Sage to a Savant

Sara Banta is instrumental to young Rex Lewis-Clack’s piano success.

July 24, 2009  | 3 min read

Sara Banta with student Rex Lewis-Clack

As Rex Lewis-Clack enters Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre in Malibu, he gropes for the wall, disoriented, and appearing to have no idea where he is. You’d never guess that he comes here every week, and has for the last four years. With his mom Cathy as his guide, he walks into the piano room, swimming into the darkness. It isn’t until he sits down at the piano next to Sara Banta’s piano that his fingers find familiar territory. “Hi Sara,” he says. “How are you today?”

Rex was born blind and stricken with brain damage so severe it looked as though he would never be able to walk, talk, or experience much of anything. Now, at age 14, Rex listens to Banta play an unfamiliar, complex piece of music and can replay it note for note. He flings his head back in glee, letting out a spirited laugh as he finishes. Playing music is both his uncommon talent and salvation.

Rex is considered a musical savant—a rare and inexplicable combination of blindness, mental disability, and musical genius. Banta is his teacher.

“I do not know how to explain his special gifts to people, and that is precisely why he is such a study. Nobody quite knows how it happens,” says Banta, who has played the piano since she was very young, and has served as instructor and coordinator of instrumental music at Pepperdine for 10 years. “His insights and progress never cease to amaze us.”

Rex’s star has risen through numerous worldwide documentaries featuring his musical gift, including Britain’s popular series Extraordinary People, a Swedish documentary called Another Kind of Genius, and Musical Savants on the Discovery Health Channel.

Sara Banta with student Rex Lewis-ClackRex has also been featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes three times—an unprecedented amount of coverage by the lauded news magazine. The first segment, “Musically Speaking,” introduced Rex when he was 8 years old. The mystery surrounding Rex’s unique gift led them to film a follow-up segment when Rex turned 10 called simply, “Rex.” The third segment aired in November 2008, catching up with Rex practicing with his trusted instructor, Banta.

Jeff Pippin, senior vice president and chief investment officer at Pepperdine, first introduced Banta to Rex and his mother Cathy. Although Banta is a highly accomplished pianist and teacher, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from Indiana University, she was not sure that she had what it took to be Rex’s teacher.

“I had no experience with his disabilities, and had little experience even observing students such as Rex,” she says.

But Cathy was very perceptive and recognized Banta’s potential. “We arrived here because his other teachers before her couldn’t keep up with him. She can absolutely sight-read any piece of music and just play it, so she’s brilliant in improvisation, which is really important for Rex,” she explains.

Cathy recalls their initial meeting. “When we first met her, she wasn’t sure whether she could work with a blind child, and wasn’t exactly sure how to approach Rex. He would just sort of play because he loved the instrument, and she didn’t really know what to do with a child who wouldn’t listen to her at first. But then he stopped for a second on the keys and she jumped in on her piano and played a bit of Mozart. He was intrigued by that, and then it was like this immediate communication. She started out the dialogue musically,” Cathy says. “Genius meets genius.”

Banta has since “fine-tuned” her teaching approach with Rex, using certain code words, in addition to music, to communicate with him. He is unlike any student she has ever taught. “He is just like a musical sponge. With Rex I can demonstrate a passage and expect that he can repeat the passage. A typical student could verbalize what we are doing, but not play it as readily.” In the four years that they have been working together, Rex has been able to not only improve his technique, but also explore improvisation, which he was previously considered incapable of doing because it requires more than just imitation. “We work on good technique, fingering, musical inflections, and overall style,” says Banta. “Our greatest challenge is the incorporation of musical inflections beyond notes and rhythms. He is learning to be an advanced musician through example and imitation, then transferring it to new material.”

As Malibu residents, Rex and Cathy have become part of the Pepperdine community. Rex has performed several times for students, including a special convocation. “Our students were wonderful to Rex when he performed for them, and gave him a warm standing ovation at the end,” Pippin says. “I think he shows us that one or two closed doors, while challenging, can lead to many other open doors that can take us where we never thought we could go.”

In their weekly practice sessions, Rex listens intently as Banta plays him a tune, his eyes cast upward as though he’s seeing the notes appear before him in thin air. And then he begins to play—parroting her keystrokes to perfection, even her mistakes. Though a consummate professional, Banta can’t help but smile when he finishes and happily bounces on the piano bench.