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MSU to host music festival providing opportunity to students on autism spectrum

July 20, 2022
<p>Outside of new Billman Music Pavilion at Michigan State Universities College of Music on Thursday, September 17, 2020. </p>

Outside of new Billman Music Pavilion at Michigan State Universities College of Music on Thursday, September 17, 2020.

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, MSU is renewing a program meant to provide advanced piano instruction to students who are on the autism spectrum.

"Celebrating The Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life" will take place on July 25-30, with a focus on celebrating the artistry, sensitivity and musical abilities of the participants.

Students throughout the country will travel to East Lansing to take part in the program. For one week, they will attend masterclasses on piano repertoire led by MSU professors of piano Deborah Moriarty and Derek Polischuk. They will also attend classes in music theory, neuropsychology and musicology – all capped off with pilates classes to raise bodily awareness and relaxation.

“This is a one-of-a-kind program,” Moriarty said. “It's unique. It's the only one in the country – maybe the only one in the world, as far as we know.”

The week-long festival allows the students to immerse themselves into the complete college experience; they will live on MSU's campus and attend a rigorous class schedule that mirrors that of a music major.

MSU graduate students play a key role in the festival. Each participant is assigned a mentor that stays with them throughout the entire day, ensuring that all of their questions get answered and that they make the most of their education. The opening night of the festival week is kicked off by a “mentor concert,” where all of the program assistants will perform at Cook Recital Hall on opening night at 6 p.m.

“We want the incoming students to experience how good these graduate students are,” Moriarty said. “And to realize that they have wonderful people who are working with them.”

The instructors said it's important that the level of instruction is not toned down – they ask the same of the participants that they do of graduate students. Polischuk said that while students on the spectrum might have more difficulty with interpersonal communication, their musical skill level is advanced and students are excited to meet the high demands.

“One of our goals is to give them a really high-quality music festival experience,” Polischuk said. “Not any kind of remedial autism camp sort of experience, but something that's really a high-level experience.”

An unexpected benefit of the program is providing a community for parents to share their experiences, Moriarty said.

“Most of these parents have not had the opportunity to be with other parents who have children on the spectrum, so it can be very lonely,” Moriarty said. “Playing the piano can be a very lonely thing for one thing, but having a child on the spectrum is also a very lonely thing.”

The week of education culminates with a free, public concert that will be held at Cook Recital Hall on Monday, June 30 at 6 p.m. Polischuk hopes that the concert will also help reshape the public perception of what musicians on the spectrum are capable of because the performances are “exceptional.”

“The final concert is very special,” Moriarty said. “We've had some years where there's been a small audience, we've had some years where there's been a huge audience and every single time that the energy of that final concert is electric. It's really fun. I think the audience gets a ton out of it.”

The MSU College of Music partners with various departments on campus to provide the necessary support and resources to effectively work with students on the autism spectrum. Learn more about MSU's autism spectrum disorder resources here.

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