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The Day I spoke to Derek Paravicini

Updated on September 20, 2015
Derek Paravicini playing the piano
Derek Paravicini playing the piano | Source

I remember, it was a Tuesday afternoon, I was talking to some friends when suddenly a message popped up.

On Monday night I was working on my Extended Essay for school and did some research on Derek Paravicini when I thought to myself, "why not send him a message? The worst that can happen is a rejection or no reply." And so I went ahead and typed a few words and hit send. I was not expecting a reply from his assistant at all, so you can imagine my surprise on that very Tuesday Afternoon.

Derek Paravicini is an incredible pianist. He is severely autistic and a savant and has an astonishing talent for playing the piano. Derek developed this talent at a very young age and with the help of his piano teacher Adam Ockelford, he kept improving. Derek's talent is so incredibly special, he can hear any song once and immediately reproduce it on the piano without a mistake.

I spoke to Kelly Smith, who is one of Derek Paravicini's piano teachers and works alongside Adam Ockelford.

You can read more about Derek Paravicini and his performances here: http://www.derekparavicini.net

Soon enough, Kelly and Derek agreed to an interview led by me with my questions.

You can read the interview below:



Me:

How do you teach Derek Paravicini piano?

Kelly Smith:

Derek learns completely by ear, so when I teach him something brand new, he learns it by listening to it. If the piece is fairly simple, repetitive and predictable, then he can pick it up after a couple of listens, but longer and more complex pieces can take hundreds of hours to learn properly. For those longer pieces, he needs to hear the piece in it's entirety to understand the structure, but we also work on sections of the music at a time, and focus on the detail - I play and then he copies.He also learns different styles of playing and improvising by listening to great jazz pianists playing on CDs. As he gets to know their style of playing, so he is able to apply that style to any other piece that he likes, and can call upon that style when he is improvising.

Me:

What are some of the struggles Derek Paravicini faces when playing the piano?


Kelly Smith:

Derek has some practical struggles when playing the piano, for example when he is playing with his quartet he misses out on the eye contact and surreptitious nods that musicians give each other to cue each other in - that is one of the reasons why he usually has someone like Adam or myself to sit with him to prompt him verbally instead.

Me:

Sometimes when watching Derek play, he smiles. Does he feel the emotion from the song he is playing and the response of the audience? (For example, when a song is in a major key, Derek knows that it is a happy song. When the key is minor, he knows it is sad.)


Kelly Smith:

Derek is certainly aware of what elements of music make it feel 'happy' or 'sad' (ie major / minor keys). There was an interesting section in a TV documentary that Derek took part in a few years ago - they asked him to play a piece of music in a happy way, and he played quite lively and in a major key. They then asked him to play it in a sad way, and he made the tempo slower and went to a minor key. They then asked him to play the same piece in an angry way, and he played it the same as happy but he growled over the top - you can see it here, about 19.5 minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbqjxmTNivQAs Derek has matured as a player and as a person, I think he is becoming more sensitive to the emotion in music, and using music more expressively.He certainly feels excited by his music and he does often smile with enjoyment while he is playing. Sometimes he amuses himself with his little musical quirks and jokes that he might slip in, and that makes him smile too! The response from the audience is one of the things that really drives Derek, and he absolutely loves the clapping and cheering from the crowd when he has finished playing!

Me:

Is he aware of his incredible talent?


Kelly Smith:

I think Derek is very aware that he is talented at playing the piano, and he enjoys the compliments and praise that he gets for his playing, from his teachers and also from the thousands of people who have seen him play over the years. I don't know if he realises quite how special his talent is compared to other people, but he does definitely know that he is a fantastic pianist!

Me:

Has he improved over time? If so, how has he improved/what was done to improve?

Kelly Smith:

Derek is constantly improving and his playing evolves as he continues to mature as a person. He has very regular lessons, and also listens to a lot of music in his spare time. Opportunities such as being part of his quartet have greatly improved his abilities to play as part of a group. Over the past ten years or so, Derek's playing has matured; become more sensitive and expressive and his improvisation styles and techniques have developed as he listens to and learns more about other great jazz musicians and their styles.

Me:

Does he follow directions easily?

Kelly Smith:

Verbal directions are often not understood by Derek - he learns best by hearing what you want him to do musically - by copying. One of the ways in which both Adam and I work with Derek is to develop and build upon key words and sounds which relate to something musical and which can be called upon at any time to direct Derek when he is playing.

Me:

How does he respond to feedback?

Kelly Smith:

Derek loves the positive feedback he receives from audiences, family, friends, teachers etc etc! He actively seeks the compliments, often asking what people thought of his playing, and if they enjoyed it. The greatest feedback for him is the sound of people clapping and cheering for him, and sometimes he is reluctant to leave the stage as he enjoys it so much!


And now for the question directly asked to Derek Paravicini, the mastermind and musical genius himself:


Me:

What is your favourite song on the piano?

Derek Paravicini:

'My favourite song at the moment is Jeremy's Piece.' (This is a new piece of music called Moods, written by Jeremy Lubbock, which Derek is learning for a concert). Derek's favourite piece varies from day to day - he usually says his favourite piece is whichever piece he has just heard, or that he is learning. He has so many favourites that it must be hard for him to choose just one!

Me:

Do you like meeting new people?

Derek Paravicini:

'Yes I do like meeting new people! I say 'Hello' and I like shaking hands. They come and see me after my concerts and we meet each other. They like my playing on the piano.'


It was a great pleasure and honour to interview both, Kelly Smith and Derek Paravicini!

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