By Darold Treffert, MD
In 2005, NBC's Dateline introduced viewers to a very accomplished musical savant, Brittany Maier. Prodigious musical savants are few in number and female musical savants are even more rare in this already rare condition. The title of the program was “Playing by Ear” and indeed Brittany does that. But she also composes her own beautiful music.
Her mother, Tammy, described her daughter this way: “Every day, Brittany is overcoming extraordinary personal challenges and joyfully inspiring others through her unique musical gift. Born 4 months premature, Brittany was given only a 5 percent chance of survival. While still in the hospital she lost her eyesight, and within a few years we discovered that she had a developmental disability as well as autism. Music was always a big part of our family’s life when Brittany was growing up. One day when she was 5, she began playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ on a children’s toy keyboard. To everyone’s astonishment, this quickly turned into ‘Ave Maria,’ ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and others. Around age 10, she began composing her own music and performing for audiences. Her repertoire has grown to over 15,000 songs, most of which she learned after only hearing them a few times. I have witnessed again and again the inspiration she has been to everyone who has met her and experienced her amazing musical talent in the face of many obstacles. Every day I see the joy and progress that music brings to her personally.”
While Brittany’s language of choice is her music, speech and conversation is gradually coming along as well, slowly but surely. But her basic sense of joy and happiness shines through in the songs that flow forth so freely, and in the words that come more haltingly, for now.
Speaking of words, her music teacher, a University of South Carolina music school professor, found himself “speechless” the first time he heard Brittany play: “I’ve seen a lot of students in a lot of schools, but this was jaw-dropping.” Like other musical savants, Brittany’s talent level, without any formal training, was astonishing. And, she has perfect pitch and amazing recall. Not only does she play effortlessly by ear, but she also composes her own pieces. Her teacher helped her to improve her technical abilities since she plays, although you would never know it by listening to her, with only six fingers. “To find all of those qualities housed in one person…we start listing names like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin,” her teacher says.
Brittany certainly does fit the spectacular yet rare triad of musical genius, impaired vision and mental disability seen in some prodigious savants past and present. But being female sets Brittany somewhat especially apart in this very exclusive group; there simply have been only a few girls or women among them. Yet there is another way Brittany is unique even within this exclusive group. For most savants there is a gradual transition from repetition to improvisation to creating something entirely new — composing. Brittany made that transition extremely rapidly and, at age 10, was already composing many new pieces that so characterize her musical repertoire now. With the gift of a recording piano from her community that loved Brittany so much, and loved her music so much, it was possible to save all those new pieces that were formerly just lost. Brittany’s first CD was her way, and her family’s way, of saying “thank you” to that caring community.
Brittany’s gift of music brings her special joy. She loves to play. It is her way of speaking to us, and by sharing her music and hearing and feeling the reception that music gets, it is her way of speaking with us. Beyond the joy it provides for her, as with other musical savants, it provides a gradual bridge as well toward more language and increased socialization. But it provides something else as well, as her mother so aptly describes it when she writes that the music Brittany plays and loves can “offer hope to those many parents who, like I once did, stand next to their infant’s incubators in neonatal units praying for a miracle. Brittany is my miracle. Blessed by our journey together, it is my intention to pass on this blessing by spreading the gift of music, love and hope to all who truly need it.”