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Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois Excerpt from Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois

by Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix

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Chapter One

Prairie Roots and Wonder Shows

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon.
--Thomas Hardy, 'Heredity'

On a spring day in 1989, a small group gathered in Performance Room 3E of the Berklee College of Music in Boston for an unusual audition. A fifteen-year-old pianist named Tony DeBlois had made a big impression on a Berklee adjudicating committee during a recent high school jazz festival. The judges had not met Tony personally, but they had heard him play as a member of the Rivers School of Music jazz ensemble at the festival. During that performance, the stage was set up in such a way that Tony's back was to the judges; all they knew was that he played with a well-developed jazz vocabulary and outstanding musicianship.

Based on that performance, Tony was awarded a Certificate of Musicianship and a five-hundred-dollar scholarship to Berklee's five-week summer high school performance program, which gave young musicians a chance to work with some of the world's best artists and teachers. Tony had been awarded a Certificate of Musicianship at the previous year's festival, too, but the scholarship was an exciting new opportunity. In a letter from Berklee admissions director Steve Lipman, Janice DeBlois learned that the scholarship was slated for sixteen-year-old students in the last year of high school. Janice called Lipman to ask him what Berklee could do to help Tony utilize the scholarship in spite of his age and other considerations. Tony, she explained, was blind and autistic, and they would need to discuss how to help him participate in the summer program. Lipman arranged an audition, at which time key members of Berklee could hear Tony play and observe what kind of impact his disabilities might have in the classroom.

Janice arrived with Tony at the audition and took him directly to the piano. The members of the committee stood around the piano, anxious to hear him play. Gathered for this audition with Lipman were Rob Rose, director of Berklee's special programs; Dave Weigert, chairman of the piano department; Paul Schmeling, of the piano faculty; Bob Doezema, guitarist/composer and assistant director of the summer program; and famed saxophonist-turned-educator John LaPorta, one of the legends of the school.

They had all sat in this space countless times before, listening to hopeful young musicians from all over the world. Berklee, the planet's top college of contemporary music since its founding in 1945, boasts an alumni list that is a veritable who's who of jazz, rock, electronic music, and other genres, and students know that getting accepted means they'll get the best training available in their field. Berklee alumni include composer/producer Quincy Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, film composer Alan Silvestri, guitarist Al Di Meola, modern big band leader/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Bill Evans, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, members of Aerosmith, and many others.

Tony started the audition with a short classical sonatina, then moved on to one of his favorites, George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," complete with his improvised insertion of the Flintstones theme, which revealed his clever and original approach to the piece. Those brief moments were a revelation. The committee realized that they had a formidable talent on their hands, a rare, special boy whose playing contrasted sharply with the rest of his behavior. When the committee members asked Tony and Janice to sit with them for a chat, they observed that some of his unusual traits could pose a problem at the school. Tony was restless for a teenager; he rocked back and forth in his chair, seemed unaware of the conversation going on around him, and interrupted the conversation with outbursts of "Let's play, let's play." He appeared to be in his own world, and no one in the group had ever met a young man like him before. Tony's blindness would prevent him from taking traditional sight-reading classes, and it also raised questions in the committee's mind about how he could learn music (did he read Braille music?) and study music theory.

"He was a little hard to control, he couldn't stay focused, and he would just blurt out things," said Rob Rose. "It was obvious that he had skill on the piano, but it was also obvious that he was going to be disruptive in the classroom. There was a lot of potential there in terms of the music, but what do you do with it, we wondered?"

Even though Rose and the rest of the Berklee committee had no idea how Tony would do with the other students or how he would act in a classroom situation, they were unanimously convinced that he deserved a chance to use his scholarship. Rose immediately called special meetings to build a program and handpick the best teachers for Tony. From the start, Berklee president Lee Berk (after whom the school was named) was personally involved in helping Tony get the most out of the program. John LaPorta, who had been so moved by Tony at the audition that he went to his studio to write a piece for him, an instrumental called "Tony's Song," was selected as one of Tony's teachers. In the coming months and years, LaPorta would become one of the most important mentors in Tony's life. Rose also selected Suzanna Sifter, a brand-new piano teacher at Berklee who was finishing her master's degree at the New England Conservatory, as one of Tony's instructors.

Tony was scheduled to take ear training, theory, keyboard labs, instrumental labs, and private lessons, just like the other students. An assistant was assigned to help Tony get to his classes and to tape-record his classroom sessions so Tony could work on the material at home with his mother.

In the first few days, Tony still had the outbursts, rocking, and inattentiveness that he had displayed at the audition. But Rose and the teachers stuck by Tony patiently, eager to see if mainstreaming him into the regular student group would have an effect. "People were sort of figuring the whole autism thing out back then," said Rose. "Even the experts weren't that expert at that time. We all thought . . . if we mainstream him, we're going to find out a whole lot of information." Putting Tony in the program was an experiment on everyone's part, and no one could predict how he would deal with the new setting, new people, and new musical challenges.

Tony surprised everyone. The difference in his piano performance at the end of the five-week session was dramatic. His interactions with outstanding young musicians in the jazz ensembles brought his playing up to a new level, revealing his ability to match the skills of those around him. Tony's technique, such as his hand position and his posture at the piano, also improved significantly. He showed his theory teacher that he understood major concepts from his theory class, such as the difference between the blues, which is a 12-measure, I-IV-V chord progression style, and a standard song, which is a 32-bar form with another particular chord structure. Like his classmates, Tony could identify the style of a piece and tell his teacher what it was.

Janice, Rob Rose, and everyone involved were thrilled with Tony's musical development, but they were even more excited about another set of changes. In just over a month, Tony had transformed from an asocial and barely speaking child to one who listened, comprehended, and responded to others. He had memorized the sounds of everyone's voice -- and their footsteps -- so that when someone entered the room and asked, "Hey, Tony, how are you?" he would stop what he was doing and ask, "Hi, Rob, how are you?" Rather than randomly bursting out with a word or two, Tony now listened, reacted, and put complete sentences together. "We were most happy that he was now able to function more as a person; that was the thing that was sort of shocking to everybody," said Rose. "Nobody knew what to expect because all the information we had from the experts said that this kind of thing doesn't happen."

Janice had never dreamed that Tony could improve his communication skills so dramatically in such a short time. Like the teachers and administrators at Berklee, she was willing to give Tony a chance at being mainstreamed, but, also like them, she had no idea that it would have such a speedy, profound effect. Suddenly, Tony was more here, more awake, more in the world. It was a miracle, and it was just the beginning.

Copyright 2005 Janice DeBlois

Reprinted from: Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois by Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix 2005 Janice DeBlois. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

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