18-year-old Matthew Whitaker from New Jersey was born without sight. In fact, he was born prematurely and was given less than 50 per cent chance of survival.
Yet, as a toddler, he was drawn to the keyboard and soon started playing nursery rhymes. In an interview with CBS News, his father, Moses Whitaker said, “….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.”
Today, Moses continues to be proud of his son’s positive outlook on life – “he believes that everybody walks around with a smile on their face,” he told The Daily Mail in 2018.
His big break came when he performed at the Apollo Theater at the age of 10, as the opening act for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame.
Matthew soon performed in other prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center in the United States. In 2017, he released his first album, Outta the Box, performed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and won first place on Fox’s Showtime at the Apollo. He has also toured around Europe, the Middle East and Asia and even compared to Stevie Wonder.
Now, his extraordinary talent has caught the attention of Dr. Charles Limb!
According to CBS News, Dr Limb is a surgeon and neuroscientist who uses MRI brain scans to better understand how exceptionally creative people do what they do. Being a musician himself, he often wondered how Matthew plays the piano the way he does and decided to actually find the answer!
Jokes aside, Dr Limb wanted to study Whitaker’s brain as to why he has an exceptional talent for improvising. Although Whitaker’s parents were initially reluctant, they eventually agreed as many other artists have participated in the study.
At the MRI facility in the University of California, San Francisco, Whitaker was placed in a scanner with a mini keyboard on his lap. Basically, the MRI scanner records Whitaker’s brain activity as he plays a melody. Matthew also went through other auditory tests.
As reported in CBS News, Dr Limb explained the series of tests undertaken -“So we started out not by looking at music but by looking at somebody like this who would give a lecture that most people would consider to be a little bit boring….. interestingly because he is blind we looked at his visual cortex. And we didn’t see any significant activity there at all.”
“And then we switched the soundtrack for him. And we put on a band that he knows quite well, Snarky Puppy,” Limb said. “This is what changes in his brain.”
In simple terms, the visual part of Whitaker’s brain is helping him to see and somehow rewire itself to help him hear the music.
Matthew was equally surprised to learn that his entire brain is stimulated by music. To him, it only confirms one thing – his love for music.
Despite the arduous task of learning music in Braille, Matthew continues to mesmerise his audience by playing various genres of music from the classics to Beyonce, improvising any song on the spot to make it his own.
According to a critic, his latest album, Now Hear This, sounds like he is playing with six hands!
Keep on shining, Matthew!
Watch a clip of Matthew’s rendition of Bruno Mars hit, Just The Way You Are:
*Featured image sourced from CBS News