Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life
College of Music broadens summer collegiate experience for students with autism.
Tom Hua hadn’t found many opportunities for his teenage son to attend camp or visit colleges. So when he heard about a program that could give Spencer a chance to preview life as a collegiate musician, he asked for details.
Hua had discovered a one-of-a-kind program for advanced students on the autism spectrum offered by the MSU College of Music. “Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life” provided an immersive, weeklong experience for students to study, live and perform on campus.
“We went there not having any set expectations,” says Hua. “We thought it would just be a really cool musical camp, but it exceeded every single one of our expectations.”
Hua, his wife Tracy, and Spencer are newcomers to the program that launched in July 2016, and came back for a second year in the summer of 2017. From July 16-23, Spencer joined students 13 to 23 years old for a high-level, artistic experience coordinated by the College in partnership with various campus units and the RAIND Program—the MSU-based institute for Research in Autism, Intellectual and other Neurodevelopment Disabilities. Parents, too, were invited to join the new parent networking sessions and to exchange stories and challenges of raising children with autism.
“Having the opportunity to talk it out with other parents and to hear their experiences is very comforting and encouraging,” says Hua. "Sometimes our lives can be very isolating.“
Building a following
“Celebrating the Spectrum” grew from a concept by Derek Polischuk, associate professor of piano and director of piano pedagogy at MSU and Deborah Moriarty, Chair of the Piano Area. Polischuk had experience teaching students with autism through the MSU Community Music School. Together they saw the potential for expanding the programming and expectations for aspiring students with autism spectrum disorders—or ASD.
Polischuk and Moriarty worked with RAIND to develop a program that explored research, teaching methods, and social and performance opportunities for students and their families. They also left room to grow and try new elements, based on the discoveries of each year.
“What’s most important is that these students are really inspired by the end of the week,” says Polischuk. “The goal of any summer music camp is for students to leave wanting to pursue music at a higher level. With our program, we also want to provide the college experience. MSU is exactly the kind of place where all of this is possible.”
This year, like last year, students came from Michigan and other states. Students attended from California, Florida, Georgia and Illinois and ranged from intermediate to artistic level talent. Each was paired with an MSU student mentor.
Polischuk admits the group is small, but acknowledges that word is spreading, particularly as he finds increasing opportunity to present on the event at professional conferences in the U.S. and abroad. About half of the participants were returning students.
Joyce Yeo’s daughter Joey Tan was among those who came for a second round.
Joey, her mother explains, experiences high functioning autism. While Joey has attended other music programs, her mother says that “Celebrating the Spectrum” allowed Joey to take in the elements of a college life—complete with performing on stage.
“I wanted her to make friends, build a support group, and know there are people who appreciate her for who she is,” says Yeo. “The program was a way to build her confidence so that she can go to college and pursue a career.”
Ling Lo is among the nine student mentors, and was part of the inaugural year. As a doctoral candidate in piano performance, she says the program has reinforced her belief that her job as a musician and teacher is to help students discover their hidden potential and express their inner voice.
“The most touching moment is that after all the stress and struggles you go through with your student, you see them go on stage with such confidence and smiles,” says Lo. “That is truly fulfilling and heartwarming, and reflects the giving spirit of MSU.”
To build on successes and explore sustainability, program organizers broadened options for attendees, MSU students and researchers this year. “Celebrating the Spectrum,” continued offering daily master classes, lectures by national and international educators, guided Pilates for R&R, evening activities on and off-campus, and performance opportunities including a final concert in Cook Recital Hall.
New activities consisted of an opening concert by MSU student mentors, the group for parents, and classes in jazz improvisation. Assistant Professor of Jazz Guitar Randy Napoleon led the jazz improvisation sections alongside Professor of Jazz Studies, Saxophone and Improvisation Diego Rivera. He says the idea was to encourage students to expand their musical comfort zone and to tap their creative side. Classes explored improvisation through simple approaches like call and response to foster listening and get their fingers moving.
“Improvisation contributes to a student’s musical flexibility, understanding and creativity,” says Napoleon. “It’s a special opportunity for students with autism who are coming from a classical background, since many of them had never improvised.”
Student mentor Bronwen McVeigh worked with her student to develop skills in jazz improvisation. She described how she would play something and then ask her student to “answer” on the piano.
“In many ways, I think this was the best way for me to get to know my student,” McVeigh says. “One of the best parts about playing with other musicians is being able to connect with their ideas, share my own, and create a unique performance.”
Moriarty expanded on the value of the program for all participants.
“This is an incredibly exciting program for everyone involved,” says Moriarty. “The final performance showcasing the progress that the students have made artistically, musically, and pianistically is unbelievably rewarding for the students, parents, faculty and mentors.”
Looking ahead to the third year, Polischuk and Moriarty hope to continue to increase instructional, performance and R&R activities for attendees and their mentors. “Celebrating the Spectrum” will continue to tie the program to research, particularly in terms of how immersive experiences in music and arts affect empathy in students on the autism spectrum.
Ian Gray, who helped create the RAIND program, concurs on the value of linking elements of the program to autism research, and to exploring ways to make the program sustainable through increased partnerships.
“This program adds dimension and insight to what we do,” says Gray, former vice president of research and graduate studies at MSU. “We welcome the College of Music to the table as we serve students with autism through research, outreach, artistry and education.”