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Inclusion: Part 3, The Celebrating the Spectrum Piano Festival at Michigan State

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The Celebrating the Spectrum Piano Festival at Michigan State University was a first-of-its-kind summer piano festival that first occurred from July 24-31, 2016. This festival immersed five pre-college piano students in a daily schedule meant to emulate a week in the life of a music major in a college setting. The event culminated with two concerts: a house concert for a select group of family and friends, and a public concert attended by a large audience in MSU's Cook Recital Hall. Both concerts featured performances from students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Michigan State University faculty, and graduate student interns, and included solo piano music, as well as music for piano four hands. 

The eight-day festival included daily masterclasses on piano repertoire taught by Professor Deborah Moriarty and Dr. Derek Kealii Polischuk, hour-long lectures by national and international educators,  a Pilates exercise class, and lunch, dinner, and evening activities on the MSU campus. The five students in attendance were chosen by application and were each paired with a graduate student program assistant from the piano department of the Michigan State University College of Music. Students stayed in a dormitory and ate meals with program assistants and faculty. 

After a healthy breakfast, students were instructed in a group setting on the solo repertoire that they planned to perform at the festival. During this time, students learned to make constructive and positive comments on the performances of their peers. In order to demonstrate the importance of balancing exercise with focused piano practice, students, mentors, and faculty participated in a Pilates class. The instructor focused on helping the participants to develop a "body awareness" approach to playing their instrument.
Kalil Olsen plays in a masterclass for Dr. Polischuk.

In the afternoons, students and mentors enjoyed a lecture meant to emulate the experience and subject matter in a typical undergraduate course at a school with a similar profile to Michigan State University. Instructors included Dr. Lauren Harris of the Psychology Department at MSU, Randall Faber of the Faber Piano Institute, Dr. Michael Thaut, a neuroscientist and Professor of Music at the University of Toronto, Dr. Shannon Kay de l'Etoile from the University of Miami (Florida), and Dr. Scott Price from the University of South Carolina. 

Later in the day, students and mentors worked on four-hand repertoire in a group setting. Students were assigned four-hand repertoire two weeks in advance of the festival and worked on performing this repertoire with mentors from Michigan State University. Other afternoon activities included a jazz improvisation workshop and practice time with mentors. During the latter, program assistants reinforced concepts taught earlier in the day during masterclasses. 

On the Friday of the festival, students had a dress rehearsal along with a discussion about their upcoming recital. In the evening, students, program assistants and faculty performed a house concert at a home in East Lansing that was attended by program sponsors, family members, and university dignitaries. An elegant dinner was served following the performance. The house concert served as a comfortable warm-up in front of a familiar audience. 

On Saturday, students gave a public recital with 100 people in attendance. The performance was live-streamed, as well, to reach other friends and relatives. In 2016, at the conclusion of the recital, Michigan Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley (an active advocate for Autism research), presented students with certificates of achievement signed by the President and Provost of Michigan State University. 

An archived video of the final recital from both years can be viewed online. Click here for 2016.  Click here for 2017. 

Parental anxiety in families with students on the autism spectrum can be intense. The possibility of failure in a situation that is high pressure, such as a music festival, can be enough to cause a student or parent to have second thoughts about the wisdom of participating in such an activity. Families with students on the spectrum face difficult decisions about their children's futures. Enrolling a student in college requires a large leap of faith that the student will be successfully independent, that he will find like-minded and compassionate peers, and will engage with the required support-structures. These considerations may lead certain families to write off the possibility of higher education altogether. 

When curriculum is carefully planned, and standards are at a high and artistic level, an experience like the Celebrating the Spectrum Festival can have an impact on a student and his family beyond just musical development and inspiration. When one examines responses from a post-festival survey compared to a pre-festival survey collected from parents, one can see that a powerful and carefully crafted musical immersion experience can improve parental attitude regarding study at a large university. One response was as follows: 

"I have every confidence that my child will succeed (at university), and this is a result of the involvement in this program. My child stepped up to the plate and was confident and mature. Although other subjects might be more of a challenge (academic work load, class size, and professor personalities may be challenging as well), I feel the exposure to a college environment helps us know what to expect in the future, and reduces the anxiety level, which helps at being successful. The more familiar the student is with the situation, the better it will go for them. Transitions with autism are usually difficult, so this is a great help!" 

Students with ASD frequently exhibit rigidity, which can lead to significant difficulties with transitions. Immersing children with ASD into activities that require a limited amount of flexibility—while also allowing for adaptation of schedule where needed—can have a powerful impact on their ability to function effectively in a setting like a university. For a student with ASD, a typical freshman orientation may not be enough. Immersion activities like the Celebrating the Spectrum Festival provide steps towards a successful transition into college life.



Joey Tan and Ling Lo perform a Brahms waltz.
David Ginther and Hsin-Yi Huang perform a movement of Faure’s Dolly Suite.


Parental anxiety in families with students on the autism spectrum can be intense. The possibility of failure in a situation that is high pressure, such as a music festival, can be enough to cause a student or parent to have second thoughts about the wisdom of participating in such an activity. Families with students on the spectrum face difficult decisions about their children's futures. Enrolling a student in college requires a large leap of faith that the student will be successfully independent, that he will find like-minded and compassionate peers, and will engage with the required support-structures. These considerations may lead certain families to write off the possibility of higher education altogether.

When curriculum is carefully planned, and standards are at a high and artistic level, an experience like the Celebrating the Spectrum Festival can have an impact on a student and his family beyond just musical development and inspiration. When one examines responses from a post-festival survey compared to a pre-festival survey collected from parents, one can see that a powerful and carefully crafted musical immersion experience can improve parental attitude regarding study at a large university. One response was as follows:

"I have every confidence that my child will succeed (at university), and this is a result of the involvement in this program. My child stepped up to the plate and was confident and mature. Although other subjects might be more of a challenge (academic work load, class size, and professor personalities may be challenging as well), I feel the exposure to a college environment helps us know what to expect in the future, and reduces the anxiety level, which helps at being successful. The more familiar the student is with the situation, the better it will go for them. Transitions with autism are usually difficult, so this is a great help!"

Students with ASD frequently exhibit rigidity, which can lead to significant difficulties with transitions. Immersing children with ASD into activities that require a limited amount of flexibility—while also allowing for adaptation of schedule where needed—can have a powerful impact on their ability to function effectively in a setting like a university. For a student with ASD, a typical freshman orientation may not be enough. Immersion activities like the Celebrating the Spectrum Festival provide steps towards a successful transition into college life.


 ...continue to Inclusion, part 4 - Music Knows no Walls

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Inclusion: Part 2, The MusicLink connection
Inclusion: Part 4, Music knows no walls
 

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