Bursting with Joy
Celebrating the Spectrum students reflect on week of scholarship with the College of Music.
Rex Lewis-Clack communicates best through music. His mother, Cathleen Lewis, describes how being blind and living with autism make it difficult for Rex to interact with others or to make and keep friends.
“Even though people love him and he loves them, it’s hard for him to carry on a conversation,” she said. “It’s a problem in a lot of situations.”
But seated at the piano, Rex transforms his ability to communicate. By interpreting the works of composers like Chopin or Beethoven, or by playing original music, Rex connects with others in a way he can’t through conversation.
“Rex uses his strength with music to open up his world,” Cathleen explained. “When people see him play piano, their jaws drop. He’s no longer a person with a cane or with different physical attributes. People see there is a lot to this young man.”
Rex’s phenomenal talents propelled him to national and international stages as early as age 7. His love of performing motivated him to take on increasingly complex pieces, and caught the attention of media and programs like 60 Minutes. His unique abilities also fascinated researchers, scholars and teachers—particularly those studying connections between autism and music. Among those was Derek Polischuk, associate professor of piano and director of piano pedagogy at the MSU College of Music.
In 2016, Polischuk contacted Cathleen and asked if Rex would like to participate in the College’s new summer festival for advanced music students on the autism spectrum. Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life, Polischuk explained, would give Rex a preview of life as a college music major. The weeklong, immersive festival at MSU involves one-on-one and group instruction, lectures, social interaction, and opportunities to perform for the public.
“It sounded like the type of program we’d been speaking about for years,” Cathleen said. “It was all about bringing advocacy to people who are disabled, and recognizing that people with different abilities shouldn’t be limited. We went for it.”
In mid-July 2018, the 23-year-old Rex traveled from California to MSU to attend Celebrating the Spectrum for the second time. While on campus, he worked with mentors and met fellow participants in their teens and 20s. He fine-tuned favorite pieces, learned improvisational techniques, and went to lectures on music theory and participatory music making. For rest and relaxation, he and the other participants toured campus, ate at the popular Brody Square residence halls café, and did Pilates.
“I liked the Pilates. It helped my playing,” Rex said. “I liked playing the Beethoven piano sonata with my peer mentor.”
Rex said it was exciting to spend a week at MSU emulating collegiate life. His mother agreed, and said that going two years in a row provided the familiarity and routine Rex needed to maximize his experience.
“I was really proud of Rex, especially at the final performance,” Cathleen said. “He played a very complicated piece—the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He took his instruction to heart and really brought it home in a poised and beautiful performance.”
From practice to perfection
Yana Staples shared similar pride when her daughter Masha Staples performed a piece by Russian composer Reinhold Glière at the final Celebrating the Spectrum concert.
“It was such a burst of joy,” Yana said. “Masha was so happy to be there, to be up on stage. When the week ended, she said ‘I can’t believe it’s over. I wish it would go on for a longer time.’”
The 14-year-old Masha was encouraged to attend Celebrating the Spectrum by her private teacher. After talking with Polischuk and co-coordinator Deborah Moriarty, professor and chair of the MSU Piano Area, Masha and her mother decided the week-long experience would enhance her artistry as a serious, young musician.
“She has perfect pitch. She can name any note she hears or sing any note upon request,” Yana said of Masha who plays both piano and violin. “She grew up listening to classical composers like Mahler and Shostakovich, and always asks to listen to classical music in the car.”
Devoted and hardworking, Masha upped her three hours of daily practice before coming to MSU for the week. She and her mother came from the Detroit area to stay in the residence halls and ate with other students every day at Brody Square. Masha attended lectures, improvisation sessions, and toured campus. What she liked most, were the techniques she learned from Moriarty, Polischuk and Jemal Tavadze, her mentor.
“I liked how my professors and mentor helped me use my imagination,” Masha said. “I envisioned Lake Michigan when I was playing and it helped my performance.”
Tavadze, a third-year doctoral student in piano performance, immediately sensed Masha’s devotion to music. He remarked on her intense focus and her desire to learn everything she could from the week-long experience at MSU.
“She impressed me with her commitment to the process of learning and participating,” said Tavadze, a third-year doctoral student in piano performance. “She focused on every word I said during our lessons. There was nothing more important to her. I could see that making music was the natural state of her soul.”
Masha adds that she made new friends, and loved being a college student for the week. She said she felt more than prepared to step onto the Cook Recital Hall stage on the last day and to play a Glière prelude and George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2 in C# Minor with her mentor.
“I’m planning to practice more now,” she said, “and to learn more challenging pieces. I will remember all the classes, and how my mentor helped me.”
Polischuk noted that the final recital was the highlight of the week, and assured students they were high-level performers. He said, too, that the recital served as a valuable event to educate the public on the capabilities of talented, young artists.
“Whether you came because you were looking to experience an event featuring performers with autism, or whether you came because you wanted to hear music, either way it was amazing,” he said. “Our goal is to help educate people about the exceptional skills of these young artists, and to frame the idea of what people with autism can do.”
Lisa Summers was among the MSU students serving as peer mentors during the week-long festival. She said working with Rex renewed her love and appreciation for music not just as art, but as a way to connect with people.
“There are no boundaries or limits to what music can offer,” said Summers, a fourth year doctoral student in piano performance, and master’s student in piano pedagogy. “As a teacher, I learned that flexibility and patience are necessary in teaching anyone. We all have the ability to learn, play, and enjoy music regardless of our abilities.”
Polischuk, Moriarty and other organizers want to spread the model of the weeklong festival to other communities and learning institutions. Plans are underway to host a fourth annual Celebrating the Spectrum next summer.
“Our model has taken shape as something that’s uniquely powerful for previewing collegiate life for students with autism,” Polischuk said. “Our long-term goal is for people to look to the festival as an effective way to teach advanced music students on the autism spectrum.”
The third annual Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life was held July 15-21, 2018, on the MSU campus. The event is sponsored by the Michigan State University College of Music and as part of the MSU RAIND Program. Generous support is provided by the MSU Office of the Provost, and the following sponsors and donors: The MSU Federal Credit Union; Lauren Harris; Deborah L. Harrison; Dr. Rafael Javier & Dr. Mary P. Sharp; Rick Wendorf; the Frances Baldwin Mulnix Endowment Fund at MSU; and the Music Teachers National Association. Special thanks to Dean Trailways for generously providing all transportation needs for festival participants.
Private support helps provide dollars to sponsor each student participant, enabling them to attend the festival tuition free. Funds also cover stipends for College of Music student mentors who buddied-up with the festival participants. To make a contribution to support this unique and powerful music festival, see our Celebrating the Spectrum giving opportunities.