Unique program engages MSU community in week of teaching and scholarship for students with autism.
When Annie Olsen took her then-preschool son Kalil to his first piano lesson, she didn’t foresee how he would become a multi-instrumentalist, drum major, and performer in his high school’s jazz band.
“When you look at him today, you’d never guess where he came from,” says the East Lansing, Mich., resident of her 16-year-old son. “Music played a huge role in helping him to function as a member of his peer group and in social settings.”
Kalil Olsen has autism. In July 2016, he was among a group of advanced music students on the autism spectrum who previewed collegiate life through a weeklong summer piano festival hosted by the MSU College of Music.
The first-ever “Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life” introduced participating students age 12 to 22 to life as a college musician—complete with a sampling of dorm living, dorm food, and a rigorous schedule that culminated in two concerts.
“I enjoyed being able to learn from others, as well as from many great teachers and mentors,” says Kalil. “There were a variety of ways that the festival helped to improve me and others as musicians. Overall, my experience at the festival has made me want to come back, maybe even help other young musicians have the same or better experience than I had.”
For Annie, hearing Kalil make those connections is music to her ears.
“At the festival, Kalil said he was more in contact with his emotions,” she says. “He also said the festival helped extend his understanding of autism. For me as a parent, one of the outcomes was having that confidence when it comes to transitioning into a college atmosphere. He has that experience now, which is extremely valuable.”
“Celebrating the Spectrum” evolved from an idea conceived by Derek Polischuk, an associate professor of piano and director of piano pedagogy at MSU. Polischuk had spent years teaching piano to students with autism through the Community Music School. Kalil had been among them.
“One of the things that has been striking to me is the incredible investment of time and love and energy that a parent gives to a child with a disability,” he reflects. “Because of that, those parents can sometimes become a little isolated. I’m hoping that this festival shows them there are others going through similar experiences, and that with the right resources and curriculum, their child is capable of extraordinary things.”
Polischuk joined forces with the MSU Chair of Piano Area Deborah Moriarty and presented the idea to the RAIND Program—the institute for Research in Autism, Intellectual And Neurodevelopment Disabilities at MSU. With RAIND’s insight, the two began identifying graduate students teachers, guest speakers, experts to build and deliver curriculum and campus programs that could provide logistical support.
“The festival was a perfect example of how MSU engages with the local community,” says Ian Gray, vice president of research and graduate studies at MSU. “We were able to identify new opportunities to work with the parents of the children attending the festival, and discovered new research opportunities for the College of Music. Overall, the festival was a wonderfully successful event."
Students from Michigan cities like East Lansing, Midland and Grand Rapids enrolled for the four-day festival as did students from as far away as Kansas and Florida. Each of the five students paired with a graduate student mentor to refine or learn two pieces for performance, as well as to engage in workshops and study. Daily schedules also included meals and campus activities, rest and relaxation, a Pilates class taught by Rosanna Barberio, director of Lansing’s Old Towne Pilates and hour-long lectures by prominent educators including Dr. Lauren Harris from the MSU Department of Psychology, Dr. Michael Thaut from the University of Toronto, Randy Faber of Faber Piano Adventures, and Connie Wible from Musical Mind Studios in Washington.
“The speakers and the Pilates class added a dimension to an intense schedule that emulated the life of an MSU undergraduate in music,” says Moriarty. “At the end of the week, every single student was rising to the challenge and performing their pieces at a high level. It was impressive and extraordinary to see their progress, abilities and focus.”
Stepping on a stage
Ling Lo, a doctoral student in piano performance, was among the five MSU graduate students who worked one-on-one with students during the festival. While her week focused on teaching and conveying musical principals and techniques, she said she also learned valuable lessons that shaped her approach to teaching and performance.
“I realize that music is not only about the sounds and notes, it’s about how you interact with the world and the people around you through a beautiful language,” she says. “We actually don’t need to say a word to communicate. Music is all about understanding and joy.”
That joy was evident in the two concerts at the conclusion of the festival. The first, an informal concert at the home of donors Tom and Wendy Hofman, provided a setting for students to rehearse for a second performance the next night. Each student was introduced to the audience before playing a solo piece and duet with their mentor. About 50 people attended, including families, friends and festival donors and supporters.
The final concert took place at Cook Recital Hall on campus. Students performed the same program to an audience of about 100 people, including Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, an advocate for autism research. Calley also presented certificates signed by MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs June Youatt to each student.
“While the essence of this festival was to build community and foster support, it was also much more,” says James Forger, dean of the College of Music. “It was also about scholarship. It was about teaching. And it was about advancing opportunities in higher education and the arts for students and families who experience autism.”
Celebrating the Spectrum Program student participants included: David Ginther, Alexander McCullough, Anna Schuck, Kalil Olsen, and Joey Tan.
The first annual Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life was sponsored by Michigan State University as part of the RAIND Program, with generous support provided by the MSU Office of the Provost; corporate sponsors Sparrow Health System and the MSU Federal Credit Union; MSU alumni and friends April Clobes and Glen Brough, Lauren Harris, Merritt and Candy Lutz, Bill and Sandy Mason, and Jack and Karen Noonan; and from the Frances Baldwin Mulnix Endowment Fund at MSU.
Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life is sponsored by Michigan State University as part of the RAIND Program, with generous support provided by the MSU Office of the Provost, and the following corporate sponsors and donors: Sparrow Health System and the MSU Federal Credit Union, as well as generous support from MSU alumni and friends: April Clobes and Glen Brough, Merritt and Candy Lutz, Bill and Sandy Mason, Jack and Karen Noonan, along with support from the Frances Baldwin Mulnix Endowment Fund at MSU. Special thanks to Dean Transportation for generously providing all transportation needs for festival participants.
Private support helped provide dollars to sponsor each student participant, enabling them to attend the festival tuition free. Funds also covered stipends for College of Music student mentors who buddied-up with the festival participants.
Courtesy of the College of Music's Newsletter