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Brittany Maier – ‘Playing by Ear’

By Darold Treffert, MD

On August 5, 2005 a DATELINE program 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 spectacularly. But she also composes her own beautiful music. She already has one CD to her credit and, with her talents, surely more will follow. Brittany also has her own website and recently The Brittany and Friends Foundation was set up to help other persons with disabilities experience the same kind of joy, and progress, that music has provided her. At age 16 Brittany has accomplished a great deal.

Her mother, Tammy, describes 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 splendidly and effortlessly by ear, but she also composes her own pieces. Her teacher is helping 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 conspicuous and spectacular, yet rare, triad of musical genius, impaired vision and mental disability seen in some prodigious savants past and present, and spelled out in some detail elsewhere on this website. 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 (albeit spectacularly) 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 (along still with a huge store of memorized pieces). 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 on CD and video, 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.”

There is much more information about Brittany, and the Brittany and Friends Foundation, on her website at www.brittanymaier.com including photos, write-ups, contact information, sound tracks from her CD, streaming video and links.

On her website there is opportunity to listen to three tracks — “Taking Flight,” “Capturing the Day,” “Thinking of You” — from her 20/20 CD. There is also opportunity to view a 9½ minute video clip of her story and abilities. The highlight of the clip is the opportunity for Brittany to meet her life-long hero — Jim Brinkman — and to play the piano with him.

The video is updated regularly as a compilation of her remarkable ability… and progress.


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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com
E-mail: daroldt@charter.net