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?”