Since birth, Matthew Savage has marched to his own beat — but his parents never suspected where that would lead.
Now 9 years old, Matthew is an acclaimed jazz pianist who plays to sold-out crowds alongside veterans of the Boston area jazz scene.
What makes Matthew's success even more remarkable is that he is diagnosed with a form of autism — a condition that often forces a child into a world of his own, prone to traumas and an inability to communicate. Along with autism can also come a precocious ability to remember and to mimic things repetitively.
But Matthew also improvizes with extraordinary creativity in the classic tradition of jazz, and he has schooled himself intensively in the history of his musical heroes, including Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.
When Music Was Painful
Ironically, in his earlier years Matthew couldn't stand the sound of music. The mere presence of it would send it him into a tantrum, a characteristic trait of autism. So the Savages sent Matthew to what is called auditory integration therapy, a technique used with many autistic children to desensitize their reactions to certain sound frequencies.
His parents devoted countless hours of therapy for Matthew — speech therapy, emotional therapy and teaching him to deal with the unexpected.
Matthew began to respond.
"All of a sudden the environment is sending him signals that he's hearing and seeing and smelling and understanding," says Matthew's dad, Larry. So we were breaking into his world, into his shell."
"And he was coming into ours," says his mother, Diane.
His parents believe that part of Matthew's talent stems from a condition that accompanies his autism called hyperlexia — an intense fixation on words and numbers that contributed to his ability to memorize books and, very quickly, read music. He began playing with a toy piano when he was about 6 1/2. His mother helped him transfer the information to the real piano, and an unexpected career took off from there.
Matthew has three CD's under a label that was formed by his parents to raise money for autism research.
Though his talent is a remarkable mystery, particularly for a 9-year-old, his experience with music is as simple and profound as it is for all musicians.
"I feel happy," he said. "I feel really involved in the music. I feel like I'm hanging on to the music.