What's the story behind the Savant Academy?In December 2000, David Mehnert met a five-year-old blind boy with multiple disabilities living in his apartment building. Impressed by Rex Lewis Clack's innate musicality and by his ability to play and sing along with songs on a small electronic keyboard (which he had played since the age of two), Mehnert began teaching Rex in close collaboration with his mother, Cathleen Lewis. Several months later, Lynn Marzulli, another musician, began teaching Rex as well.
It took nearly a year of lessons before Rex was willing to use his thumbs at the keyboard, and months more before Rex was coaxed to play two- and three-note chords in his left hand. But to everyone's surprise, Rex began to have a series of astonishing musical breakthroughs in early 2002. Mehnert diagnosed Rex as a savant in September 2002, and confirmed the diagnosis with experts later in the year. (Mehnert taught Rex until April 2004.)
Although savants have been noted in the medical literature for generations, there has never before been a clearinghouse for practical advice and information on how to teach and guide such talents, particularly in very young people. Savant Academy was born out of that need. Nominated by a music therapist for a Volvo for Life Award in late 2002, Mehnert used the $10,000 money to found the Savant Academy, the first non-profit of its kind in the USA. (The Volvo award attracted the attention of CBS News 60 Minutes, which broadcast its first feature on Rex Lewis Clack on September 28, 2003.)
In 2003, in collaboration with Dr. Darold Treffert, Mehnert announced the discovery of three prodigious musical savants in Southern California with blindness due to Optic Nerve Hypoplasia. By July 2004, another three prodigious musical savants with ONH had been discovered, with more than a dozen others with ONH showing 'splinter' musical savant skills. Before the announcement, savant syndrome had never before been associated with ONH blindness.
On TeachingDavid Mehnert
To see a savant talent 'wake up' is a rare privilege. The first time it happened I thought it might be a fluke. When a second student began to show such breakthroughs (see her picture on this page), I knew I was on to something. I currently teach keyboard and piano to a dozen special needs musicians, ranging from 4 to 20 years of age, in the Los Angeles area.
My best success is with early musical intervention. Whatever the overall cognitive and physical limitations are, I attempt to channel the musical interest toward a productive, healthy outlet. My students have a wide variety of diagnoses: Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH), autism with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), chorioretinal degeneration with microcephaly, high functioning autism, Asperger's Syndrome, etc. Each of my students poses different challenges. What they all share, however, is a strong motivation toward music and sound.
About David MehnertDavid Mehnert grew up in Kansas City. He began playing classical piano at age four, taking lessons from William Miller of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. As an undergraduate, Mehnert was music director of the Princeton Nassoons, and later studied jazz with the American composer Chris Culpo. Until meeting Rex and other musical savants, Mehnert had never before taught piano.
Mehnert is a 1983 graduate of Shawnee Mission North High School, a 1987 graduate of Princeton University, and a 1989 graduate of Oxford University (from which he received a Masters of Studies in Modern History as a Rhodes Scholar).
Read more about David Mehnert's work with savants in the Johnson County Sun and on the Volvo for Life Awards website.