Rex Lewis-Clack was born with an array of problems so extreme it looked as though he might never walk, talk, or do much of anything. And yet he has a talent the rest of us can only dream of.
Rex is blind; he can’t tie his shoes, or dress himself, or even carry on a basic conversation. But with all the things Rex can’t do, he can do this: Play any note on the piano and Rex can tell you what it is. “F sharp, D flat, F, C sharp,” he says, exhibiting a talent only one in 10,000 people have.
But it isn’t just Rex’s ability to recognize notes that’s extraordinary. His piano teacher, David Mehnert, is teaching him a piece, a Schubert Impromptu, and he’s hearing it now for the first time. Right after, he’s able to play the piece, but he isn’t reading music. He can’t even see the keys.
Rex is a musical savant, one of a handful of people in the world who share a mysterious combination of blindness, mental disability, and exceptional musical talent. But away from the piano, the difference in Rex is striking. He needs an aide to accompany him in his second-grade special education class, where understanding even simple concepts is a problem. “What shape do you think that is? Is it a triangle or a square?” asks his teacher. “A circle,” says Rex. “No, we just did the circle,” says his teacher.
Rex was born with a huge cyst in his brain, and at four months, doctors discovered he was blind. Over the next few years, the news got worse. Rex didn’t learn to walk, or talk, or eat solid food, and he developed autistic-like symptoms – including hypersensitivity in his hands.
It seemed that there was little hope for Rex, until an unexpected breakthrough – a keyboard Rex’s father gave him for his second birthday. “It was like he was being transported into another world. He started hitting it at first. And within two minutes he was actually laying his hands on the piano and holding them there,” recalls Cathleen. “And he was just, like, fascinated. You could see it in his face.”
Mehnert (Rex’s music teacher) thinks: “He’s not just as musical as I am. He’s 100 times more musical than I am … He’s more musical than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”