Video: Meet Brittany

By Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 8/8/2005 2:41:48 PM ET 2005-08-08T18:41:48

About 15 years ago, Tammy Maier, who was then five months pregnant, was rushed to the hospital for a potentially deadly liver disorder. She gave birth to her daughter four months early.

“She wasn’t bigger than my hand,” recalls Maier. “She was just tiny.”

Weighing just over a pound, Brittany Maier was just given only a 5 percent chance of survival. It was touch-and-go for months, but Brittany somehow hung on. But all of that oxygen in the ventilator that kept her alive had a price: It took her sight.

Brittany’s heartbroken father, Chuck Maier, who was then working on a factory assembly line,  remembers going to church to pray longer and harder than he had ever done before.

The news only got worse when her parents subsequently learned that Brittany was also severely retarded and autistic, which would drastically limit her ability to socialize and communicate.

“That was a tougher battle,” says Tammy Maier. “She wasn’t going to be married and have a boyfriend and go to the prom.”

Despite her disabilities, the Maiers noticed early on that music, more than anything else, seemed to soothe their daughter. In fact, it virtually wooed her to the family’s stereo system.

"When she heard music coming from the speakers, she wanted to get to where it was coming from," says Tammy Maier. "She wanted to touch it. She started learning how to crawl just to get to the music so that she could be as close to it as possible.”

Teaching herself how to play
But her daughter’s interest in music took a back seat to more pressing concerns — namely, trying to get Brittany to accomplish the most fundamental milestones, like learning to talk.  Then at age 5, a very curious thing happened: The girl who spoke no words started to sing.

While she didn’t understand the words that were sung, Brittany was trying to imitate the sounds, even attempting to mimic the vibrato of Barbara Streisand.

Recognizing that music might be a vital bridge to their daughter and a way to reach her like they’d never done before, the Maiers gave her a keyboard. She loved it.

“Just like a child might be pulling a little dog behind her or a wagon, Brittany pretty much took the keyboard everywhere she went,” says Chuck Maier.

She even brought it with her to the school for special needs that she was attending.

No one thought much of anything when at age 6, Brittany tapped out her first song — the familiar “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

But then a few days after that, her startled teacher urged the Maiers to come hear a new song Brittany had just taught herself to play. Brittany started tapping out the notes to Schubert’s "Ave Maria."

“It was a Christmas CD and we had been listening to it on the way to school,” recalls Chuck Maier.

“I think when you go from playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ to the ‘Ave Maria,’ God’s saying, ‘Have you been paying attention?’” says Tammy Maier.

Within a few months the young virtuoso had taught herself hundreds of songs. Just listening a handful of times was enough to commit music to memory.

But it wasn’t until Brittany turned 9 that the Maiers first heard the term “savant.”

Autistic-savant
“For some savants, it's as much of a force as it is a gift,” says Dr. Donald Treffert, who has met more than 30 savants during his years studying the condition. 

Treffert says all savants are mentally limited, yet possess one stunning talent, such as the mathematics savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman,” a film on which Treffert consulted.

“They do have some unique brain circuitry,” says Treffert. “There is a left hemisphere damage with a right brain compensation. The skills that you see in the savant are all right brain skills.”

Because of Brittany’s unique memory, she can play thousands of songs, even though she can’t do simple addition. Dr. Treffert describes a memory capacity that is deep but very narrow, and he speculates that high-level savants like Brittany come installed with "genetic or ancestral memory."

“We tend to think of ourselves when we’re born as having a tremendous piece of equipment called a brain and a blank disc. What we become is what we put on that blank disc from learning," explains Treffert. "But the prodigious savant comes with software attached. The musical template is there.”

It’s estimated there are only about 50 people like Brittany in the world — people known as "prodigious savants" because their abilities are as remarkable as their limitations. 

'Her world is music'
Over the years, Brittany has learned to talk a little, though it’s a struggle.

But she is conversant — her language of choice is music.

University of South Carolina music school professor Scott Price says he was 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,” says Price.

He said that her talent level when he met her, without any formal instruction, was amazing. Price has now been working with Brittany for five years.

His prize student does not just parrot what she hears. She embellishes and interprets. While he is working to improve Brittany’s technical skills — she plays with only six fingers — Price marvels at her perfect pitch and her amazing recall. Brittany plays by ear. She also has the capacity for composing original lyrical pieces.

“To find all of those qualities housed in one person ... we start listing names like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin,” says Price.

Brittany is nowhere near their level right now, of course, but she has released her first CD. And she and her mother have temporarily left South Carolina for New York. Tammy Maier says she hopes Brittany can further her musical training and have more opportunities to perform so she can inspire others.

Recently, Brittany got just such an opportunity. She was the featured entertainer at an interfaith prayer breakfast hosted by New York’s Governor George Pataki and his wife.

Playing for a big audience — or none at all — she is at heart a happy girl simply reveling in the music.

“Her world is music,” says Tammy. “That’s where she lives.”

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