It was exactly a year ago tomorrow that I left for Montreal for my 2 month adventure/project as a percussionist working with kids who have autism.
A little background...
Out of the blue I had received a phone call from a company in London called Music for Autism International. They were given my name by a colleague at San Francisco Opera where I am a percussion extra. This company wanted to hire me to do a project involving classical percussion and kids on the spectrum, something that “had never been done before.”
After almost a year of talking, planning, and trying to find the right place for the project, I was on a plane to Montreal. I didn’t really even think I’d be going until I was all of a sudden sitting on the plane, thinking "ok, i'm really doing this." And once I left, all I knew was they hired me because I was a percussionist, and for some reason thought I was the right person for this job. I had worked with kids before, but never kids on the spectrum.
A steep learning curve...
I fell in love with these kids on day one. But the first day felt like a train wreck. I was going to be working with all of the students at Giant Steps School, a school specifically for kids ages 4-21 who have autism. But that's all I knew. I wasn’t given a lot of direction, and there were many different opinions on what our end goal was. What were we trying to accomplish that was different from the music therapy these kids already participated in weekly? What could I, a performer with no experience working with kids on the spectrum, bring to these kids? I just wanted to make music with them, to give them the chance to have fun and to be exposed to a kind of music they hadn’t been before. But there was so much more to it than just that... Not to mention the fact that I had NEVER done anything like this before, so even the tiniest details were hard at first. But I learned, and fast. We decided to work toward the end goal of a concert, with the understanding that it might never happen. We organized the students into groups, and I started teaching them percussion ensemble pieces and percussion solos, as well as collaborations where I played solos and they played drum beats over it. We had no idea if this was going to work.
Every day, I learned something new. I learned how to teach, how to play with the kids, how to adapt along with them, and how to communicate. We tried color-coding marimba bars. We tried hand movements. I learned to count to four in French. And every day these kids amazed me. Some of them were so full of talent. I taught one boy how to play Flight of the Bumblebee in 15 minutes, and he played it for me every week. We rocked out on drums, we learned a piece on trashcans, we dabbed (yes I am referring to the Usain Bolt move), we laughed, we cried. For some of the students, all they needed was to see me play it once and then they got it. Others needed constant hands-on attention. There were good days, there were many rough days, even more scheduling issues...the concert day loomed closer and closer...
After seven weeks of this, we were able to put on a big concert. It actually happened! I performed, the kids performed, and let me tell you-they absolutely rocked it. They played marimba solos, they played chamber pieces with all different percussionist instruments including the piece on trashcans, and even one piece where we used our bodies as percussion instruments. We ended the show with every student from the school on stage (90 students with their teachers). Some played drums, some just moved with the music, and one student was our conductor, in our own rendition of Ravel's Bolero with that famous drum beat. Many thought this concert was impossible. Especially the last piece where the whole school was on stage. But it came together beautifully.
Yes, it was all over the news, yes the Montreal rock star Sam Roberts came to play for the kids one day and see what they were learning in this project. But the success was the kids themselves, their smiling faces, especially after the awesome concert to a packed crowd. They had accomplished something great and they knew it. They were proud of themselves, too.
Looking back, I realize the concert could have been a disaster. Concert day was the first day the kids had been in this space, somewhere they had never been before. There was a huge crowd, which would make anyone nervous. There were so many transitions from different pieces, and so many things that could have gone so wrong. But everything went smoothly! Thanks to the support of the amazing teachers at the school. It would never have happened without them, and their own ideas they brought for the pieces and the concert. I was lucky to have an amazing partner for these 7 weeks, the music therapist who works with the kids weekly at the school. She knew these kids well! But another challenge of mine was that I also had to push the boundaries of what she thought they could do. And they did it, above and beyond.
Power of Music
Music wasn’t every kids' cup of tea. Honestly though, most of them really loved it. Some of them were mesmerized when I played marimba solos for them. I’m reminded of little boy who would scream and cry when he had to leave the marimba. Others preferred djembes and snare drum. One boy was so well behaved every session, but I found out later he had serious behavioral issues in other classes. I have so many memories of these little sweethearts. One little guy told me I was his real friend. Another remembered my birthday and sang to me after I had told him what day it was over a month before. Another came in every day just to say “j'aime la musique!” (I love music!)
Would I do it differently next time? Definitely. But I didn’t know then what I know now. My challenge to everyone-go for the things you aren’t qualified for. Face the fear of failure. If the opportunity arises, and you know you are supposed to go for it, even if it seems like “I am the least qualified person for this job,” it probably means you are the best suited. Humility, a willingness to learn, and the giant possibility of failure will all eventually add up to success and going places you never would have had the chance to go if you hadn’t said yes.
photos by Ross White