Derek Paravicini is blind and autistic, and a talented pianist. He tells Etan Smallman why music lessons need to be saved, especially for people with learning difficulties
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Watching Derek Paravicini’s fingers pulsate majestically across the piano keys, one gets the impression his dexterous fingers could achieve just about anything he wanted them to. After all, he can play two pianos at once and instantly recall and perform any piece of music he has ever heard, all learnt entirely by ear.
However, when the 38-year-old dubbed “the human iPod” arrives to meet me, he politely asks for help to take off his coat; he cannot negotiate the buttons.
Paravicini, who is totally blind and profoundly autistic after being born at 26 weeks weighing less than 600g, does not know his left hand from his right and cannot distinguish between his thumb and his little finger.
Had his nanny not retrieved an old toy organ from the loft when he was just two, the musical prodigy’s life would probably have turned out very differently.
To the astonishment of his parents, he quickly taught himself to play. Since then, music has been his salvation. It has also provided his education, his therapy and his liberation from a life locked in his own world.
It is how the pianist, who first performed at the Barbican at the age of nine, makes friends (he is much more at ease communicating with me through his piano than via traditional conversation). It is also how he makes a living (the Londoner is in demand across the world).
In this sense, Paravicini is one of the lucky few. Young people with visual impairment are twice as likely as their sighted peers not to be in employment, education or training. They are also less likely to receive music tuition – unsurprising given that families with someone who has a physical or learning disability are much more likely to live in relative poverty.
“There are lots of children on sedatives because they don’t have a way of expressing themselves,” says his long-time teacher Adam Ockelford, a professor of music who has been working with children who are blind, autistic or have other special needs for almost 40 years. “Derek has a very active brain. If he didn’t have his music, I think he’d be very unhappy and very disturbed.”
A crisis in music teaching stretches across the country, covering children of all abilities. The number of pupils studying music at GCSE and A-level has more than halved in the past decade.
The introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2010 (which does not cover the arts) is behind the downturn, according to two thirds of 650 state school teachers surveyed by Sussex University. “Music as a subject could be facing extinction,” warned Dr Ally Daubney, the study’s co-author, last year.
Nine in 10 schools have cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject, a BBC survey found in January. Andrew Lloyd Webber has called the situation “a national scandal”.
Austerity has meant funding for music teaching for children with special needs has also been squeezed.
“With budgets being cut, there’s a tendency to revert to the ‘basics’,” says Ockelford, who is director of the Applied Music Research Centre at the University of Roehampton. “But for kids with learning difficulties, music and art are the basics. They may not be able to read and write, for example, and some can’t speak, but they can probably communicate through music.”
Ockelford, whose TED talk with Paravicini has been watched more than two million times, is evangelical about the transformative effect music can have on a disabled child.
Aside from offering a potential employment option, it can boost self esteem, present an outlet for anger and provide “the glue of social inclusion”, for example in a jazz group at the local pub “where everybody comes with an instrument under the chair and you all join in at the end. But you need to have something to bring to the party.”
It can even be crucial in the development of empathy: “We also know that when performing music with others – even just clapping a rhythm together – our heart rates and breathing come into tune. So it removes that isolation, and it starts from the earliest interactions.”
As public funding is cut, charities are increasingly having to step into the breach. Ockelford founded the Amber Trust in 1995 to help visually impaired children pursue a love of music. The organisation supports hundreds of children with grants and the “huge, huge need” is growing every year. He also runs the Sounds of Intent research project, which investigates and promotes the musical development of young people with learning difficulties, producing online resources that have been downloaded 1.5 million times.
“While I’m arguing about who pays for it, the child is missing out,” says Ockelford. “My answer is: never let the Government off the hook, but in the meantime, let’s give the children a musical experience they deserve.”
The professor also wants to see a reversal in attitudes: “I think we should look at special schools and kids with special needs as the research and development furnace of education, actually, because by figuring out how to teach a child with severe autism, you solve lots of problems for mainstream kids as well. In other words, I think I’m a much better teacher of mainstream kids having had to deal with children who just won’t conform.”
He says he detects a “slight hypocrisy” among politicians determined that working class children should focus on “traditional” subjects.
“The Tory cabinet all had the sort of background that celebrated culture. This is the biggest irony of all: if you look at the fee-paying system, which the Government tends to hold up as a really good example of how education should work, they all learn two instruments, they all have fantastic theatre productions and art departments.
“And you think, well, in a way that is the argument, isn’t it – if parents who can afford to choose choose schools that put art and sport and culture at the heart of things?”
Paravicini struggles to put into words what his life would be like without music. But my question is superfluous. His is a story revolutionised by 88 keys. The pianist is much more keen for me to see him power through his repertoire – covering everything from Elvis and Chopin to Evita and Rimsky-Korsakov. As he does so, the answer is written all over his face.
- Adam Ockelford and Derek Paravicini will be speaking and performing at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival on May 13 (barneskidslitfest.org)