Updated: Jun 15
Many voice teachers are insecure working with students on the Autism Spectrum because of their lack of training and understanding. I, for one, have many years of experience with this population and find these students the most amazing and creative people I have been blessed to know. These are stories about three of the most amazing music students with ASD I have taught.
The student who taught me the most about how the brain processes music was a student named Milana, a middle school soprano who exhibited perfect pitch, played Mozart by ear, and was a gifted artist in drawing and painting. Milana was diagnosed at the time with Aspergers Syndrome. Milana also spoke and sang in several languages, including Japanese, which she learned because of her interest in Anime. I worked with Milana for five years teaching her singing, music note reading, piano, music theory and music history. While I imparted my years of experience in music Milana offered me a glimpse into a very exciting phenomenon called Synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a response of another sense (sound, sight, smell, taste, touch) while experiencing one stimulus. As Milana heard a pitch she visualized a corresponding color in her mind’s eye.The colors she described were unrelated to what you would assume. If a middle C was seen as shade of red one would expect a rainbow effect with relative colors but this was not the way Milana saw pitch. Milana visualized Middle C as red but C# was neon greenish-yellow, D was a bluish-gray, D# was orange, E was lavender and F was a brownish-yellow etc. As we ascended the singing range of her soprano voice there was no logic to the colors she saw. One would assume that an octave would be represented in a similar shading of the representative color but that was not the case either. When Milana heard a chord she saw colors simultaneously but they were not organized into any particular pattern and even more interesting is the fact that she would see colors of some of the overtones as well as the primary pitches!
I was so enthralled studying Milana that I began my journey learning as much about the brain, music, language and the integration of other senses as I possibly could. My mind was awakened to learn more about neuroscience relative to Synesthesia and the magnificence of the human brain.
Another phenomenal student is Francisco, a 20 year old male with multiple learning disabilities, a developmental coordination disorder and only recently diagnosed with High Functioning Autism. He was referred to me by his sister, a voice student of mine, majoring in film and theater, at the University of Arizona.
Francisco began his journey with me as a piano student. He plays numerous instruments by ear, is a sketch artist, and wants to learn to sing. After a year working with Francisco on the piano he asked me if he could also learn to sing in order to assist him with his communications issues. As I trained as a speech-language pathologist, I decided that I would be happy to work with him and his clinician to assist with his communication skills.
Although Francisco is an accomplished musician there is one area that is lacking- his ability to match singing pitch. At first I began training him to hear the pitch on the piano and reproduce it in his voice. Instead, he reproduced the pitch consistently a perfect 4th below the original pitch. So why was this student reproducing each pitch a forth below the pitch?
What is involved in hearing and reproducing pitch? The brain is multi-tasking in a micro-second. First our auditory system must be functioning properly, that means hearing correctly. Since this student is already playing many instruments and able to transpose by ear we already know that he does not have a hearing insufficiency. The next process is the auditory cortex ability to process and make sense of the sound. That was fine. By asking the right questions I discovered that Francisco had not learned to sing as a child, either in school or at home. Similarly to language acquisition the “door” to learning closes after age 12. However, in language development you will never be able to learn to speak if you have not uttered a sound before around age of twelve. Fortunately, the singing ability is still there but atrophied by lack of use.
Francisco did recognize that he was singing below the pitch he heard but didn’t know how to fix it. For Francisco I began using a voice training software program which shows real-time visual feedback as he sang. This visual-auditory feedback was just what he needed. After about a month of working just a few minutes a day he is now singing five note scales in tune with success.
As we progress through this school year I expect to help Francisco master control over his voice and demonstrate the beautiful baritone voice of which he was gifted. He has told me that his speech-language pathologist has noticed a difference in his breath support, speaking rate, resonance and intonation in just a short time.
Claire came to me four years ago as a high school junior with a glorious soprano voice. She was diagnosed with Autism and demonstrated several deficits in pragmatics, socialization and lack of confidence. Claire has perfect pitch, an innate knowledge of music theory and is now studying to be a music teacher.
What began as preparation for Arizona Solo and Ensemble auditions began a four year journey with a gifted student who has taught me so much about the struggle of acceptance with ASD and the power determination.
My job was simple- listen to the student, identify her vocal strengths, find a song that worked in her range and level of development and prepare the student to perform for a grade at the state level. What I didn’t expect was the level of musical ability and vocal flexibility that came with that quiet, introspective young lady. Claire, although not very confident, had a range of over 3-1/2 octaves, was born with perfect pitch, could sight sing at a college level, could sing major, minor, augmented and diminished scales and chords without assistance, somehow was able to listen to a piece of music and identify the historical period and was functioning way above her high school level. I was blown away!
Need I tell you that Claire scored an excellent rating at Arizona Solo and Ensemble that year. We continued to work towards and succeeded in her goals to perform as a member of the Arizona All-State Chorus both in her junior and senior year. She learned most of her music on her own and, as I have done with college level students, helped her with posture, breath control, phrasing, focus, placement, stage presence and confidence. She scored so high that she was selected to perform at the Musical Educators’ National Conference with a group of students from high schools around the United States.
Claire joined every vocal ensemble in Tucson that she could as she continued working with me. She learned to sing classical music, music theater, pop, jazz, opera and folk music. Claire can sing in English, French, Italian, Spanish and German and has mastered the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) at my suggestion. With that knowledge she is able to learn to sing in any other language that she is interested in performing.
I am overjoyed that Claire is now a student at Pima College where she is studying music education with a major in voice. I have told her that she can join my studio when she gets her degree and I know that she will be a great voice teacher.