WATCH: A Jaw-dropping Performance From a Blind Musical Genius With Autism. by Adam Ockelford, via Huffingtonpost.com
‘Why’s he doing that?’ Freddie’s father sounded more than usually puzzled by the antics of his son.
After months of displacement activity, Freddie, 11 years old and on the autism spectrum, was finally sitting next to me at the piano, and looked as though this time he really were about to play. A final fidget and then his right hand moved towards the keys. With infinite care, he placed his thumb on middle C as he had watched me do before — but without pressing it down. Silently, he moved to the next note (D), which he feathered in a similar way, using his index finger, then with the same precision he touched E, F and G, before coming back down the soundless scale to an inaudible C.
I couldn’t help smiling.
‘Fred, we need to hear the notes!’
My comment was rewarded with a deep stare, right into my eyes. Through them almost. It was always hard to know what Freddie was thinking, but on this occasion he did seem to understand and was willing to respond to my request, since his thumb went back to C. Again, it remained unpressed, but this time he sang the note (perfectly in tune), and then the next one, and the next, until the five-finger exercise was complete.
In most children (assuming that they had the necessary musical skills), such behavior would probably be regarded as an idiosyncratic attempt at humor or even mild naughtiness. But Freddie was being absolutely serious and was pleased, I think, to achieve what he’d been asked to do, for he had indeed enabled me to hear the notes!
He stared at me again, evidently expecting something more, and without thinking I leant forward.
‘Now on this one, Fred’, I said, touching C sharp (the black note next to C).
Freddie gave the tiniest blink and a twitch of his head, and I imagined him, in a fraction of a second, making the necessary kinesthetic calculations. Without hesitation or error, he produced the five-finger exercise again, this time using a mixture of black and white notes. Each pressed silently. All sung flawlessly.
And then, spontaneously, he was off up the keyboard, beginning the same pentatonic pattern on each of the twelve available keys. At my prompting, Freddie re-ran the sequence with his left hand — his unbroken voice hoarsely whispering the low notes.
So logical. Why bother to play the notes if you know what they sound like already?
So apparently simple a task, and yet … such a difficult feat to accomplish: the whole contradiction of autism crystallized in a few moments of music making.
As I later said to Freddie’s father, if I had to teach a ‘neurotypical’ child to do what his son had so effortlessly achieved, it would take years of effort and hundreds of hours of practice to get to grips with the asymmetries of the Western tonal system and their relationship to the quirky layout of piano keyboard. Yet Freddie had done it unthinkingly, just by observing me play, hearing the streams of notes flowing by, extracting the underlying rules of Western musical syntax, and using these to create patterns of sounds afresh. I had never played the full sequence of scales that Freddie produced. He had worked out the necessary deep structures intuitively, merely through exposure to the language of music. Viva Chomsky!
So how did this child — by all accounts with a severe learning disability — do it?
The phenomenon is explored in the TEDTalk “In the Key of Genius” that I gave with Derek Paravicini, with whom I have been working for the last 30 years. Derek, now 34, like Freddie, has severe autism and has learning difficulties. Unlike Freddie, though, he is also blind — so his perceptual and cognitive capabilities, that permit him to make sense of the world, are even more constrained. In fact, Derek’s capacity to reason and to use language is in the bottom 0.05 percent of the population. Yet his capacity to process musical sound is in the top 99.99 percent: actually, the best I’ve ever encountered, even among advanced performers. He enjoys an international reputation as a pianist — a unique creative talent bolstered by a formidable technique, acquired through many thousands of hours of practice.
How can this be?
In the TEDTalk, I argue that the two things are related. It was Derek’s inability to process language in his early years, coupled with his inability to ascribe functional meaning to everyday sounds, that, I contend, led to his heightened ability to process all sounds in a musical way. One traded off the other. In fact, without the former, it is almost certain that the latter would never have developed. Derek’s disabilities and abilities, like Freddie’s are, I believe, different sides of the same coin.
To contact Adam: email@example.com
For further reading on autism and music: http://www.amazon.com/Music-Language-Autism-Exceptional-Strategies/dp/1849051976/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1379176785&sr=8-2&keywords=ockelford
For further information on special talents in autism: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1345.short
Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@hufﬁngtonpost.com to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.
- WATCH: A Jaw-dropping Performance From a Blind Musical Genius With Autism (halyardconsulting.com)
- Let nothing stop you from reaching your dream: ‘In the key of genius’ (zeethought.wordpress.com)
A group of 15 will travel to Spain to help The AutistiX on their first tour
A group of north London musicians who have overcome extraordinary obstacles are about to embark on their first international tour.
The members of The AutistiX, as the name suggests, all have autism, but they have not let any of their disabilities get in the way of a tour in Spain and recording their first album.
Luke Steels, 17, electric guitar and bass, Jack Beavan-Duggan, 18, electric guitar, and Saul Zur-Szpiro, 20, on the drums, practice at least once a week and have played gigs including the Beatles Day in Hastings, but this will be the first time they have gone on tour.
Saul’s mum, and band manager, Susan Zur-Szpiro, said: “They started producing their own music and creating these very beautiful, quite biographical songs.
“It’s not about getting the sympathy reaction, they just happen to have their disabilities which makes them interesting and quirky as an act.”
Jack, the lyricist, penned songs including The Good and Bad in All of Us and Hard to Reach and says music is about “writing songs and showing who I am”.
Carol Povey, the director of the Centre for Autism, said: “Autism is a social and communication difficulty and affects the way people interact with other people and the world around them.
“Some people will have very high support needs, no language or communicative ability and challenging behaviour, right the way through to people who have very high IQs but may struggle to relate to other people.
“You wouldn’t normally think of people working together [like The AutistiX] and I think it’s fabulous and it really blows apart most people’s expectations.”
The Camden-based group who are joined on stage by Jack’s father John, Saul’s dad Michael and musician Jim Connelly, will play three gigs with Spanish group Motxila 21 who all have Down’s syndrome between 24 and 30 May.
But The AutistiX have come a long way to get there.
Mrs Zur-Szpiro said: “My son could really do nothing, he was blind, he couldn’t move, he was really very low-functioning so we just took it a step at a time and he’s way beyond anyone’s expectations.
“He can’t dress himself, he can’t feed himself and can’t look after his own basic needs but he’s the drummer and it’s mostly learning through his auditory skills, he hears something and he knows it.”
Before The AutistiX set off on tour there were a lot of things to consider including the fact that they would be relocating each day.
“Change is an issue because they like the familiar and they can be thrown by anything changing”, Mrs Zur-Szpiro said.
“I’m very aware of the sensitivities and so we’re doing all the major transitions during the day so they adjust and see it [each town], each of them have a parent or carer with them so they have that continuity and we’ve looked at YouTube so they know what Motxila 21 look like.
“We are embarking a little bit into the unknown and it’s going to be hard work but it should be amazing.”
As well as musical experiences there are other benefits for The AutistiX too.
The manager said: “They lack a normal peer group and this band has been amazing in providing a social network for them, they’re the centre of each others lives.
“And there’s no drinking and drugs going on, that just doesn’t happen.”
Butterflies and DemonsThe AutistiX also have a natural ability on stage which many performers might be envious of – they do not get stage fright.
Mrs Zur-Szpiro said: “Sometimes they’ve performed in front of several hundred people, but they don’t have any concept of being judged. He [Saul] loves being up on the stage and has music in every cell of his body.”
The band will play their gigs in Pamplona, Durango and Getaria and once they return to London they will be looking forward to releasing their first EP, Butterflies and Demons, which they recorded at EMI Roundhouse in February.
And although they might be a “quirky” rock band Mrs Povey, added: “The important thing is the audience is not looking at the disabilities and not looking at what they can’t do, but looking at what they can do.”
At 21, Rio Wyles still displays all the classic signs of autism.
Click this link to view the video: http://bcove.me/p6idk7zi
He avoids eye contact with a stranger who tries to initiate a conversation with him, and seems eager to run away from the situation. It’s an expected reaction because autism is strongly associated with social, verbal and nonverbal communication problems.
But then the young Playa del Rey resident puts on his black sunglasses, grabs a microphone and, suddenly, he turns into Soulshocka – an ambitious rapper who “reps” Venice Beach for more “street cred. ”
“I started rapping when I was 8 or 9,” Rio says as he sits on a couch in an Inglewood recording studio.
“I was at Tower Records. The first song I really heard was ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer. ”
The recording studio is part of Performing Arts Studio West, an entertainment company that caters to adults with developmental disabilities, including Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and others.
Rio has been part of the company for the past two years and is prepping to perform in its May 3 show “Recovered” at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance.
The founder of the company, John Paizis, has been an adult special education teacher since 1980. In his spare time, he also was an entertainer and realized great benefits could come from combining the two, especially for those with autism.
“Being able to look somebody in the eye and effectively communicate is super important for these guys,” Paizis said.
His entertainment company puts performers into situations “where the curriculum kind of forces them to do that by doing acting scenes where they need to have eye contact with people, where they need to vocalize, where they need to be heard. ”
The company offers a variety of classes, including singing, song writing, music production, dance and all styles of acting. And each offers something different.
For example, Paizis said, dancing helps autistic adults learnbody language and how to become more aware of how much space their body takes up. Music lets them see a sequence of events that ends with a finished product.
“Music classes are fabulous for them,” Paizis said. “And a lot of the population has a proclivity toward music since they were kids, especially some of our high functioning kids – so communication, body language, being able to put their best foot forward in any kind of social situation, that really helps. ”
Rio knew he wanted to be a rapper since the time he was about age 4. In fact, after he was diagnosed at 3 years old, a doctor at UCLA told his parents to find something he enjoys doing and to let him follow that path.
“Fortunately for us, he loved music, and so music is his way back into the world,” said Rio’s father, David Wyles.
Since finding his passion, Wyles said, Rio has become more comfortable with other people and with himself.
He writes his own raps, drawing inspiration from his diagnosis and writing lines like: “Who’s the guy on the short bus causing a fuss?” And another: “The doc said I couldn’t do it, but now they have to face the music. ”
But despite his willingness to perform for autism organizations, he said he’s trying to stay away from it.
“He wants to be known as a rapper and not an autistic rapper,” said his dad. “And that’s true. He is a rapper first and foremost, and autism is the back story. ”
In a striking moment, when asked where Rio would be today if he hadn’t found music as a young boy, his father softly says “lost. ”
Rio, on the other hand, is more blunt.
“I’d either be in a group home, or … yeah,” he said. “Music has the potential of getting me out of the hole. So pretty much, it got me out of the grind. ”
And he doesn’t plan to stop.
One day the family was returning home from a doctor’s appointment where they learned Rio might not mature any further.
When they stopped at a record store to browse, Rio’s mom asked him if he would like to work there someday.
“No, I want to be a rapper and own my own label,” he said. “You gotta dream bigger than that Mom. ”
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Want to go?
What: Performing Arts Studio West presents an original musical featuring performers with developmental disabilities.
When: 8 p.m. Friday May 3
Where: James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance
Information: Tickets are $25. Call 310-674-1346 , Ext. 202, or go to pastudiowest.com
Click this link to view the associated video: http://bcove.me/byx65rgw
“I feel like a good musician,” he said. “Music is what I love. I love to listen, I like to perform. ”
Look’s family discovered early on that he had a musical gift for playing and composing. “We found out about that when he was walking through a store and walked up to a toy piano and played song after song note for note,” said his uncle Joe Banos. “It was incredible!”
Longtime musician and producer Ramie Espinoza is impressed with his musical talent. “I listened to one of his songs and he did it in one take that’s unheard of,” Espinoza said of one of Look’s recording sessions.
Look’s mom Debbie Look feels pride when talking about her son. “I’m very proud of Eric,” she said. “He’s come a long way. He had so many sensory problems growing up. For him to be able to perform for people is quite a feat for him.”
Look’s family wants others to know that those living with autism can make a mark in the world. Like Eric, who’s sharing his gifts one song at a time.
Look plays a variety of songs, including those he’s composed himself.
His favorite songs are by the late Jim Croce.
Ask Ian Engelsman his musical inspirations, and he’ll give you an earful.
Dokken, Slaughter, Skid Row and Twisted Sister. White Lion, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and, his mother’s favorite, Pink Floyd. He doesn’t care much for The Who. And, did you know, nearly all of the songs on The Outfield‘s album featuring their hit, “Your Love,” are only about 3 minutes long?
Ask Ian about his bright blue Ludwig drum set, and he’ll explain the different types of drums. Snare. Bass. Toms.
That instrument on a stand next to him? That’s a cowbell. And the copper-spun cymbals, those are noisy percussion instruments, Ian points out.
“Playing the drums is kind of like my thing,” Ian says simply.
Five years ago, Ian didn’t speak — not even about drums. He didn’t look people in the eye. And he surely didn’t twirl drumsticks between his fingers after freestyling for visitors.
Ian is autistic, and but not for the drums, his parents say, he would still be exhibiting the behavior that made him an isolated, muted child.
“The drums, they’re like our lifeline,” said Claudia Engelsman, Ian’s mother.
Looking back, the drums have always been Ian’s “thing,” his parents said.
At age 4 — not long after receiving the autism diagnosis — Ian was like many children his age, banging on pots and pans he pulled out of kitchen cupboards, said his dad, David Engelsman.
But about three years ago, Ian started playing with other items he found in the kitchen. He retrieved empty jars and bottles, turned coffee cans upside down and wrapped paper plates in tinfoil.
Then, he played music.
“He had rhythm,” said Claudia, who studied music and played the guitar.
She bought Ian a set of cheap toy drums from the drugstore. Ian fastened his makeshift instruments to the set and kept playing.
“I told David, ‘There is something here,'” Claudia said.
That Christmas, Santa brought 9-year-old Ian his first real drum set. After that, Claudia started looking for music classes for Ian. But as soon as she mentioned her son’s autism, doors shut, she said.
“It’s the leprosy of the 21st century,” she said.
But then Claudia found Musical Beginnings in Orchards, not far from their Vancouver home. They welcomed Ian — and his autism.
After 10 minutes of playing, Ian’s teacher was pulling other teachers in to hear the 9-year-old beat on the drums.
“They said, ‘He’s a natural,'” Claudia said.
From there, Ian began to flourish.
Ian’s coordination improved. He was no longer bumping into things. He could color inside the lines.
He began talking without being prompted. He became focused. He gained self confidence.
The music classes — coupled with a school program Claudia fought hard for, one tailored to Ian’s needs — resulted in more success.
Ian stopped running from his parents. His violent episodes dissipated. His IQ jumped from 76 to 130. He earned awards, musical and academic. And two years ago, Ian learned he no longer needed occupational and physical therapy.
The drums are his therapy.
“He said, ‘Don’t ever take away the drums,'” Claudia said of Ian’s psychologist.
Ian’s success hasn’t been limited to his behavior.
Since picking up his first set of drumsticks, Ian’s playing has drawn the attention of others.
Just a few months after he began drum lessons, Ian decided to participate in his school’s talent show. He took first place.
After the talent show, the Silver Star Elementary School band teacher asked Ian to join the band.
“It was so rewarding,” Claudia said.
Since then, the offers have continued for Ian. He was given a solo act in his first recital. Middle school band teachers ushered him into their classes. And he’ll play drums with a band in the upcoming Portland Rose Festival.
The praise and recognition have helped to balance the countless times Ian was told “no,” the times he was ostracized, criticized and judged, Claudia said.
Now people are taking notice of Ian, not for his disability but his ability.
“You have no idea how many times he’s been rejected,” Claudia said. “But now, the drums have opened, maybe not other doors, but doors that offer opportunities.”
This is a blog post by Scott Evan Davis, a composer/lyricist based in NYC. Besides writing for the theatre and cabaret community, he also spends his time teaching musical theatre to children.
Six months ago, I had the privilege and honor of being hired by Arts Connection, (a company that hires teaching artists to work within schools to create the arts) for a very unique task. The students at Spectrum School, at PS 94M, (a program for children with autism), had spent the past few years working on Broadway Junior Shows created by Musical Theatre International (MTI). The Spectrum School, however, had something different in mind for this year.
The students expressed a desire to write and perform their own musical this year. Their teacher, Tessa Derfner, and principal, Ronnie Shuster, followed through in the most outstanding way. They contacted Arts Connection, and together figured out a way to make this daunting task happen. Freddie Gershon, founder of MTI, provided the funding, and I was hired to help guide the students musically and lyrically, and to create an original musical to be performed by the end of the school year.
From day 1, one thing was clear: The students wanted the world to know what dealing with autism was like on a daily basis. They wanted the musical to take place in a school, on an ordinary day, under extraordinary circumstances. They wanted to explore the idea that one day, after being beaten down by bullies, they each received a superpower which they could use to save the school from bullies. What they really wanted to do was teach the bullies the RIGHT way to behave. Not with revenge but with understanding. This was the heart of the story. We decided to call the musical “Powerful Day”.
This needed to be THEIR musical, and for that, THEY had to come up with the ideas and words that would be made into songs. Watching them come to life while they were singing never ceased to amaze me. There were students who were extremely shy who I watched become completely present while singing a song. There were also jobs behind the scenes that were just as essential to the process. We wrote about seven songs, completed the script, filmed videos, and rehearsed like professionals. Their energy and dedication was unyielding.
By the end of the process, we all knew that we had something special. Freddie Gershon and his wife Myrna, along with some representatives from MTI, came to watch one of the final rehearsals. Much to our surprise and awe, they brought Broadway composer and musical theatre icon Stephen Sondheim along to watch as well! Each of the 5 performances was better than the last. The students were asked for the first time ever to sing at the graduation ceremony that month. The school, teachers and I were awarded the MTI COURAGE IN THEATRE AWARDS for 2012, and afterwards we were all treated to a Broadway show.
I truly believe it was some of the most personal, and connected music that I will ever have the good fortune to write. The message was, “If you want something, and are willing to work for it, ANYTHING is possible, no matter who you are, or what challenges you have”. To be able to give each of them a voice, and to truly listen to them, was something very special for me. The love, support and encouragement from their teachers was just as important to the process as the dreams the students had to create their own piece of theatre. Thank you PS 94M for your courage and dedication. This experience for me was the essence of what theatre should be.
To learn more about Scott, visit www.scottevandavis.com.