Every Child Needs Music

Stephen Prutsman

Stephen Prutsman

The soon-to-be-world-famous pianist, Stephen Prutsman, was accompanying the dance class on an out-of-tune upright. I was taking my very first modern dance class. I was embarrassing myself. He was not.

It was the summer of 1980 and we were both students at the Aspen Music Festival. Later that summer he won the concerto competition and played the Prokofieff Third with the Festival Orchestra in an electrifying performance that I'll never forget. 

We've been friends ever since. When we were both studying with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, we lived on different floors in the same building. We each earned money in school by playing jazz and standards in piano bars. (We even both were contestants on game shows. He was on the Gong Show, I was on Tic-Tac-Dough.)  We've both had performing careers, (his much bigger than mine,) both settled in San Francisco, gotten married and we've each had two children. His wonderful wife, Sigrid Van Bladel, is now one of my closest friends.

From many years ago in Brussels. Listen while you read this article.

Along the way, we've also both faced some significant parenting challenges. Steve and Sigrid's has been the all-consuming kind. They've responded in ways that have surprised and impressed me. I am honored to share this article that Steve wrote. I love the way that he's brought his worlds - the language of music and the world of neuro-developmental challenges - together in a way that inspires and offers opportunities to many children and families who otherwise would never be able to share the joy of music.

Stephen Prutsman writes:

Back in 1990 during the finals of the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, the farthest from my mind was that someday I would find true meaning in music by performing for and engaging with the developmentally disabled.

Back then, I believed (along with the other contestants there, no doubt) that true relevance in music and authentic musicianship deserved recognition with prestigious prizes, followed inevitably by fame and fortune à la Horowitz, Richter and the other keyboard superstars of the time.   

That belief was soon put to the test.  In 2001 my wife and I were blessed with our first child, Alexander.  After a rough pregnancy and challenging first few years (chronic sleeplessness for us, baby colic for Alexander), our son was diagnosed with autism.  Devastated and not knowing what to do, we turned to the local book store for information.  Back then, the autism layman’s literature mostly covered the promise of miracle ‘cures’ and did not talk much about how to navigate and live with the disorder. We tried each and every remedy and therapy we could get our hands on, often several at the same time.  Looking back, our frenetic quests bordered on dark comedy. One behavioral therapy (which of course required expensive training at a specialty center in rural Massachusetts) had us locked up with Alexander in a room for hours on end, attempting to create direct eye contact with him.  When successful we were to jump, yell and scream, to celebrate with high affect.   The more hours spent in this way, went the “pitch”, the closer our son would get to being released from the prison of autism. Our homeopathic doctor suggested 30 or so pills given throughout the day (tears and panic ensued); we tried biofeedback, allergy therapy, sensory table therapy. Our son really deserves a medal for “hardest working toddler” during those early years.

Stephen works with a young student at the Monarch School. 

Stephen works with a young student at the Monarch School. 

From age 6 to 12 we experienced the trials and tribulations of attempting to get Alexander, who started becoming aggressive and self-injurious, to attend a public school classroom.  I remember vividly the screams and tantrums, the calls from school, the teacher in tears, giving up.  My wife ended up homeschooling our son for several years, which she describes as perhaps the most challenging but purposeful experience of her life.

By 2010 we realized that there were very few activities to which we could take our severely autistic boy.  It was summertime, and no public camps could accommodate him, as he needed constant supervision and care. 

That’s when the idea came to us to actualize a summer camp just for kids like Alexander here in San Francisco.  We created the non-profit, “Autism Fun Bay Area” (AFBA) in order to effectively fund raise for our new “Camp Azure” concept.  And fundraise we did -like maniacs- throwing a home-grown recital at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, performed by yours truly, with all ticket revenue going towards the camp.   By the summer of 2011, Camp Azure was in full swing offering three one-week camp experiences to 30 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Soon after, I asked my friends in the St. Lawrence String Quartet if they would be interested in partnering with AFBA to present chamber music programs for families with developmental disabilities at Stanford University.   I contacted Stanford Jazz as well, hoping to add jazz and holiday shows.  Both organizations responded with an enthusiastic “Yes”. My wife and I were excited, as we knew firsthand that families with ASD often couldn’t enjoy a live musical performance together due to their child’s “behaviors”; vocalizations, hand-flapping, wild rocking and anxiousness are not particularly popular with other audience members.  We wanted all ASD kids to enjoy some good old-fashioned fun and relaxation.  Furthermore, we believed that a smiling Mom or Dad, enjoying the show and not fretting over what their child may do next to get shushed, would do added wonders, as our autistic children are often walking barometers of how we are feeling. Our events also create the opportunity for social contact and for families to enjoy the presence and company of other like families.  A final important positive aspect of these performances is the direct neurological and developmental benefit that musical engagement in a live setting presents for those with neurodevelopmental differences. 

Many colleagues have asked, “So how does it work?  What makes this kind of performance different from a typical one?”  

Stephen Prutsman

I would say that perhaps the biggest difference is that the performers need to open their minds to allow, and even embrace, external sounds from our audiences.  We like to say our concerts are “shush-proof”! When a yelp or shriek occurs during a particular musical passage, I like to think “wow – this musical moment really touched that person”. Sometimes I put myself in a John Cage-like mindset and consider the sound to have been an actual and integral part of the performance.  In a cosmic way, I often feel as if the people with autism who attend our performances are actually connected to me and making music along with me, participating and contributing in their own unique way.  

Aside from the need for our musicians to embrace extraneous sounds, we have also learned over the years to make a number of changes from a production standpoint, compared to a normal concert experience.  People with autism often have a really hard time making transitions: from house to car, from car to lobby, from lobby to theatre, theatre to performance, and so on.  These transitions are often scary and overwhelming for them.  One way to ease this stress is to have some kind of ambient pre-show music piped in quietly, like a nice “spa-like” environment with soothing sounds. It prepares for the transition to the actual concert sounds, and can make sudden ambient noises less startling and acute.  Lights are usually at 50% and we try not to have too much applause and talk in the beginning in order to keep the mood mellow and minimize anxiety.

The program typically does not begin with a loud and fast opening.  Again, smooth and gentle transitions work best.   Program lengths are kept at about 50 minutes with only movements performed, or parts of movements.  Performers dress nicely and we take great pains to try to have a printed program, mostly so that parents feel the event is a treat, a ‘real’ concert and not an ad hoc get-together.  Between pieces I usually create some kind of interaction with either the audience or the performers, again short and scripted, such as a quick statement from each of our musicians on why they like playing for this audience today.  Or maybe just a nice hello and hand shake to a child in the audience.  Another interlude in the middle of the program, when everyone is settled in and comfortable, might be ‘stretching time’ or a little laughing yoga exercise.   I often use a note-book of positive aphorisms for ASD parents that I’ve collected over the years.  For an interlude I’ll sometimes ask parents in the audience to call out a number, then find that particular one on the list and read them their own personal “Cosmic Aphorism”.  One I like in particular is “All great things mature slowly” (Schopenhauer). 

I love finding in the audience a particularly severely challenged ASD child, and have him or her escorted to the piano to sit next to me by the upper register of the keyboard. 

I’ll then mime playing to invite him to join me, or if he will let me, gently put his hands on the keyboard.  If I get a couple of notes out of him, I respond with chords in the lower register.  A spontaneous improvisation begins!  Sometimes it’s quite beautiful with a scarcity of pitches, almost Webern-esque.  Other times a child might pound the keys with his fists, and I’ll respond in kind – think Prokovief Toccata! 

At these Stanford shows, Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet will often co-host with me.  He usually takes over once the program gets started as he enjoys revving up the energy, in a unique way only he can do.  Known as the world’s most enthusiastic proponent of the Haydn string quartets, Geoff loves to get everyone up and dancing during Minuets or concluding Rondos. At Stanford there is always at least one movement of a Haydn quartet included in Azure classical string concerts! 

After the last piece of the program we always leave time for a meet and greet with the performers, along with a bit of “instrument petting zoo”.   Like the four hand improvisation, string players can have a young person pluck or hold a bow with assistance and make a sound.  The cello is particularly fun in this respect, as a child can have a whole body experience with the instrument between her knees while the cellist, with arms wrapped around the child, helps to bow a low string.  Always there are smiles as the child hears the note, witnesses its production up-close and feels the physical sound vibration. 

Stephen recommends the book,  In A Different Key .

Stephen recommends the book, In A Different Key.

Much to our joy, we’ve also discovered that many orchestras and dance companies are willing to open their dress rehearsals to our audiences.  Given that the paying public might not be too pleased with someone moving or vocalizing next to them, these dress rehearsals provide a safe opportunity for our families to experience many wonderful productions, while giving the orchestra or dancers the benefit of having a live audience to perform for before the “real” show.  AFBA rarely incurs significant added expenses, as we are tapping into an already scheduled rehearsal.

Whenever I travel for performances, I encourage presenters to reach out to local autism organizations so that I may be able to include a special Azure performance before or after my “regular” recital or orchestra appearance.  Even in non-English speaking countries as far flung as Kosovo, Belarus, Colombia and Korea, these events have been heartwarming to me and, judging from the responses, very meaningful to presenters and the many families who have attended. 

Azure performance series have sprouted up in locations far from the Bay Area around the U.S. and Canada, and I continue to receive requests periodically for help to start a new one (to which I always say yes).  The initial challenges of such an endeavor not only involve finding an appropriate venue, tailoring the performance to the audience and fund-raising, but also and most importantly, how to get the word out to the autism community.  There is no point in doing all of the work and having nobody show up!  This year’s new Azure venues include a music school in Victoria BC, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Texas at Austin.   Other cities with ongoing Azure concerts are Phoenix, Vancouver and St. Paul, with annual performances at Michigan State and at Spoleto USA. 

So, back to those memories of 27 years ago in Moscow.  Is my autism advocacy and Azure work what I had dreamed I’d be doing for much of my future life as a musician?  Not in my wildest imagination.   Have I enjoyed playing in prestigious places around the world like Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls, the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic, or the San Francisco Symphony?  Absolutely.  Was it thrilling?  No doubt. But were my renderings of the Emperor concerto and other master works as influential and meaningful in the lives of those audience members, as my shortened, tailored performances for our Azure families?  No way!  A tearful thank you from a mother who thought there would never be a day when she could go to a musical performance with her autistic son touches me more deeply and enduringly than any ovation I may have received in Europe or the States.  For during an Azure performance, for a short period of time, this mother feels like she is not alone but part of a community.  Her child, feeling like any child the need for love, acceptance and success, witnesses on Mom’s face happiness and contentment, rather than pain and disappointment.  And hopefully the power of music, perhaps through the slow movement of Debussy’s Quartet or by way of a Beethoven Moonlight, can allow both to be transported together to a place of peace and beauty, free from fear and worry.

                                                                      —Stephen Prutsman