derek amato reaching for a piano underwater

Depth Perception

A swimming pool mishap turned Derek Amato into a virtuoso overnight. Now he’s on a quest to unlock the genius inside us all.

At the back of a Virginia Beach music store, in a stuffy closet-sized studio, 49-year-old Derek Amato sweats over the keys of an upright piano. This happens sometimes. Derek is staying with his girlfriend, Hazel, about an hour from his home in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and his professional-grade Korg TR keyboard. Hazel keeps a tiny Yamaha keyboard at her house for emergencies, but sometimes the urge Derek feels to get the music out of his head and into the world is so great that only the power and range of a full-sized 88-key instrument will suffice.

Derek

Hazel took to the web and found Newton Piano, a local strip-mall shop that sells Baldwins and Steinways and rents out these sound-stifling stalls for $7 an hour, typically to neighborhood instructors and their pupils. The walls are covered with crayon drawings and construction-paper hearts from young students (Dear Mrs. Debi, Thank you for teaching me to play piano). Two metronomes sit silent, one on the piano shelf, the other on the lid beside a closed instruction book. There is no sheet music on the rack. Derek never learned to read music, anyway. In fact, he’s never had a single lesson. He barely ever touched a key until 10 years ago, at the age of 39. “I know where C is,” he says, pointing to where every novice is taught to start. “But only because someone showed me.”

He holds his fingers over the keyboard, closes his eyes, and breathes through his nose before launching into a cloudburst of notes, trills of treble trickling from his right hand upon the thunderous bass chords of his left. His thick workingman’s hands glide up and down the register, coaxing a sinister beauty from the ivories in a dark overture that spills from his memory. Derek’s eyes are now open, but he’s looking inward, at the black-and-white notes that ceaselessly scroll across his consciousness. Suddenly, he shifts from classical to an ’80s-style power ballad, then to New Age, then to jazz. Some of it he recognizes from previous sessions, some of it is brand new to him, but all of it is original—and virtuosic.

Derek doesn’t know where this music comes from; he can’t articulate how he knows what keys to press and in what order. But he can tell you precisely when he acquired his prowess. On October 27, 2006, Derek was at a pool party when a dive into the shallow end resulted in a major concussion. Five days later, he sat down at a friend’s electric keyboard and instantly, intuitively, knew how to improvise complex pieces of music. “My hands took off like fire,” says Derek. “It was like I’d been playing my entire life.”

Music was never a complete stranger to Derek. His maternal grandmother and great aunt both played organ, and his mother, Shelley Amato, memorized church songs by ear when she was a girl. As an adult, Shelley inherited her mother’s upright electric organ, which stood against the wall of the living room in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, house where Derek and his younger brother grew up. Shelley would often play for the boys when they were toddlers. But over the years, the instrument gathered dust. Shelley, a single mom after getting divorced when Derek was 3, carried as many as three jobs to support her sons, neither of whom took an interest in the old instrument.

Shelley says that her eldest was too rambunctious to sit on a bench and peck through arpeggios and “Blue Moon.” Instead, while Mom was pulling secretarial and retail shifts at all hours, Derek kept himself busy with baseball, basketball, football, wrestling—even boxing and kung fu. “He was definitely an overachiever,” says Shelley. “Because of the divorce, he wanted to prove he could do anything he put his mind to.” Derek was also a bit of a daredevil, jumping off bridges and performing other stunts to impress friends. Bumps on the head, he says, were not uncommon. At the time—the late 1970s and ’80s—doctors weren’t as concerned about brain injuries. The word “concussion” wasn’t as widely used and didn’t carry the foreboding connotation it does today.

Still, Derek never totally shook the music bug. In seventh grade, he tried out for the school band as a percussionist, but couldn’t grasp sheet music. “Besides,” he says, “I didn’t want to be a percussionist—I wanted to be a drummer.” He started a rock band called Sultans Sabre. Unable to afford a drum set, he stole some bongos from the school, only to return them out of guilt the next day. His mom took him to a local pawn shop and dropped $25 for a cheap acoustic guitar, which he promptly abandoned when the strings proved too hard to press. The desire to impress girls brought him back to the six-string in high school, and he and his best friend Rick Sturm’s new band, Rapid Fire, learned enough chords to get through AC/DC for basement rehearsals and keg parties. “We were just screwing around,” says Rick. “He was actually a really good drummer for his age, but he always envied the front man. He played guitar, but he dabbled, just like we all did.”

There have been 70 documented cases of sudden savant syndrome, in which prodigious talents emerge following a brain injury.

Any dreams of rock stardom died when Derek dropped out of school at 17 to marry the girl he’d been chasing and move to California. From there, life happened. He worked for a pressure-washing company in Ontario, California, and then moved back to South Dakota and started his own. Later, he and his wife relocated just outside of Denver, where they had three kids, and Derek went through a string of jobs, from selling Toyotas to heading up public relations for a nonprofit to teaching karate and coaching baseball. He eventually got divorced, and he searched for an occupation that would both hold his interest and pay for child support. For four dark months in 2002, he lived in his ex-wife’s parents’ Subaru, until he found his footing with the U.S. Postal Service and became a mail carrier in Greely, Colorado.

He had just left a job with a mobile communications service in October 2006 when he decided to visit his mother back in Sioux Falls. While there, Derek’s old friend Rick invited him to a party at an indoor pool. After a few hours and a beer or two, Derek began doing backflips off the edge. The other guys started throwing around a football, and Derek moved down to the shallow end, shouting for someone to hurl the ball over the water so he could make a leaping catch. Derek remembers diving after the ball. He remembers his face slapping the water, then a loud sound and a tremendous pressure in his skull as his head smashed into the concrete 3 feet below. “I don’t remember a whole lot from here on,” he says. “I think I remember thinking that I was dead.”

Derek’s friends would later tell him that not only was he not dead, he didn’t even lose consciousness. According to them, Derek shot up like a bobber, reached for his ears, and crumpled back beneath the water before springing up again. He made his way to the edge of the pool where he finally fell into his friends’ arms. There was no blood. Derek insisted he was fine. “He just wasn’t himself,” says Rick. “He usually talks a lot. But he started to get quiet. He had to sit down, and he wouldn’t get up.”

When Derek refused to be taken to the hospital, the guys took him to his mother’s house instead. She says he just lingered in the doorway and didn’t say anything when she asked him what had happened. “The minute he walked in, I knew something was wrong,” she says. “I told him, ‘We’re going to the hospital.’” A CT scan showed that Derek had suffered a severe concussion. The left side of his head was swollen and bruised. There was no sign of internal bleeding. Doctors kept him overnight for observation.

He was released the next morning to his mother’s house, where he slept for the better part of five days. Feeling much better despite a nagging headache, Derek was ready to drive back to Colorado. But first, Rick convinced him to come back to his studio apartment and say goodbye. There, after about 30 minutes of going over the poolside incident, Derek noticed a small Casio keyboard across the room. His fingers started to twitch. “As we were talking, I kept looking over at the keyboard,” says Derek. “I was just drawn to it.”

Since the incident, Derek had been seeing what looked like black-and-white squares scrolling from left to right across his mind. He had thought it was just fogginess that would go away. But as he approached the Casio, it was as if his body was intuitively reading those squares as notes or groups of notes, like the metal drum and comb on an old music box. His once-trembling fingers flew fluidly across the keys, releasing an unstructured and raw yet melodic piece of classical music that no one had ever heard before. “I just sat in the chair and watched him and I teared up,” says Rick. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was just blown away. I finally said, ‘Derek, what is going on?’”

“I don’t know how I was doing it,” Derek says now. “All I can tell you is that it was so profound. And I was excited.” He played for six hours.

On the drive back to his mother’s house, all he could think about was how he was going to tell her about his newfound ability—and not make her think he’d left his sanity at the bottom of the pool. He decided rather than try to explain, he would show her.

The following day, Derek asked his mother to come with him to a local music store. She was tired from work and didn’t really feel like going, but he insisted. Derek stepped up to a large Yamaha digital piano and asked the clerk if he could turn it on for him. Then Derek sat down behind the keyboard while his mother looked on, impatiently. “My first thought was, Please, still be here. Please, still be here,” he says. It was.

“He played this classical music that was unbelievable,” says Shelley. “At first I thought that it was a player piano. Tears were running down my face. It was unbelievable. My thoughts were that this was a gift from God.”

As it turned out, the blessing sometimes felt more like a curse. In the weeks and months that followed, Derek gradually lost 35 percent of his hearing in his left ear. He started getting intense, debilitating headaches, as many as seven a day. He was also extremely sensitive to light, especially fluorescents. He once had to be practically carried out of a Wal-Mart. In other instances, he passed out completely. Perhaps worst of all, he couldn’t control the music. His mind was flooded with incessant squares and tunes and rhythms. His hands and fingers were constantly tapping out beats, even in his sleep. He bought a $400 keyboard and locked himself away for days, letting the music drain from his body like a release valve. Playing was the only thing that seemed to bring him peace.

And yet, as clamorous and cramped as his mind became, as frustrated and exhausted and crazy as it sometimes made him, he says he never once wished for the music to stop. Staunch in his spirituality, Derek shared his mother’s view that all this pain was the price he had to pay for this wondrous gift. For a time, he was actually terrified of losing it—afraid that a fall or a bump on the head or a night of heavy drinking might scare off the muse. Or that it might just disappear as inexplicably as it had arrived. That’s why, at least at first, he didn’t seek medical help or an explanation. He didn’t want to know why this had happened or exactly how it worked, as if solving the mystery would also dispel the magic. There was also the nagging fear that the root of this new ability was something malevolent, a disease or a tumor strangling or eating away at his brain as it slowly killed him.

Eventually Derek’s curiosity prevailed. Searching the internet, he found articles about people like Orlando Serrell, who was hit in the head with a baseball when he was 10 years old, knocked unconscious, and came to with the unexpected ability to solve complex mathematical equations and an instant recall of events and weather of each day since the accident. There was Alonzo Clemons, who found he could create detailed animal sculptures after a fall at age 3 that triggered a developmental disability. An elderly dementia patient who discovered a talent as a painter. A surgeon struck by lightning and a new talent for classical piano. They were all referred to as sudden, or acquired, savants. Was I a savant? Derek remembers thinking. Sounds like a French pastry.

Derek also discovered Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist and retired professor from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, who consulted on the movie Rain Man and has been studying savant syndrome for more than 50 years. After months of correspondence, phone interviews, and a few noninvasive tests, the professor confirmed that Derek was one of only 70 known sudden savants in the world.

The science behind sudden savant syndrome was, and still is, sketchy at best. Treffert’s theory is that when the brain—usually the left hemisphere, in charge of logic and analysis—is damaged, whether it be a blow to the head, a stroke, or dementia, undamaged tissue is recruited from the right hemisphere as a way to compensate. As a result, the right side, where creativity dwells, is released from what Treffert refers to as “the tyranny of the left hemisphere.” In other words, the injured left brain lowers its guard and inhibition, freeing previously untapped creative potential within the right side—potential that, Treffert believes, has been there since birth. “We inherit not just how tall we are or our eye color—we inherit knowledge,” says Treffert. “People believe that when you’re born, you have a wonderful thing called a brain that’s a blank disc. I’m saying the brain comes loaded with all kinds of software, much of which we don’t have access to.” In Derek’s case, for instance, his mother, grandmother, and great aunts all played piano or organ and therefore would have passed this genetic knowledge onto him, even if he couldn’t access it before his injury.

Berit Brogaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami and the University of Oslo, has a different theory. She posits that when the brain is damaged, neurons die, and when they disintegrate, the injured part of the brain is inundated with neurotransmitters. During this time, about a month after the accident, the brain is essentially rewiring itself. “These new connections can now support new skills,” she says, “and give rise to extraordinary talent.”

So, is there hidden knowledge or talent inside everyone’s brain, just waiting to be unleashed? Both Treffert and Brogaard agree: “Yes.”

Of course, if we all have this dormant gift stored deep inside our gray matter, the next step is finding a way to unlock it without slamming our heads into concrete. Treffert hypothesizes that even congenital savants, those born with their exceptional skills, were injured in the womb, releasing their genetic knowledge in utero.

Treffert says one possible answer might be electrical. Placing electrodes on certain spots around the head has already been shown to revive long-lost memories. Another option might be pharmacological, but amphetamines and psychedelics are rife with side effects. Perhaps meditation holds the solution—yoga has been proven to affect brain activity. Treffert says that because we spend most of our time living on the left side of our brains, it might be useful to “rummage” around in the right. “If I drive to Chicago, I take the freeway and know the exits by heart,” he says. “But if I have more time, I’ll take an alternate route through a prettier area, and it’s a different kind of trip. Perhaps we should spend more time pursuing hobbies that seem frivolous, like art or philosophy.”

Though the chances of finding a skeleton key that unlocks latent abilities seem about even with those of getting struck by lightning, Derek is far from giving up hope. Treffert says that because so many savants also tend to be on the autism spectrum, they aren’t able to articulate details of their condition to doctors. Derek seems to be the exception—which makes him invaluable not only to researchers, but also to a public that is confounded by the phenomenon. “I think he’s a good ambassador for the condition,” says Treffert. “His story is an excellent example, but he can also talk about it.”

Derek has taken advantage of every opportunity to do just that. He’s performed on The Today Show, The Steve Harvey Show, The Discovery Channel, and NPR, and appeared in newspapers across the globe. He’s toured the country as a solo act, an accompanist, and a special guest of orchestras. He’s recorded albums worth of material, songs dipped from the ever-flowing spring in his brain. Although part of him wants desperately to be known purely on his merit as an artist, the marketing-savvy former businessman knows his backstory is his ticket to fame.

The notoriety has also opened Derek up to the vitriol of people who don’t quite understand his gift. He receives hate emails and comments from online trolls, complete strangers who think he’s making it up, that he had to have known how to play all along. He also draws occasional resentment from artists who have labored for years to acquire the skills that he stumbled upon. Even his dear friend Rick, who has worked for decades to improve at guitar, admits that in addition to being proud of his friend, he’s also jealous.

Derek dusts off the doubters, but he’s humble before the bona fide musicians, because while the music in his head came without explanation, it also came unfinished. He had no technique, didn’t know the difference between a damper and a sostenuto. He could play a complex original piece reflexively, but he couldn’t tap out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He still only plays with three fingers on each hand, while most pianists use all five. Over the past decade, he’s worked hard to refine his talent, to learn how to transpose his music, to play cover songs, and to sing along with his instrument. He considers it an obligation—another price to pay for this blessing.

Derek and those around him also believe the syndrome has enriched his life in other ways. He says he’s more in tune with people, more sensitive, and certainly more appreciative of all that he has. “His personality changed, to a point,” says Shelley. “He’s so happy and enthused about getting his music out there.” Besides, Derek feels that he can stand for something more than just the music. He is an example of what we all could be. “It’s not that I understand human potential any better than anyone else,” he says. “I just understand that there is so much more of it than we know.”

Back in the music shop, after 30 minutes of filling the stuffy studio with his music, Derek is drenched in sweat. Satisfied that he’s gotten his fix for the day, he grabs his iPad, breaks out into the air-conditioned showroom, and flip-flops his way to the front desk, where the elderly shop owner is waiting. As the owner pens an invoice for $7, Derek, who hasn’t known silence for 10 years, reflexively breaks the ice.

“Thanks so much,” he says. “It’s nice to know you guys are out here.”

“No problem,” says the owner. “How long have you been playing?”


Tony Rehagen is a writer in St. Louis. His stories have appeared in Popular Mechanics, GQ, Men’s Health, and ESPN The Magazine. Email him at rehagentony@gmail.com.

Photography by Cade Martin

Originally Published October 2016