer. Would you be interested in listening to Lia sing?

Paravicini: Opera?

Ockelford: Lia’s an opera singer, Derek.

Paravicini: You’re an opera singer, aren’t you, Lia?

Martirosyan: (laughs) Yes.

Paravicini: You’ll be singing some opera, won’t you, Lia?


Martirosyan: What should I sing? Have you heard of “Le Nozze di Figaro”?

Paravicini: I haven’t, would you like to sing it?

Ockelford: It’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Paravicini: “The Marriage of Figaro.” Would you like to sing “The Marriage of Figaro”?

Martirosyan: Sure.

Ockelford: You can play the overture, can’t you, Derek?

Paravicini: I can play the overture.

Martirosyan: How extensive is Derek’s musical database?

Ockelford: No one knows, maybe hundreds of thousands of songs.

Martirosyan: That’s incredible.

Cooper: Go ahead and sing, Lia.

[Martirosyan begins to sing. Derek chimes in, harmonizing with her in Italian. Listen]

Cooper: I did not know you could sing, Derek. That’s pretty good.

Ockelford: He does like to sing. I think he knew the first section but not the middle one, so he was kind of making it up in the middle.

Paravicini: Yeah.

Ockelford: But then you knew the other part. (to Lia) You have a beautiful voice.

Martirosyan: Thank you.

Paravicini: Thank you.

Cooper: Thank you.


(Derek’s sister, Libbet, walks in.)

Libbet: You could hear the music all the way out there, how beautiful!

Cooper: That was nice.

Martirosyan: Do you have any interests besides piano?

Paravicini: Not really, no.

Martirosyan: Do you travel with a keyboard?

Paravicini: I do have a keyboard with me.

Martirosyan: Do you play all day?

Paravicini: I play all day, yeah.

Cooper: How many countries have you visited?

Libbet: He’s played everywhere, all over Europe. We’ve been to Holland and to Paris.

Ockelford: The travel is constant. I’ve got several PhD students working on musical development; music and language development; and music and social development. Also we do some work with music and people who have dementia.

Thank you for singing with Derek. Do you want to say goodbye to Lia?

Paravicini: Bye, Lia. Thank you for singing with me.

Martirosyan begins to sing. Derek chimes in, harmonizing with her in Italian.

Also visit Dr. Adam Ockelford’s Sound of Intent education system

Articles in the Andy Madadian Issue; Senator Harkin — The Deaf President Movemen; Ashley Fiolek — From Pigging Out to Nutrition Classes; Humor — Part II of the “Greek Geek” Adventure; Candida — The Hands She Was Dealt; Derek Paravicini — He’s Got the Keys to the World; Geri Jewell — Next Exit, Joy; Seizure Dog — She Nose When; Long Haul Paul — What the Farkle?; China — Wang Kun Overcoming Obstacles for Art; Sharjah’s — Sheikha Jameela bint Mohammed Al Qasimi; Accountability — Employing People with Disabilities; ANDY — Music + Charity = Millions of Fans; QJMC — Team Quincy Jones Spreading Music’s Roots; Morgan’s Wonderland — An Accessible Fun-der-land; DRLC — The Blame Game in Gun Control ; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: