Three hours to go before the evening's performance and something isn't right. Sitting at a grand piano in St. George's concert hall in Bristol, England, on May 12, Derek Paravicini tears through a rehearsal of The Flight of the Bumblebee, his fingers skittering across the piano keys. The musicians in the Emerald Ensemble orchestra feed off his energy and manage to keep up the pace, but it all sounds a bit off. After several stops and starts, the conductor discovers the problem: the orchestra and the star have been practicing different versions of the same piece.
Any other concert, any other pianist, and Rimsky-Korsakov's interlude would have been cut from the playlist. But not tonight. Because Paravicini has a musical memory that's closer to hard drive than human: he can play virtually any tune, in any style, in any key, after hearing it just once, even if it was years ago. The 27-year-old pianist is blind and severely learning disabled; he can't tie his own shoelaces or butter a piece of bread. Yet his musical gifts appear almost unlimited. With rehearsals over, Paravicini and his longtime teacher Adam Ockelford go into a quiet room to listen to a recording of the version of Bumblebee that the orchestra has learned. A few hours later, in front of 400 people, Paravicini and the Emerald Ensemble charge through a dizzying performance of the music he has just listened to, perfectly in sync. By the end of Paravicini's first live classical performance, the audience is on its feet.
"Most people, when they hear a piece of music, can pick up the tune and some sense of accompaniment," says Ockelford, a music psychologist and director at the Royal National Institute of the Blind in London. "But for them, it's just a blend of sounds. For Derek, it's all separate like being able to hear six conversations at once, in six different languages, and understand them all." Paravicini, who lives in a boarding school for the blind where he receives round-the-clock care, is one of a handful of recognized savants, unable to carry out the most basic everyday tasks, but a bona fide genius at the keyboard. Born 14 weeks premature, he weighed only 700 g and his heart stopped three times before the doctors could stabilize him. An irregular flow of oxygen through a tube left him blind and brain damaged. Unable to communicate verbally, the young Paravicini taught himself to play the piano and let the music do the talking. His first song was the Irish folk tune Molly Malone, one of his nanny's favorites, hammered out on a battered electric organ. He was two years old.
Since then, Paravicini has mastered everything from classical to pop to avant-garde, but he always comes back to jazz. His conversation is still limited; in an interview over tea at Ockelford's London home, he mostly just repeats what's said to him, albeit with the confidence of a man who thought of it himself. Talk to him about music, though, and he opens up, asking: "What would you like me to play?" and "Did you enjoy that piece?" Music is the only language he's fluent in, and jazz, with the freedom it gives him to improvise, helps him tap into a much wider range of emotions than words can provide him. "Derek communicates a lot through his music," says Ockelford. "It tends to be high-energy, ecstatic communication, but you can often tell how he's feeling from the way he plays. He could always play music expressively because he's heard people play expressively and he could copy them. But as he matures, his playing becomes more expressive of what he wants to tell you."
What Paravicini can't tell you is his story, so Ockelford has told it for him. In his book, In the Key of Genius, published May 3, Ockelford recounts the extraordinary story of Paravicini's bizarre early lessons, his TV appearances and his concerts for charity (one at Buckingham Palace, another with the Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra) and ends with him playing Scott Joplin's The Entertainer to 12,000 people in Las Vegas last year. Paravicini, who is related through marriage to Prince Charles' wife Camilla Parker-Bowles, was only 5 years old when he and Ockelford first met. Ockelford was giving a piano lesson to a girl at a school for the blind when Paravicini's parents were showing their son around. "Derek just shoved her out of the way and took over," Ockelford says. "He had lots of energy, so there were thousands of notes all over the place. I thought it was just clutter. Then I suddenly noticed that in the middle of all the chaos was actually Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Ockelford took Paravicini on as a student and has been at his side ever since. Almost literally: when Paravicini performs live, Ockelford sits to his left, mainly to reel him in when his improvising threatens to overwhelm the piece.
Even as a child, Paravicini's ear for music was remarkably advanced. But his technique "was very eccentric mainly karate chops, thumbs and knuckles, elbows," says Ockelford. "But all on the right notes." It took 10 years to teach Paravicini how to play using the more conventional method. Now he can reproduce the sound of a 50-piece orchestra, hitting as many notes as his 10 fingers can reach together and then filling in the rest with arpeggios and scales. He can shift to a different key midway through a tune, without stopping. He can dip into his mental library of thousands of tunes and come up with surprising hybrids Mozart in the style of Joplin; Culture Club's Karma Chameleon as Chopin might have played it; Handel's Water Music with a ragtime twist. "Very few musicians can do what he does," says Roger Huckle, the Emerald Ensemble's director. "It's very rare to have the flexibility of a jazz player coupled with the fine technique of a classical musician."
Nobody knows exactly how Paravicini does what he does. One theory is that his talent developed because of his limitations, not despite them. "People with learning disabilities like Derek's have a strong drive to systemize, to look for patterns," says Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University. "Music is a system, the intervals between notes and the relationship between keys are quantitative. Even when you improvise you are, in a sense, following the rules. And because he's blind, a lot more of his brain may be allocated to auditory information."
Ask Paravicini what his secret is and the answer is simple: "I just listen. And relax." As for what's next, nobody's sure. A documentary filmmaker has been following him around for months, and a movie studio has floated the idea of making a biopic. But as Paravicini starts in on Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin', he's oblivious to anything beyond the joy of this moment. Rocking back and forth, a sideways smile on his face, he throws in a cascading scale here, a sneaky chord there, taking the tune as far out as he can before pulling it back. Maybe it's his drive to systemize that explains this enigmatic brilliance. Maybe it's his need to communicate that keeps him playing. Whatever the reasons, he's having way too much fun to stop.