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Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford: In the key of genius

  • VERBS: 24
  • VOCAB: 113
  • PHRASES: 0

Born three and a half months prematurely, Derek Paravicini is blind and has severe autism. But with perfect pitch, innate talent and a lot of practice, he became an acclaimed concert pianist by the age of 10. Here, his longtime piano teacher, Adam Ockelford, explains his student's unique relationship to music, while Paravicini shows how he has ripped up the "Chopsticks" rule book. (Filmed at TEDxWarwick.)

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0:11 Adam Ockelford: I promise there won't be too much of me talking, and a lot of Derek playing, but I thought it would just be nice to recap on how Derek got to where he is today.

0:21 It's amazing now, because he's so much bigger than me, but when Derek was born, he could have fitted on the palm of your hand. He was born three and a half months premature, and really it was a fantastic fight for him to survive. He had to have a lot of oxygen, and that affected your eyes, Derek, and also the way you understand language and the way you understand the world. But that was the end of the bad news, because when Derek came home from the hospital, his family decided to employ the redoubtable nanny who was going to look after you, Derek, really for the rest of your childhood. And Nanny's great insight, really, was to think, here's a child who can't see. Music must be the thing for Derek. And sure enough, she sang, or as Derek called it, warbled, to him for his first few years of life. And I think it was that excitement with hearing her voice hour after hour every day that made him think maybe, you know, in his brain something was stirring, some sort of musical gift. Here's a little picture of Derek going up now, when you were with your nanny.

1:32 Now Nanny's great other insight was to think, perhaps we should get Derek something to play, and sure enough, she dragged this little keyboard out of the loft, never thinking really that anything much would come of it. But Derek, your tiny hand must have gone out to that thing and actually bashed it, bashed it so hard they thought it was going to break. But out of all the bashing, after a few months, emerged the most fantastic music, and I think there was just a miracle moment, really, Derek, when you realized that all the sounds you hear in the world out there is something that you can copy on the keyboard. That was the great eureka moment.

2:16 Now, not being able to see meant, of course, that you taught yourself.

2:20 Derek Paravicini: I taught myself to play.

2:21 AO: You did teach yourself to play, and as a consequence, playing the piano for you, Derek, was a lot of knuckles and karate chops, and even a bit of nose going on in there.

2:31 And now, here's what Nanny did also do was to press the record button on one of those little early tape recorders that they had, and this is a wonderful tape, now, of Derek playing when you were four years old.

2:44 DP: "Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussels)."

2:47 AO: It wasn't actually "Cockles and Mussels." This one is "English Country Garden."

2:50 DP: "English Country Garden."

2:52 (Music: "English Country Garden")

3:29 AO: There you are.

3:31 (Applause)

3:38 I think that's just fantastic. You know, there's this little child who can't see, can't really understand much about the world, has no one in the family who plays an instrument, and yet he taught himself to play that. And as you can see from the picture, there was quite a lot of body action going on while you were playing, Derek.

3:54 Now, along -- Derek and I met when he was four and a half years old, and at first, Derek, I thought you were mad, to be honest, because when you played the piano, you seemed to want to play every single note on the keyboard, and also you had this little habit of hitting me out of the way. So as soon as I tried to get near the piano, I was firmly shoved off. And having said to your dad, Nic, that I would try to teach you, I was then slightly confused as to how I might go about that if I wasn't allowed near the piano. But after a while, I thought, well, the only way is to just pick you up, shove Derek over to the other side of the room, and in the 10 seconds that I got before Derek came back, I could just play something very quickly for him to learn. And in the end, Derek, I think you agreed that we could actually have some fun playing the piano together. As you can see, there's me in my early, pre-marriage days with a brown beard, and little Derek concentrating there.

4:52 I just realized this is going to be recorded, isn't it? Right. Okay.

4:54 (Laughter)

4:56 Now then, by the age of 10, Derek really had taken the world by storm. This is a photo of you, Derek, playing at the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Pops. Basically it was just an exciting journey, really. And in those days, Derek, you didn't speak very much, and so there was always a moment of tension as to whether you'd actually understood what it was we were going to play and whether you'd play the right piece in the right key, and all that kind of thing. But the orchestra were wowed as well, and the press of the world were fascinated by your ability to play these fantastic pieces.

5:33 Now the question is, how do you do it, Derek? And hopefully we can show the audience now how it is you do what you do.

5:41 I think that one of the first things that happened when you were very little, Derek, was that by the time you were two, your musical ear had already outstripped that of most adults. And so whenever you heard any note at all -- if I just play a random note -- (Piano notes) -- you knew instantly what it was, and you'd got the ability as well to find that note on the piano. Now that's called perfect pitch, and some people have perfect pitch for a few white notes in the middle of the piano.

6:11 (Piano notes)

6:17 You can see how -- you get a sense of playing with Derek.

6:20 (Applause)

6:24 But Derek, your ear is so much more than that. If I just put the microphone down for a bit, I'm going to play a cluster of notes. Those of you who can see will know how many notes, but Derek, of course, can't. Not only can you say how many notes, it's being able to play them all at the same time. Here we are.

6:43 (Chords)

6:53 Well, forget the terminology, Derek. Fantastic. And it's that ability, that ability to hear simultaneous sounds, not only just single sounds, but when a whole orchestra is playing, Derek, you can hear every note, and instantly, through all those hours and hours of practice, reproduce those on the keyboard, that makes you, I think, is the basis of all your ability.

7:14 Now then. It's no use having that kind of raw ability without the technique, and luckily, Derek, you decided that, once we did start learning, you'd let me help you learn all the scale fingerings. So for example using your thumb under with C major.

7:31 (Piano notes)

7:36 Etc.

7:43 And in the end, you got so quick, that things like "Flight of the Bumblebee" were no problem, were they?

7:49 DP: No.

7:50 AO: Right. So here, by the age of 11, Derek was playing things like this.

7:55 DP: This.

7:58 (Music: "Flight of the Bumblebee") (Applause)

9:08 AO: Derek, let's have a bow.

9:22 Well done.

9:26 Now the truly amazing thing was, with all those scales, Derek, you could not only play "Flight of the Bumblebee" in the usual key, but any note I play, Derek can play it on. So if I just choose a note at random, like that one. (Piano notes) Can you play "Flight of the Bumblebee" on that note?

9:43 DP: "Flight of the Bumblebee" on that note.

9:45 (Music: "Flight of the Bumblebee")

9:51 AO: Or another one? How about in G minor?

9:55 DP: G minor.

9:57 (Music: "Flight of the Bumblebee")

10:02 AO: Fantastic. Well done, Derek.

10:05 So you see, in your brain, Derek, is this amazing musical computer that can instantly recalibrate, recalculate, all the pieces in the world that are out there. Most pianists would have a heart attack if you said, "Sorry, do you mind playing 'Flight of the Bumblebee' in B minor instead of A minor?" as we went on. In fact, the first time, Derek, you played that with an orchestra, you'd learned the version that you'd learned, and then the orchestra, in fact, did have a different version, so while we were waiting in the two hours before the rehearsal and the concert, Derek listened to the different version and learned it quickly and then was able to play it with the orchestra. Fantastic chap.

10:40 The other wonderful thing about you is memory.

10:44 DP: Memory. AO: Your memory is truly amazing, and every concert we do, we ask the audience to participate, of course, by suggesting a piece Derek might like to play. And people say, "Well, that's terribly brave because what happens if Derek doesn't know it?" And I say, "No, it's not brave at all, because if you ask for something that Derek doesn't know, you're invited to come and sing it first, and then he'll pick it up." (Laughter)

11:06 So just be thoughtful before you suggest something too outlandish.

11:10 But seriously, would anyone like to choose a piece?

11:14 DP: Choose a piece. Choose, choose, would you like to choose? AO: Because it's quite dark. You'll just have to shout out. Would you like to hear me play?

11:21 (Audience: "Theme of Paganini.")

11:22 AO: Paganini. DP: "The Theme of Paganini."

11:25 (Laughter)

11:27 (Music: "Theme of Paganini")

13:02 (Applause)

13:13 AO: Well done.

13:19 Derek's going to L.A. soon, and it's a milestone, because it means that Derek and I will have spent over 100 hours on long-haul flights together, which is quite interesting, isn't it Derek?

13:31 DP: Very interesting, Adam, yes. Long-haul flights. Yes.

13:34 AO: You may think 13 hours is a long time to keep talking, but Derek does it effortlessly. Now then.

13:39 (Laughter)

13:41 But in America, they've coined this term, "the human iPod" for Derek, which I think is just missing the point, really, because Derek, you're so much more than an iPod. You're a fantastic, creative musician, and I think that was nowhere clearer to see, really, than when we went to Slovenia, and someone -- in a longer concert we tend to get people joining in, and this person, very, very nervously came onto the stage.

14:07 DP: He played "Chopsticks." AO: And played "Chopsticks."

14:09 DP: "Chopsticks."

14:11 AO: A bit like this. DP: Like this. Yes.

14:14 (Piano notes)

14:15 AO: I should really get Derek's manager to come and play it. He's sitting there.

14:18 DP: Somebody played "Chopsticks" like this. AO: Just teasing, right? Here we go.

14:21 (Music: "Chopsticks")

14:23 DP: Let Derek play it.

14:25 AO: What did you do with it, Derek?

14:27 DP: I got to improvise with it, Adam.

14:28 AO: This is Derek the musician. (Music: "Chopsticks" improvisation)

15:28 (Applause)

15:30 (Music) (Clapping)

15:34 Keep up with Derek.

15:36 (Music)

16:31 (Applause)

16:54 The TED people will kill me, but perhaps there's time for one encore.

16:57 DP: For one encore. AO: One encore, yes.

17:01 So this is one of Derek's heroes. It's the great Art Tatum -- DP: Art Tatum.

17:05 AO: -- who also was a pianist who couldn't see, and also, I think, like Derek, thought that all the world was a piano, so whenever Art Tatum plays something, it sounds like there's three pianos in the room. And here is Derek's take on Art Tatum's take on "Tiger Rag."

17:20 DP: "Tiger Rag."

17:24 (Music: "Tiger Rag")

19:14 (Applause)

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