Matthew Whitaker has been performing recitals around the world since he was 11 years old

By Joelle Goldstein
February 24, 2020 08:02 PM
Matthew Whitaker
Matthew Whitaker/Instagram

A blind jazz piano prodigy is taking the world by storm — so much so that scientists are studying his brain to figure out how he’s able to master those talents.

Matthew Whitaker was born prematurely and with many health issues, but that hasn’t stopped the 18-year-old from making a name for himself and pursuing his dreams as a world-traveling pianist, according to CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Since he was 11 years old, Matthew has been performing jazz piano recitals, appearing in more than 200 clubs and concert halls globally, the outlet reported.

Last spring, the Hackensack, New Jersey teen appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Festival for the very first time, and now he’s involved in a new venture: helping Dr. Charles Limb with a study aimed at better understanding how exceptionally talented musicians’ brains work.

“I think anytime somebody watches Matthew play piano the first thing that you think is, ‘How does he do that?'” Limb told 60 Minutes. “Except rather than just wondering I’m actually trying to answer the question.”

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Though he’s incredibly successful today, Matthew’s journey to becoming a piano prodigy wasn’t always easy.

When Matthew was born at 24 weeks, doctors told his parents Moses and May Whitaker that their new baby — who weighed 1 pound and 11 ounces — had less than a 50 percent chance of survival, 60 Minutes reported.

Among the many complications that he was suffering was retinopathy of prematurity, a disease caused by abnormal development of retinal blood vessels in premature babies that could lead to blindness, according to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.

“I think at the time, I didn’t think he was gonna make it,” May told 60 Minutes. “So it was, you know, just very scary.”

In an effort to retain his vision, Matthew underwent 11 surgeries over the course of two years. By the end of the second year, Moses and May decided to stop with the procedures because “we just felt like he was going through too much” and “the doctors weren’t seeing it was getting any better.”

But doctors warned that with the loss of Matthew’s eyesight, he may never speak, walk or crawl, according to 60 Minutes.

“Most kids learn to crawl, they learn to walk because they want to try to get to something,” Moses explained. “Well, Matthew couldn’t see to get to anything. So a lot of his toys and stuff, we had to have sounds, so that he would want to crawl [and] want to reach those things.”

Matthew Whitaker
Matthew Whitaker/Instagram

As it turned out, music was the very thing that got Matthew moving, with him crawling toward speakers as an infant to feel the music. By the time he was 3, Matthew was showing off his musical talents with a keyboard that his grandfather gifted him, according to the outlet.

“They were nursery rhymes more so than anything,” Moses said on 60 Minutes. “So they weren’t that complicated. But what he was doing was complicated. Because most kids don’t play with both hands. And they don’t play chords and the harmonies and all of that. And Matt was doing that.”

With a very clear sign of their son’s talent in front of them, the Whitakers decided to hire a piano teacher for Matthew.

And once he started working with Dalia Sakas, the director of music studies at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School in New York City, Matthew’s talents began to flourish.

Though Sakas told 60 Minutes it is “insane” how Matthew can listen to a piece of music once and then recite it, she also admitted that it was a bit frightening to play such an influential role in the musician’s life.

“It was scary more than exhausting,” Sakas explained to the outlet. “Because you didn’t want to blow it. Because you have someone of this talent, of this creativity, this enthusiasm. You don’t want to squelch that. You don’t want to mess up. He’s obviously, you know, got something to offer to the world and so you want to make that possible.”

Under Sakas’ leadership and guidance, Matthew was performing around the world when his story intrigued Limb, a surgeon and neuroscientist with a musical background.

Limb specializes in studying MRI brain scans to better understand how exceptionally creative people’s brains work and in Matthew’s case, was curious to know why his brain seems to work better when improvising tunes, according to 60 Minutes.

After some hesitation from the Whitakers, Matthew’s parents agreed to let the young pianist participate in Limb’s study.

The teen underwent an MRI at the University of California, San Francisco with a mini keyboard on his lap and performed a series of auditory tests, the outlet reported.

One of those studied how Matthew’s brain levels responded when he played the keyboard, while the other observed his brain levels as he was listening to music in comparison to listening to a “boring” lecture — and the results were astonishing.

“Because he is blind we looked at his visual cortex. And we didn’t see any significant activity there at all,” Limb explained to the outlet of the scans while Matthew was listening to the lecture. “Then we switched the soundtrack for him and we put on a band that he knows quite well. … This is what changes in his brain.”

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“Pretty remarkable. His entire brain is stimulated by music,” Limb continued. “His visual cortex is activated throughout. It seems like his brain is taking that part of the tissue that’s not being stimulated by sight and using it or maybe helping him to perceive music with it.”

“It’s sort of borrowing that part of the brain and rewiring it to help him hear music,” Limb added.

While it’s certainly interesting, Matthew said the results reflect what he’s known all along.

“I love music,” he told 60 Minutes.

Matthew is scheduled to open for Gregory Porter’s All Rise tour in Germany from March 2 to 16, according to his Instagram. He also has a number of tour dates scheduled in the U.S. through May, his website states.

His latest album Now Hear This is available now.

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