Renowned musical savant Brittany Maier loves applause. And she knows exactly how to hit the applause button on the TransAcoustic device underneath her Yamaha baby grand piano. When she hears the recorded applause, she smiles broadly and says, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” It’s almost as good as real applause, but not quite.
“Applause is necessary in her world,” says Tammy Maier-Scher. “Many things can go wrong, and she’ll tolerate it, but if the applause button isn’t working on the piano, she’ll let me know immediately. She’ll just say, ‘Fix my piano, please.’ She cannot adjust it because she can’t see the settings.” Blind from birth, Brittany just celebrated her 30th birthday. Born nearly four months early, she was in the hospital for six months and was released on her mother’s 20th birthday. Weighing just 1 pound, 5.8 ounces at birth, Brittany’s arm was so tiny that her father, Chuck Maier, could put his wedding ring around it. Brittany was diagnosed with intellectual disability and autism, but her parents would later learn that she was also extremely gifted.
“I was too young to know to be frightened,” Tammy says. “They told us she had a 5 percent chance to live. Seeing her for the first time was beyond explanation. I couldn’t imagine that she was alive because she was so tiny and her skin was translucent.”
The music room housing the Yamaha baby grand is located at the front of a new home that Brittany shares with her mother and stepfather, Kenny Scher. The trio recently moved from New York City to Chapin to be closer to family. Brittany’s father, Chuck Maier, lives in Newberry. Her grandmother, Kitt Weiss, and her younger sister, Charlie, also live nearby. Coming back home to South Carolina gives Brittany and Tammy a break from the 20 to 50 annual performances that Brittany kept in New York for the past 13 years. Plus, Brittany has expressed a desire to perform in South Carolina.
Even as a toddler, Brittany showed an affinity for music. When she was 9 years old, Wisconsin psychiatrist Dr. Darold Treffert identified Brittany as a rare prodigious savant, someone whose gifts and abilities compensate for the limits of her disabilities. Dr. Treffert is noteworthy for serving as the primary scientific consultant on the movie Rainman, which is about the relationship between a savant and his younger brother. He is the author of the books Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome and Islands of Genius.
“I always view Brittany as this gift from God who was sent for everyone to enjoy,” says Tammy. “She is clearly bringing a message: the power of God, miracles, and everything that surrounds that.”
Sitting in a cushy office chair behind a digital keyboard, with four different DVD players and a stack of iPods perched on top, Brittany cannot easily be coaxed to take a seat on the bench at the baby grand piano. With some 30,000 songs at her disposal, she is listening to her current favorite band, A-ha, and does not wish to be bothered. Brittany is drawn to music from the 1980s, possibly because her parents went to high school in that decade.
But her mother and grandmother know how to get Brittany to switch pianos. Tammy and Kitt approach the baby grand and play “Chopsticks.” Brittany knows they are teasing her. She grins and turns off her DVD players, then hops on the piano bench. This piano, donated by community members when Brittany was 11 years old, also has the capacity to record songs.
Yamaha dealer Dan Hanfland put Tammy and Chuck in touch with Dr. Scott Price at the University of South Carolina about 20 years ago, an act of kindness that would change Brittany’s life. Scott is a professor of piano pedagogy and the director of Carolina LifeSong Initiative, which provides musical instruction for students with special needs. He teaches college undergraduate and graduate piano majors and, for the past decade, has offered a course on how to teach music to special learners. He continues to teach young students with special needs. Many, like Brittany, are on the autism spectrum or have a visual impairment; others have Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or a hearing impairment. Brittany was his first special needs student.
“One of the things I remember most about Scott,” Tammy says, “is that he said, ‘I’ve never taught anyone who’s blind before, and I’ve never taught someone who’s had a disability. But I’m willing to give it a try.’ When one person has the mindset to make an opportunity for someone with special needs, look at where it can go. Look at how much impact just one person can make. When I last saw him, he was teaching about a dozen special needs students.”
When Brittany first began studying with Scott, she primarily used only two fingers to play the piano. Now she uses six. Raising her fifth fingers, or pinkies, in the air, she drops her thumbs in front of the keys. Scott explains, “Anchoring the thumbs on the fallboard of the piano may be done so that she can measure distance between keys. That’s a strategy that can be used by a pianist who has a visual impairment.”
Despite playing with just three fingers on each hand, Brittany employs a full range of motion on the keyboard. When she nudges Tammy and Kitt out of the way at her baby grand, she gets ready to play a game Scott taught her, “My Turn, Your Turn.” Listening to a random pattern of five notes on the piano, Brittany uses her perfect pitch to repeat the pattern exactly. Then she improvises a serene tune based upon it, playing for more than a minute and ending with a slow C-major arpeggio that lands on the very last note of the piano. Tammy and Kitt always clap. Real-life applause. Brittany is happy.
According to Scott, “The piano lessons that Brittany had were basically showing her how to better use her fingers to express what was already in her aural vocabulary. We did a lot of technical work, equating those patterns in her mind with the keyboard patterns she would need to reproduce the sounds.”
He also tried to expose Brittany to different genres of music to help her develop her ability to improvise.
Tammy and Chuck’s younger daughter, Charlie, was also born prematurely two years after Brittany, but doctors were able to prevent complications by giving Tammy steroids prior to Charlie’s arrival. A photographer with an English degree from Suffolk University in Boston, Charlie is planning a June wedding and has moved into her childhood home in Irmo.
Even with Brittany’s limited ability to communicate, Tammy says the sisters have always had a close relationship. Over the years, Charlie has taken turns with both Tammy and Kitt to manage Brittany’s musical career, which began in 2005 when an organization in New York made an offer that seemed too good to be true. Family Residences and Essential Enterprises Inc. reached out to help Brittany reach her full potential, offering housing in New York as well as a job opportunity for Tammy.
Tammy and Chuck had separated by then, so they decided that Charlie would stay with Chuck and Tammy would take Brittany to New York to see what FREE could offer. Within 24 hours of their arrival, Tammy received a phone call from the show Dateline NBC. Through public relations efforts, NBC and the other main television networks, ABC and CBS, learned about Brittany’s talents and sought to feature her on various news shows. In addition to Dateline NBC, Brittany appeared on CNN, Paula Zahn Now, and the Montel Williams show.
Years before, Tammy recalls, “Her father and I were sitting in the hall on the floor trying to absorb what was going on with Brittany. One of the things we both said was, ‘God has a purpose, and what we’re not going to do is push Brittany into a spotlight, ever, because then we won’t know if that’s just us doing the wrong thing. But if anything ever comes our way naturally, then we will absolutely flow with it.’ That is what took us to New York.”
The ensuing years were a flurry of activity: performing at countless benefits, galas, schools, and churches; visiting the Governor’s Mansion in New York to play at Gov. George Pataki’s prayer breakfast; and playing a piano on the field at Shea Stadium during a New York Mets’ game. The Mets’ game was especially meaningful, as it was Brittany’s 17th birthday, April 9, 2006, and it was Autism Awareness Day. She played “Piano Man” and “Crocodile Rock” in front of 55,000 Mets’ fans.
When Brittany is playing for an audience, she wants people to sing along. Tammy has also learned to sing onstage for Brittany’s benefit, and she has found that the audience is often more relaxed and encouraged to join in because Tammy is not a trained singer. Tammy also serves as a spokesperson for Brittany, telling the story that Brittany cannot tell for herself.
“Sometimes people will come up from the audience,” she says. “Sometimes they have rocking good voices that really just blow mine out of the water, and it’s a gift for Brittany. She kicks up her playing ability when somebody’s got an incredible voice.”
The family is focusing now on making sure Brittany has fun and stays healthy, and they consider it a team effort. Chuck, who co-owns Fishy Business, a local aquarium store, has a grand piano as well as a keyboard at his house. When Brittany spends time with him, he says, “We fill the house with musical DVDs and have a blast with mini-concerts.”
The family bands together whenever Brittany needs attention. “Believe it or not,” Tammy says, “keeping weight on her is one struggle above all that is our daily battle.” Brittany is so involved in listening to music and playing music that she does not care about eating. After a checkup revealed alarming weight loss, Tammy says, “I called up the family and said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to put Brittany on a high-calorie diet,’ and everyone has come to the rescue.”
Tammy has another dream for Brittany, now that they are both back in the Columbia area. She envisions opening a cafe featuring a space where Brittany would perform on Friday and Saturday nights. During the rest of the week, other special needs musicians could perform for their friends and family.
“I can’t keep going at the pace I have been going,” she says, “but Brittany, of course, is 20 years younger, and she wants to perform. She wants the applause.”