If he hears a song, blind man with savant syndrome can play it on piano
The fingers of pianist Steven Snare work together, smoothing over the keys with a graceful intensity, the next note, next chord, instantaneously relayed from his mind through the keys.
Snare rocks back and forth on the piano’s stool, shifting his weight while moving his hands to the right notes. He tilts his head back as if to hear the sound from a different angle, but it’s perfect, and he knows it. Even though he can’t see the keyboard he so adeptly commands. Even though his mind struggles to process many other things as exceptionally as it absorbs music.
Snare is 58 years old, has been blind all of his life and suffers a form of mental disability. In addition he has what’s commonly known as savant syndrome, a rare condition in which people with mental disorders have areas of extraordinary ability and expertise. The brilliance of his music-playing contrasts with his physical and mental limitations.
People with savant syndrome have the ability to remember and process information in ways others don’t. In Snare’s case, he can hear a song once and play it back note for note on the piano.
“We really don’t know much about it,” Shaun Sowle, a mental health expert at the Center for Mental Health in Montrose, said about people with savant syndrome.
Sowle said people with savant syndrome can display extraordinary ability in areas such as math and music. The knowledge they possess cannot be calculated, and it is unknown how people with savant syndrome can remember and memorize vast amounts of information.
“It’s parts of the brain that are working well and parts that are not working well, but these individuals have incredible memory,” Sowle said. “Music and math are pretty much the same part of the brain, and music is kind of like a math formula.”
Snare cannot remember the first time he played his father’s upright piano in his childhood home near Florissant. But following that introduction, he transformed himself into a masterful musician, despite never receiving any formal piano lessons.
With sight gone, he has sharpened his reliance on his hearing, and his mind renders melodies in major and minor scales, in the process rarely missing a note.
“It’s more like notes and chords are the same thing, so that’s about what it is, melodies are all the same,” Snare said.
“He plays by ear on key every time,” said Pamela Farelli, coordinator of Community Options, a social service organization in Montrose.
Snare moved from Florissant to Grand Junction years ago but decided facilities in Montrose were the best fit for him after a transfer from the Grand Junction facility to Community Options. Farelli said Snare does not need the use of a cane or seeing-eye dog in areas that are familiar to him.
Farelli said Snare practices several hours each day in his apartment, which is provided to him by Community Options. Farelli said he often stops a song and starts over when he makes a mistake. This repetition has allowed him to perfect his large catalog of songs, which range from classical to folk to swing to dabbling in the blues.
Besides piano, Snare is learning to play the accordion and guitar.
“This is the first time ever he has taken guitar lessons,” Farelli said, adding Snare is handling it much like the piano, where he hears a song once and can play it.
In addition to his music Snare enjoys listening to audio books and television, and of course, music, which is how he learns the songs he plays. He also enjoys going to church and singing hymns.
“He really likes that, and he has a great voice,” Farelli said.
Farelli said Snare also enjoys riding a bike, but only if someone jogs next to him, guiding his direction.
Snare plays the piano for others to enjoy on weekends. Community Options employee Bruce Steenberg drives Snare to the San Juan Living Center on Saturdays and Valley Manor Care Center on Sundays to perform for elderly residents.
Steenberg guides Snare by the arm and sits with him as he plays. Steenberg and Farelli say Snare likes to take requests when he plays, and he can play any song asked of him.
Steenberg said Snare especially loves to play classic swing and dance tunes.
The sound he produced Sunday filled the dining hall where some 20–30 residents at Valley Manor Care Center gathered. The audience members watched or tapped their feet while Snare played. Because it was the Fourth of July weekend, Snare performed a number of patriotic tunes, stopping in between songs enough to gather applause from his fans.
He began with “Glory Hallelujah” and went on to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Yankee Doodle,” then “God Bless America,” completing each song while experiencing only slight nervousness, he said.
He played about 30 minutes that day and did not take requests, but he left a patriotic high hanging in the air.
“I feel the best when they (clap), because they enjoy it a lot,” Snare said.