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Matt Savage: A 14-year-old Marvelous Musician

Matt Savage is an 13-year-old musical genius. Who better to describe his remarkable story than his mother, Diane Savage, who was kind enough to provide this profile of her son, in her own words. – Darold Treffert, MD

Matt Savage was born 14 years ago. He was diagnosed with PDD at the age of 3.

Matt is a professional jazz pianist with his own Trio. His sidemen are world-class, adult musicians. He performs concerts and plays at jazz festivals all over the US and Canada. He has recorded three audio CDs, the proceeds of which are donated to autism research and support. He has been called “amazing” by jazz legend Dave Brubeck, and been touted as the “Mozart of jazz.” He is changing the face of jazz and has earned the respect of the greatest jazz musicians. He has an understanding of the theory and complexities of jazz, knowledge that sometimes never comes to adult musicians who have studied music all their lives. He is a musical savant.

Matt was always different from other children, even from birth. He was very jumpy, never slept, and was very fussy. He would line up toys and do things repetitively. He had mandatory rituals. He walked (actually, ran) on his tiptoes, turned his head sideways, and waved his arms. Our son would not play with other children. He’d run away from any interactive experience. Every outing ended in a tantrum. What misled us was the fact that Matt had an extensive vocabulary (because he was echolalic), he was reading everything in sight (because he was hyperlexic), and he was highly intelligent. We thought his hyperactivity and distraction was due to his constant curiosity about how things worked. Matt was extremely sensory defensive. He was also tactile defensive and highly perseverative. His saving graces were his hyperlexia and extreme intelligence.

When Matt was evaluated, we were told he had PDD, possibly Asperger’s, with hyperlexia. The hyperlexia part of the diagnosis was conveyed as almost an aside. I mentioned to the doctor at the time that Matt’s fixation on letters and numbers and reading was 90% of who he was at the time, not just a small piece. The doctor replied that hyperlexia was merely a term used to indicate a particular kind of obsession, not a diagnosis by itself.

Through the years, we gave Matt most of the treatments recommended by the D.A.N. (Defeat Autism Now) Protocol. We saw more and more improvement in his skills. The more he was able to communicate his feelings, the more his frustration diminished… and the less frustrated he was, the less autistic he appeared.

We gave Matt intensive therapy in every respect. But the one thing that made his progress so dramatic was the fact that he had hyperlexia.

We used his obsession with words and visuals to teach him things, even things he did not want to learn. If something was written on paper, his personality just MADE him read the words. He might throw a tantrum or throw away the paper after having read it; however, we would give him the paper again and again. And each time, he couldn’t help himself. He HAD to read it. We were able to reach him with written word when spoken word would not have been processed. Hyperlexia is a blessing, not a disability. It is a tool. It allows you to reach the child within.

There are still difficulties with which Matt copes. He still performs inappropriate behaviors and regresses in new situations. He still fixates on a particular task and has difficulty “breaking away” to attend to another task. He still interprets the world in a concrete manner and sometimes misinterprets spoken word. And he often doesn’t notice when someone is speaking to him. But he has and is making remarkable progress. We focus on how many things he has been able to accomplish, not on the things with which he struggles. After all, how many 14-year-olds can compose music, lead a jazz Trio, announce his songs and perform in front of hundreds of people? And he loves it. He says he wants to be really famous. He already is!

To learn more about Matt and hear some of his music, go to his website at: http://www.savagerecords.com/

– Diane Savage
Update: August 29, 2009

Matt is off to college

Hard to believe, since I met him when he was only 12 years old, that Matt Savage is off to college. He will be starting his freshman year at Berklee College of Music in Boston this month.  His reputation as a jazz musician continues to escalate worldwide.  You can see and hear him solo or with the Matt Savage Trio on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/mattsavagejazz. Matt again this summer attended the Stanford (University) Jazz Residency in California and is looking forward to his college years.  He will be the second musical savant to attend Berklee.  Tony DeBlois graduated from Berklee magna cum-laude several years ago.
Update: January 1, 2008

Matt Savage on NPR

Matt Savage recently appeared on National Public Radio’s Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program.  It can be accessed at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17458931. There are two 27-minute segments that provide a marvelous insight into Matt’s present life—in his own words—and an equally pleasant chance to hear his outstanding artistry—in his own notes.  He plays some tunes from his new album—Quantum Leap—along with some duet pieces with Marian McPartland. Included are a pieces ranging from those he composed for his sister, to “Couch Potato Blues.” He also plays one of my favorites among the many pieces he has composed—”Serenity.” It is beautiful.

In the interview Matt also discusses his autism as he recalls it in his early years, and the success of the sensory integration therapy to deal with his early childhood aversion to sound.  Now sound is in many ways the center of his life. About his autism now Matt states, “Most of that is kind of over with. That was a long time ago.”

Matt is now 14. He sounds very grown up. So pleasant, so polite, so respectful, so talented, so happy.
Update: September 15, 2006

Quantum Leap

Matt Savage, who was featured on the CNN special on Genius on September 18, has just released his newest CD — Quantum Leap — for worldwide distribution. Matt, who Dave Brubeck refers to as the “Mozart of jazz,” composed all the pieces on the new CD, which features The Matt Savage Trio. You can read a review of Quantum Leap at www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:ge7zeflk5gfj~T00.

Matt also continues his cros- country tours. He will open for Wynton Marsalis in a solo performance in Philadelphia in October and then the Matt Savage Trio will have a trip to Los Angeles at the Jazz Bakery later that month.

There is an excellent article about Matt here on seacoastonline.com that gives some interesting details about his musical genius and other skills (calendar calculating, math and roller coasters). Also, there is a link on the site to listen to several pieces from his new album.

Update: August 2, 2006

Matt Savage: His New Website

Matt Savage has a newly designed website that makes some of his music, some videos and his upcoming concert schedule much more available along with an update on his many, many accomplishments and awards. Matt continues to amaze and astound worldwide. The website address is http://www.savagerecords.com/ .
Update: September 27, 2004

Matt Savage: A Marvelous Celebrating A-bilities Week

Each year the Appleton, Wisconsin community devotes an entire week to various activities highlighting A-bilities in persons with disabilities. This year the guest of honor and artist in residence was Matt Savage. He and his mother Diane spent 4 days in Appleton visiting various schools, culminating with Matt Savage in Concert at the Performing Arts Center on September 23, 2004.

It was quite a week. Matt and his mother met with elementary and high school students in two separate appearances at those schools. I had a chance to meet with some of the high school students, to talk about savant syndrome and special abilities in persons such as Matt, in the afternoon right after Matt had met with them in the morning. What enthusiasm and inspiration Matt had provided! The energized students were amazed at his abilities, and captured by his personality and ease with the audience. They particularly enjoyed the “audience challenge” portion of the presentation where Matt would instantly improvise a piano piece to any word or subject they might suggest like a color, or an animal, or a feeling, for example.

Matt carried out that same “audience participation” in the evening concert as well capturing instantly, musically, the meaning, tone and concept of whatever word was suggested. He served, magically almost, as his own M.C. at the concert, entirely at ease, comical at times, but eminently serious with his music. He played some pieces from his just released 6th CD — Cutting Loose — which was recorded with his bass player and drummer as the Matt Savage Trio. But on this night Matt played solo. He played a piece he composed for his sister’s birthday, and one dedicated to his grandpa. How he can get such mighty tones with his tiny hands is a mystery. Matt needs to literally stretch, or bend, or move on the piano bench to reach both ends of the concert grand, so much bigger than he. But he does. Impressive.

I had a chance to have lunch with Matt and his mother. He is as relaxed and engaging over lunch as he is on stage. I learned about some of his other abilities as well. He recognized Treffert as a palindrome, and proceeded to list a number of other palindromes and also told me about resources on palindromes where I could find, if I wished, the longest palindrome in the world. When told my birth date he paused for bit, silently calculating in his head, which day of the week that was-and of course he was right. It was a Sunday. I didn’t realize Matt was a world authority on roller coasters and could easily identify the longest, the highest, the fastest, the whatever. He seems to prefer to study them rather than ride them, however, but he has ridden several. Matt is very bright, articulate, well-rounded and engagingly pleasant. His mom, who home schools both Matt and his 9-year-old sister, is justifiably proud of Matt as well she should be. She has obviously done a great job as a Mom, and as a teacher. Matt and Diane both cherish their rural lifestyle in New Hampshire. We traded orchard and gardening notes, stories, hints, tips and pearls. We are both on a learning curve in that area of endeavor, but making some fulfilling progress. Nothing like fresh fruit and vegetables right out of the garden or orchard. Matt loves fruits and vegetables.

Through the years I have had the privilege of meeting a number of persons with savant abilities, including some prodigious savants which is still a relatively rare circumstance overall. But every now and then there explodes on the scene a new “rocket of talent” that showers us with the light of a uniquely spectacular ability in an already extraordinary condition. Matt Savage is such a rocket of talent, showering us with its light and we are its beneficiaries.

There are a number of questions about savant syndrome that continue to intrigue me even after 40 years of study. Matt answers some of those questions.

  1. Can savants be creative? Matt answers that question resoundingly. Indeed they can be. All you need to do is listen to his compositions and improvisations. On his most recent CD—his sixth—all the songs are his own creation.
  2. Can savant abilities help foster better socialization and other skills and actually help minimize other disability symptoms? Matt answers that question also with a resounding “Yes.” Such special abililties are a valuable tool in what I call a “conduit toward normalization.” It is amazing how far Matt has come from those early childhood days as captured on the 20/20 program about him some years ago. As a child he was repelled by loud sounds and music itself. What an incredible difference now in development overall. He is an extraordinarily gifted 12-year-old musician, and music has been such a vital contributor and component of his overall progress, growth and development.
  3. As the savant skills help in overall growth and development, and as that growth and development take place, do the special skills and gifts disappear? Here the answer, as Matt so convincingly demonstrates, is a resounding and reassuring “No.” Contrary to some early reports of other children with savant skills, with Matt there has been no dreaded trade-off or loss of special abilities for overall growth and development including language and socialization skills. Quite to the contrary, the special abilities continue to flourish and become an important part of who that person is, in addition to whatever special skill or ability he or she happens to have.
  4. How important are the family, teachers and others in discovering, nourishing and propelling such special skills and abilities along? Matt, and his Mom and Dad, provide a convincing answer to that question as well. Family, and others as well, are vital in discovering, and providing nurture to the marvelous hidden talents and abilities that nature has provided. The unconditional love, belief, support, pride, cheerleading, tolerance, and untiring patience that the family particularly can provide are vital ingredients in the emergence of these special abilities, and such families provide a brilliant and inspirational example to all of us about the hope, optimism, belief, faith, tolerance, patience and good old fashioned hard work required bring a miracle about. Certainly what Matt can do with his special skills is important to Matt’s Mom and Dad, but more important than that is who Matt is as a person. Examples such as Matt’s family provide a guiding light for all of us that in caring for persons with disabilities, we need to care about them as well.

The visit that Matt Savage and his mother Diane provided to the Appleton community was a perfect fit and centerpiece for the Celebrating A-bilities week. Hopefully other communities will consider holding such special events as well. Matt’s story, his spectacular ability, the loving care from his family who care about him so much, and the evidence of what a powerful and shaping force that can be, is indeed reason to celebrate. And it is a good example to emulate.

Matt and Diane’s visit is one that the Appleton community will long remember. And so will I.

— Darold A. Treffert, MD

Update: April 2004

Matt Savage Continues to Amaze

Matt Savage has yet another area of expertise — geography. On April 1, 2004 Matt won the National Geography Bee state competition for New Hampshire.  On May 25 and 26 Matt will represent that state in the national Geography Bee Finals in Washington, D.C.  That event will be hosted by Alex Trebek and will be broadcast live on the National Geographic Channel. Matt has demonstrated his prodigious musical ability as a jazz musician at many concerts and on television, and the WIRED magazine story in December, 2003 highlighted his mathematical abilities as well.  Now surfaces his geography skills. Presently Matt is home-schooled but at age 11 he is at an advanced algebra level and is able to teach math to third graders. Updated information about Matt, including his concert schedule for the Matt Savage Trio, can be accessed at his website at http://www.savagerecords.com/ . The home page on that site provides as well more information, some pictures, and newspaper story links regarding this more recently surfaced geography talent and skill.

Update: November 2003

Matt Savage: An Update from his Mother

Time Magazine’s current issue (November 17, 2003) contains an article about Matt’s debut at the Blue Note in New York, which happened the same week as classical pianist Lang Lang’s debut at Carnegie Hall.

Wired Magazine has written an exceptional article about Savants, focusing a great deal on Matt and his musical and mathematical abilities, for their December issue. The issue is due out next week.

Matt appeared on the cover of Time for Kids Magazine on October 10, 2003. Time for Kids is a magazine distributed in schools all across the country.

The Matt Savage Trio’s performance at the famed Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan went extremely well. You can read about our experiences and see a review of the concert by Gatsby Melodi from The Afro American Syndicate at: http://www.savagerecords.com/ .

Montel Williams has requested a repeat appearance by Matt on an upcoming show, which will be aired in the next few weeks. We will update the website as soon as we know the airing date.

And finally, Matt’s concert at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on December 6 will not be broadcast live by NPR. The concert will be recorded and broadcast several times during December on local NPR stations. The program is called “Piano Jazz Christmas.” Check your local NPR station for broadcast times.

Back to Savant Profiles

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