This review was originally published by Brett Miller at 29 Marbles on 28 September 2005.
Recommendation: You should add this book to your must-read list.
I’ve long been fascinated by genius. Or, more specifically, the process of genius and figuring things out. My book shelves are full of these kind of books, mostly about scientists, mathematicians, and the like. This past weekend I finished Some Kind of Genius, which chronicles the musical achievements of Tony DeBlois from his first toy organ at the age of two and public performances at five that astounded the audience through his training at elite musical schools and his several CDs.
From an early age, Tony’s skill was apparent. He could quickly and easily play back anything he heard. He could even improvise and improve. As he got older and in more and more rigorous training, he could listen to his teacher and play back what they just played even as the teacher continued to play. He also has composed original tunes, played with several bands and organizations, and sings. As someone who dabbles at the piano and has a hard enough time just playing a single song, I consider this ability genius.
From the book is this description of 15 year-old Tony's audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston:
Janice [Tony's mother] arrived with Tony at the audition and took him directly to the piano. The members of the committee stood around the piano, anxious to hear him play. Gathered for this audition with Lipman were Rob Rose, director of Berklee's special programs; Dave Weigert, chairman of the piano department; Paul Schmeling, of the piano faculty; Bob Doezema, guitarist/composer and assistant director of the summer program; and famed saxophonist-turned-educator John LaPorta, one of the legends of the school.
They had all sat in this space countless times before, listening to hopeful young musicians from all over the world. Berklee, the planet's top college of contemporary music since its founding in 1945, boasts an alumni list that is a veritable who's who of jazz, rock, electronic music, and other genres, and students know that getting accepted means they'll get the best training available in their field. Berklee alumni include composer/producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, film composer Alan Silvestri, guitarist Al Di Meola, modern big band leader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Bill Evans, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, members of Aerosmith, and many others.
Tony started the audition with a short classical sonatina, then moved on to one of his favorites, George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," complete with his improvised insertion of the Flintstones theme, which revealed his clever and original approach to the piece. Those brief moments were a revelation. The committee realized that they had a formidable talent on their hands, a rare, special boy whose playing contrasted sharply with the rest of his behavior.
Did I mention that Tony is blind? And autistic?
When I started reading Some Kind of Genius : The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois I was expecting (hoping?) to learn more about how Tony DeBlois' mind works, more about Savant Syndrome (which I've written about before). Indeed, there is some basic information about Savant Syndrome in general and discussion of Tony’s particular skills.
From Dr. Darold Treffert is this description of why savants may have the skills they have while the rest of us don’t:
I’ve come to believe in the collective unconscious not as psycological myths that are handed down by generations but as actual wiring, instinctual, which I call software installed. It’s clear that some of these prodigious savants are knowing things they cannot have learned. It had to come installed.
This level of memory may also explain why it appears that we come with tons of software installed that we don’t use. It’s not because we’re lazy but because it would cause the same situiation as when I try to use all my software on my computer at the same time – it would crash.
It’s almost as if some of these chips have a survival value to us if something happens to us. I think we tend to look at ourselves as being born with a tremendous piece of hardware, the brain, and a blank slate, and we become what we put on this disk. But I think savants come with this installed and they have access to it that we don’t.
As impressive as Tony's story is, though, for me the real story of Some Kind of Genius is that of Tony's mother Janice. From well before Tony's birth, Janice's life seems to have prepared her for the challenge, responsibility, and adventure of raising Tony and his brother Ray. And from the account she gives in the book, she more than lived up to the challenge.
For parents of an autistic, or blind or other "disabled," child this is a story of inspiration and what can be achieved if the desire is high enough. Almost all of us will see a little bit of our own story in Janice and Tony’s. The struggle to understand what is happening with your child. The desire to have the best life possible for your child, by figuring out what they are good at and helping them excel. And the fights with the system to make sure your child get what they need and deserve. It is also a story of sacrifice. All "special" parents know nothing is ever easy and getting what your child needs sometimes means sacrificing for yourself and possibly others, all too often leaving “casualties” along the way.
For everyone else, this is an inside look into what special needs kids and their parents must go through to get what is appropriate for them. My only complaint on this front is that Janice and co-author Antonia Felix almost make it seem too easy, too matter-of-fact. An “insider” will understand what was going on in the background of this story, but those unfamiliar with the struggle of “special” kids and parents will likely not quite catch it.
The most uplifting part of Tony’s story is his acceptance by the world of music. In almost every case (at least the ones documented in the book), the professional musicians and music educators that Tony works with see him as a musician first, a nice guy next, and only then as blind and autistic. This, I think, is the hope of all parents, special or otherwise: To help their children find their place in the world and make it their own.
ps. If anyone reading this happens to know Ellen DeGeneres, could you please pass on to her Tony’s desire to meet her and appear on her show?