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Ellen: With a Song in Her Heart

By Darold Treffert, MD

“With a song in her heart, music is her bridge to the world” the heading reads in the Sacramento Bee newspaper on January 18, 2001 written by Bob Sylva. The writer tries to “stump Ellen” with request after request — and cannot. “By any measure of musical virtuosity and genius, this is a remarkable performance. For Ellen, it’s a form of child’s play” the writer concludes.

There are very few female savants, but Ellen is one of them. Ellen is blind, with an astonishing musical ability, superior spatial sense and remarkable memory. Her sense rhythm is pervasive. She is driven by time as if a digital clock is incessantly running in her head. But, of course, she has never seen one. At precisely the moment her favorite news program begins she will bound into the room from wherever she is, flip on the TV and the announcer will start the program, as if on clue from Ellen. Ellen plays piano, guitar, and now the keyboard and soloist with a Rock and Roll band in her hometown that has become well known in the area. Among these multiple instruments and many musical interests she has developed a vast repertoire. It is very hard to stump Ellen, as the newspaper writer found out in a flawless recollection by Ellen of a variety of tunes and styles ranging from the Supremes to “Dueling Banjos” (in which she plays both parts) to “Ellen’s tour de force orchestration of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, the Led Zeppelin apassionata in which she replicates, uncannily, every voice, instrument and studio sound effect.”

Ellen is a startling example of the rare yet reoccurring triad of blindness, mental handicap and musical genius pointed out elsewhere on this site, and as seen in Tony
and Leslie in this profiles section. Ellen was born prematurely in 1957 and developed the blindness of prematurity (retrolental fibroplasias) following birth. Ellen developed slowly. When she was 4 months old doctors confirmed what the parents suspected — Ellen was blind. But when Ellen was 6 months old her sister came running out to tell her mother that “the baby is singing.” The cradle gym above the baby played Brahms “Lullaby” and indeed Ellen was, at 6 months, humming that song with the same precision and rhythm that has characterized all of her music since that time. In early childhood years Ellen listened, with her sister, to popular artists of the time — Frankie Avalon, Elvis Presley, Chubby Checkers and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. Now, 40 years later, Ellen can play all those “golden oldies” perfectly on the piano or guitar with all the musical introductions and embellishments intact, reproducing uncannily the voices of Holly, Presley, Lewis and all the others.

Ellen was 4 years old before she walked. But once she began to walk, it was with a superior spatial sense. From the very beginning she was aware of large objects, wall, fences and buildings from a distance of 6 feet or more and insisted on going to them and touching them. Her father noted that from those early years on she has been able to walk in thick, strange forests without running into trees. As Ellen learned to navigate she made a constant little chirping sound, like her own form of personal radar.

At age 4½ psychological testing provided a score of 40 on the Vineland Social Maturity Scale which suggested an estimated IQ, at that time, of between 30-50. The family became very determined to find the best educational and vocational opportunities for their daughter and enrolled her in the San Juan Unified School District in Fair Oaks, California. Ellen did extremely well in school and has proceeded through a series of steps in the special education program, including now Adult Special Education programming. Speech therapy began in 1983 and progress in language development was impressive as well, with no sacrifice of her artistic skill.

Ellen’s musical skill and memory are prodigious. Her interest in music, as mentioned previously, began as early as 6 months of age. At about age 4, Ellen surprised her mother by picking out some tunes on a small electronic organ. At age 7, a teacher advised her parents to get Ellen a piano. They did and the music has poured forth ever since. Ellen now constructs complicated chords to accompany melodies she hears on the radio or the stereo. She has transposed the orchestra and chorus of Evita to the piano with complex, precise chords. She reproduces the crowd and mob sounds with intense dissonances using both hands. That rendition is an impressive, and lengthy, performance.

Ellen taught herself guitar by spending countless hours going up and down each string, memorizing the tones that each fingering produced and experimenting with chords. She is driven by and enamored of rhythm of any type, form or origin. She loves to improvise and after listening to almost any album will begin to play chords with it, improvising very unusual but striking accompaniments. She will play what she has heard in one form such as jazz, then in another style, perhaps classical. She will transpose rock and roll to a waltz form in three-quarter time. She is fascinated with radio and television commercials and will immediately transpose those to the piano as well.

Ellen’s highly developed sense of timekeeping became evident at about age 8. To help Ellen overcome a fear of the telephone that she seemed to have at that age, her mother coaxed her one day to listen to the automatic time recording, or the “time lady” available in those days. Ellen listened for about 10 minutes and returned to her room where she mimicked what she had heard on the phone. She correctly understood the sequence of seconds, and when she came to “one fifty-nine and fifty-nine seconds” Ellen announced, “The time is 2 o’clock.” The mystery is that, during the 10 minutes she had listened, there was no change from one hour to the next, and no explanation as to how Ellen knew to change the hour at the 59-minute, 59-second point. She had obviously never seen a clock, and neither the concept of time elapsing nor the workings of a clock have ever been explained to her.

The perfect appreciation of passing time without reference to a clock is a skill reported fairly frequently in persons with savant syndrome. Dr. Down’s described one such 17-year-old patient in his original description of his ten cases in 1887. That lad was unable to use a clock in any conventional manner but could, nonetheless, tell time with perfect precision when tested on numerous occasions.

Time, like music, is a vital part of Ellen’s life now. Precisely at the right time each day she listens-regularly, obsessively and without fail-to her favorite television programs, just as Raymond Babbitt did in the movie Rain Man. Those programs include speeches, Spanish language broadcasts, football games, each game of the Oakland A’s baseball team, stock market reports and revival meetings.

Ellen has continued to grow and mature as a musician, expanding not only her repertoire of songs, but her repertoire of instruments as well. Vital to her progress has been the belief and support of her very loving family. Ellen demonstrates convincingly that music, or any other special skill, can be used as a ‘conduit’ toward increased socialization and better language acquisition, all without any trade-off of her remarkable skills. The wedding of her fascination with rhythm to her spectacular sense of time suggests some clear connection between those two traits. Surely the two must be connected for music may be, as some have suggested, like time itself, “unconscious counting.”

In about 1994 Ellen and some of her friends formed a Rock and Roll band — The Diremakers. The band played locally and had played at the California State Fair on a number of occasions. With the band involvement, Ellen became “quite the social butterfly,” according to her sister, and was much more verbal. That social and language progression has continued. She increasingly enjoys being with people and especially loves to have visitors come to the home. Now instead of retreating into seclusion behind her closed bedroom door as she once did, she readily extends her hands to meet the welcome guests.

Ellen continues to play daily with The Diremakers, for which she is the main soloist. Ellen has done solo performances at the Ronald Reagan Library in Los Angeles, and has played with the band for a number of statewide appearances. Ellen continues to become more sociable, more outgoing and more independent. Each summer Ellen goes to the foothills above Sacramento for a week to a summer camp for the blind where she plays a nine-foot concert grand Steinway for Talent Night each year. Her sister sums it up this way: “Ellen is a busy and happy young lady, pleased with her life, just the way it is.”

The Sacramento Bee article sums it up this way: “She loves music. No, that doesn’t capture Ellen’s total absorption of sound. She sucks in notes like particles of oxygen. She instantly processes melodies and complex rhythms, intonations and lyrics. She can hear a song once on the radio, store it in her vast database, and recall it years later. Play it with absolute fidelity and technical precision.”

She’s a person of unfathomable depth. She’s a daughter, and a sister. She’s a valued friend and bandmate. Truly, at heart, behind that angelic demeanor, that sublime smile, what she really is is a raging rock star.”

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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