"Celebrating the Spectrum" music festival allows autistic performers to share their gifts with the public

Thursday, July 21, 2016, 8:47 am
Karessa Wheeler

Above: Kalil Olsen

For students on the autism spectrum, emotions can be difficult to express. For Kalil Olsen, music has been the key to sharing his feelings with the world.

“Playing the piano has helped me to express emotion that is hard to express verbally or physically due to being on the autism spectrum. Being on the autism spectrum, and having various other mental challenges, makes it difficult to express emotion, and understand others’ emotions,” said Olsen, a 16-year-old student at East Lansing High School. “I believe God has given me a gift, and even though it's hard to express emotion and feeling outside of music, I have been given a gift to express my emotions, and sometimes others’ emotions through music. “

Next week, Olsen and four other students on the autism spectrum aged 12 - 22 will be take part in a first-of-its-kind, week-long festival at Michigan State University. Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life will take place July 25-30 at the College of Music.

The festival is a collaboration of the College of Music and RAIND (Research in Autism, Intellectual and other Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program at MSU. It will give advanced music students on the autism spectrum the chance to preview life as a collegiate musician, said organizer Dr. Derek Polischuk, associate professor of piano at MSU. Also organizing the festival is Dr. Deborah Moriarty, chair of the piano area at MSU.

Polischuk, director of piano pedagogy at MSU, has been working with students with autism for more than a decade and researches the way music can improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum. He has found that autism can enhance traits that are important in musical performance.

“Typically, you see a higher level of listening and rhythmic ability. They have an ability to replicate what they hear. The key is harnessing that and seeing how they can apply that to music,” he said. “The difficulties include using notation – looking at a piece of music and turning that into a performance. It is a very abstract concept – symbols that turn into sound. But by using a rote type of learning, it tends to be a more powerful mode of instruction.”

Music also tends to help students with autism because if they find something they enjoy, then may become a little obsessed with it and it can be used as a reward structure. He has seen students who would play piano for twelve hours if they were allowed.

“Instead you can tell them you can play for an hour then do some math and then you can play some more,” he said.

The festival is designed to be interactive, fun and immersive – similar to other more traditional music festivals for advanced students to immerse themselves in an active schedule for a week, Polischuk said. Esteemed guest instructors are coming from around the continent and students will also participate in social activities and physical exercise programs, he said.

Olsen has been studying piano with Polischuk since he was about four years old. Today he plays piano, trumpet, mellophone and French horn. He is also one of three drum majors in the East Lansing High School Marching Band. During the festival, he is hoping to improve his music and also make contacts that will help him continue his musical studies into college.

“I hope this festival is able to help me to improve as a musician and hopefully get to know some more people that I will be able to talk to, and maybe get my name out there to any college recruitment at MSU,” he said.

The public is invited to hear the students’ final concert at 4 p.m. July 30 at Cook Recital Hall at MSU. It is a free event and will also be live-streamed at http://livestream.com/musicmsu/spectrum2016.

More information about the festival can be found at http://www.music.msu.edu/spectrum