Sensory-friendly concerts at MSU inspire disability advocate

Mid-Michigan Autism Association to facilitate spring concert at CMS-D.

Cathy Blatnik and her son, Dominic, have attended and enjoyed Sensory Friendly Spartan concerts, and now Cathy is now working with MSU musicians to expand such offerings in the area.
Attendees of Sensory Friendly Spartan concerts are encouraged to move about when they need to and often have chances to interact with the musicians.
“We can’t wrap Dominic in bubble wrap or put him in a room by himself,” said Dominic's mother, Cathy Blatnik. “We’ve had to be careful about where he can go and what he can attend. With sensory-friendly activities, it’s not that way.”

Cathy Blatnik knew she wasn’t alone when her son Dominic was diagnosed with autism and ADHD as a toddler. Intellectually, she understood more families than ever faced similar challenges. But emotionally, she felt isolated and overwhelmed.

So when opportunities presented themselves, Blatnik seized them. She got involved with several organizations focused on differently abled children and adults, including the Mid-Michigan Autism Association where she serves on the board of directors. In the past decade, she’s been an advocate, adviser, communication guru, organizer and most recently, a volunteer producer, as she assists with promoting events associated with the MSU College of Music.

Since 2018, Blatnik has helped Assistant Professor of Chamber Music Tasha Warren get the word out about the Sensory Friendly Spartan Concerts series, held twice a year in April and November in campus performance halls. She’s also provided feedback that’s helped Warren shape a concert atmosphere for anyone with sensory sensitivities.

“Sensory friendly concerts are a place where no one shakes their fingers, shushes you or tells you to sit down,” said Blatnik. “You’re free be however you are with nobody saying anything to you. It’s a totally nonjudgmental setting. That’s simply the best way to describe it.”

Warren said that Blatnik’s depth of knowledge with sensory-sensitivities and her access to a robust network within the autism community are definite assets, and make her a valued volunteer.

“Cathy is extremely communicative and has been a great resource for audience building,” said Warren. “She knows a lot of people through her own experiences, and has provided great suggestions for creating an inclusive event for all ages and abilities.”

Setting the stage

From the start, Blatnik felt that Warren’s sensory-friendly concerts might be a good fit for Dominic and his high school classmates. She and Dominic had been attending sensory-friendly movies and performances as they sprung up around the area, enabling him to respond to sounds, images and touch within inclusive, relaxed spaces.

“We can’t wrap Dominic in bubble wrap or put him in a room by himself,” said Blatnik. “We’ve had to be careful about where he can go and what he can attend. With sensory-friendly activities, it’s not that way.”

Nicole Hagen has been Dominic’s teacher in Okemos Public Schools for three years. She’s the autism spectrum disorders teacher at Okemos High School, and felt excited when Blatnik told her about the chamber music concerts at the MSU College of Music.

Hagen agreed that there are very few opportunities for kids with special needs to attend formal events that accommodate their sensitivities. Too many times, she said, children with autism go to concerts or performances, only to have their parents and caregivers worry about their behaviors or responses to unfamiliar settings.

Last spring, Hagen arranged a field trip for Dominic and his three classmates to go to the sensory friendly concert at the MSU Fairchild Theatre. About 80 people from around mid-Michigan attended, and were treated to small group performances by MSU chamber musicians. Lights were dimmed, and shakers and scarfs were handed out for dancing and music making. Audience members were free to move about and vocalize, or to find quiet private spaces for breaks if needed. Musicians provided occasional storylines or narratives with their pieces, and invited attendees to venture into performance spaces to closely hear and see musical instruments.

“It was very exciting to be in a formal concert type setting minus all the anxiety,” said Hagen. “A lot of my students don’t have a lot of experience with classical music, and it allowed us to practice social things like sitting and clapping, and transitioning from one place to another. It’s a great learning opportunity and something we’ll continue to look forward to.”

Pure Winds members (from left) Dominic Hayes, Natalie Law, Nick Schumacher, Andrea Silverio, and Colton Wansitler are working with Cathy Blatnik to expand the number of sensory friendly music experiences.

Widening the circle

Blatnik preferred to have Dominic attend the April performance on his own. She took note of his positive experience, and set out to help with upcoming concerts. She also heard from a professional quintet involved in MSU’s sensory-friendly concerts, and their interest in working with her on an additional community event.

Bassoonist Natalie Law reached out on behalf of her group to Blatnik after hearing about the spring concert. The doctoral candidate in music performance at MSU is also a member of Pure Winds — a Lansing-based woodwind quintet that promotes outside-the-concert-hall musical experiences and musical conversations between performers and audiences. In addition to Law, Pure Winds members include Colton Wansitler (flute), Nick Schumacher (clarinet), Andrea Silverio (oboe) and Dominic Hayes (horn). Similar to Law, Wansitler, Schumacher, and Silverio are pursuing their DMA at MSU.

Law contacted Blatnik when Pure Winds heard of her commitment to providing opportunities and resources to people with disabilities. The two talked, and after conferring with other members of Pure Winds, decided to collaborate on an additional sensory-friendly event at the MSU Community Music School in East Lansing in spring 2020.

“Cathy is crucial to bringing this event to life,” Law said. “This event is very meaningful to Pure Winds as a small step in helping the world of classical music be more inclusive and inviting to anyone. We’re most excited about engaging with audience members and creating an environment where they can enjoy music in any way they like.”

Blatnik said she’s excited to work with Pure Winds and MSU on additional opportunities for people with sensory sensitivities. The vision, she said, is to build an event that welcomes all ages and abilities, and that features performances, an instrument petting zoo, a resource fair, and opportunities for families and community members to network and share experiences.

“I’ve become and remained so involved, mostly because I don’t want other parents to feel so isolated,” she said. “Before sensory-friendly things came along, we didn’t go out much. These events are a way to break through that isolation and to show people and families they are not alone.”

The MSU College of Music hosts Sensory Friendly Spartan Concerts twice a year in spring and fall. The next concert will be November 16 at 3 p.m. in Cook Recital Hall. The collaborative event involving the Mid-Michigan Autism Association and Pure Winds Ensemble is currently slated for Saturday, March 14 from 2 to 3 p.m. at the MSU Community Music School in East Lansing.

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