One day, Derek Amato discovered he could play the piano like an expert. But he never had formal lessons and can’t read music.
As CBS Denver reports, Amato’s love for music is tattooed in musical notes on his arms. But he never set out to be a pianist. While Amato enjoyed music as a young man, he would have preferred to be a pro athlete.
In a strange way, that love for sports made it possible for him to play the piano.
In an interview with NPR, Amato described the day his life changed. It was 2006, and he was visiting friends and family in South Dakota. Someone showed up with a mini football, and the group started playing catch. Amato decided to run beside the pool and dive in while catching the ball.
Unfortunately, he misjudged the depth of the pool. As he dove into the shallow end, Amato hit his head. He told NPR:
“I knew I was diving towards the shallow end. I was very aware. And I miscalculated the depth, obviously, and I hit the upper left side of my face. And that’s all. I remember it was like an explosion.”
Amato was diagnosed with a massive concussion. After a night at the hospital, he was sent home with instructions to rest. He slept and recovered over the next five days and then, feeling better, decided to go home. When he stopped to say goodbye to a friend, he felt drawn to the keyboard in the corner of the room.
Amato told NPR he and his friend were stunned when he walked over to the keyboard and was suddenly able to play like an expert:
“I thought, I’ll just hit a few of these keys. I turn it on and see what happened. I had no clue. And I sat down, and my fingers just went crazy. […] Rick said the ghost of Beethoven jumped into my body. I don’t know how else to explain it. I went crazy and just played and played, and it wasn’t like I was just picking away.”
Amato added that he sat there and played for hours.
“I didn’t want to stop playing because I was like, ‘Well, what if I stop and then this doesn’t happen tomorrow morning?'” he said.
Meanwhile, his friend had teared up at the sight of seeing Amato — who he knew had never taken piano lessons — playing classical-style music at his keyboard.
Breaking the news to his mother was also an emotional experience. Amato told NPR he took his mother to a music store and asked her to sit next to him. He then began to play and sing for her:
“I just kind of went nuts and started going crazy just to show her, well, look at this. Look at this. And she started crying. She really didn’t say much. It was a very quiet drive home.”
Since then, Amato has continued to explore his gift, though he still cannot read music. He told CBS Denver:
“Reading music seems confusing for me. I tried to learn a couple different times.”
He added that he is able to play by following the black and white squares or blocks that appear in his mind when he’s at the piano.
“I just follow what the blocks tell me to do,” Amato said. “I do my best to take those notes and put them into playing.”
According to the Wisconsin Medical Society, this phenomenon is called acquired savant syndrome. In rare cases, an individual suddenly acquires a new skill or talent (when there were few signs of it before) after experiencing an injury or illness involving the central nervous system, most commonly an injury to the left hemisphere of the brain.
Another example of acquired savant syndrome is the 10-year-old boy who was hit in the head with a baseball and was able to remember the weather and other autobiographical details for every day after his injury. There’s also the story of the 56-year-old man who became a poet, painter, and sculptor after surviving a stroke.
Amato has seen several neurologists about his condition. Many of them started out skeptical but came away believers. One doctor suggested seizure medication to slow down the neurons in his brain, but Amato wasn’t interested in slowing down the musical ability — even if it meant putting up with the possibility of ADHD, OCD, or other side effects of the injury.
Amato told NPR he has been warned that his new ability could disappear as quickly as it arrived:
“I just accepted the fact that I’m going to enjoy every second of this because if I wake up tomorrow and it’s gone, I want to be able to say that I did the best I could to display it to a society looking in at my life and saying, ‘I’ve been inspired by this,’ or, ‘The human potential is amazing,’ or, ‘The brain is just a magnificent, you know, organ that we don’t know anything about.'”
In the meantime, Amato is using his gift to help and inspire others. Having spent three months on the streets, he is working to help the homeless in Denver. And he has written a book about his experience, called “My Beautiful Disaster.”
He told CBS Denver that the accident and discovery of his musical gift are “the best thing that happened to me. My whole being has changed, and I think it’s been an incredible experience.”
Amato never planned to be a pianist, but he told NPR that he believes this is where he’s meant to be.
“I’m a Christian kid, so I think this is where God wants me,” he said. “I think this has already been panned out, my story.”