Throughout my life, my Asperger’s profile has accounted for a number of personal challenges which I have worked hard to address, with varying levels of success. Several of these challenges have either been greatly diminished, if not conquered, thanks in large part to my life-long immersion in the art form we call music.
Words cannot express the degree to which music is a part of who I am as a person and how it has helped me grow. I would not be the strong, smart, mature, outgoing person I am today had I not chosen to study, perform, compose, teach, and earn a degree in music. In my life, its power has been nothing less than transformative.
Music gave me an alternative channel for expressing ideas and emotions that I would not have expressed otherwise. Growing up, I tended to be shy, reserved and uncomfortable in social situations, largely because I often didn’t feel connected to what was going on around me and was too concerned with what my peers might think of what I had to say such that I would often say very little or nothing at all. As a result, I often did not have anything meaningful to contribute to a social interaction. As I matured as a Jazz piano player and songwriter, I discovered a language with which I felt very comfortable and which I could leverage in connecting with people with whom I would not otherwise have connected.
To me, the beauty of the Jazz idiom lies in its allowance for spontaneous, real-time, “no holds barred” musical expression and creativity, otherwise known as improvisation. Songwriting opens the door for creativity and personal expression as well. My abilities as a Jazz musician and songwriter have not only allowed me to connect with my audience at a level that elicits positive emotional responses from them; it also affords me the opportunity to safely and comfortably express what I feel inside. In this regard, I am convinced that the gradual increase in my level of comfort and confidence in connecting with other people in social situations can be attributed to my continual involvement in performing and composing music. I am sure that the same benefits hold true for folks on the Spectrum who are engaged in these types of musical activities and in other creative art forms.
My extensive experience in performing in musical groups certainly helped me with the challenges that I have faced in group social interactions. While making music with other people, you inevitably develop skills based on awareness of what others around you are doing and on being a part of a team effort. And for me, the connectivity that I felt with the musicians with whom I performed over the years resulted in several lasting, meaningful friendships. Being able to cultivate such relationships helps develop self-confidence.
Performing and writing music has, for me, been the ultimate, feel good therapy for the soul. Everybody, not just folks on the Spectrum, deals with the banality of day to day life as well as with hardship, stress, sadness, frustration and the gamut of all of the “difficult” emotions. And so we all need a release, an escape from these realities of life, and for me, music has been that escape above all else. I have been so very fortunate to have had numerous musical experiences that were escapist in the sense that they “took me away” from the humdrum, day-to-day rhythm of my existence and from my Asperger’s-related challenges, and proved to be both therapeutic and uplifting in these regards. To name just a few of these experiences: singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Pops Orchestra when John Williams was the visiting conductor, singing with the same chorus and orchestra when James Taylor decided to join in, playing “The Girl from Ipanema” on the piano during a Holiday Inn Sunday brunch and having somebody walk up to me and say that my playing took her back in time to a fond memory in which she had last heard the song, singing Mozart at Lincoln Center with my college choir, or playing keyboards with one of my past Rock bands during a gig at venue packed to capacity with an audience that was inches away from us, feeding off of the sound and the energy emanating from us and our instruments. Therapy for the soul, without question. Aspies and Spectrum folks everywhere deserve to be as lucky as I have been, granted all that we deal with on a daily basis.
During my high school years, I went through a phase that I would describe as “girl-crazy”. In retrospect, I feel as though I was fully justified in entering into this phase in that I truly did know several classy, intelligent, beautiful, kind and unforgettable girls to whom I couldn’t help but be attracted. The problem was, they were all unavailable, and, by virtue of my Asperger’s profile, I was not able to let go of my feelings towards any of them for quite some time despite knowing deep down that letting go and moving on would have been in my best interest. Furthermore, I resorted to the extremes of either hiding my feelings while with some of them or wearing my heart on my sleeve, often too much so, while with the others. Dealing with all of this was very difficult, as is always the case when you have feelings for somebody who doesn’t feel the same way, then multiply that several-fold, then factor in the obsessive/compulsive tendencies which many folks on the Spectrum contend with on a regular basis.
And so, I turned to my songwriting, and, using my craft mostly as a coping mechanism, wrote and recorded a bunch of very mushy love songs about many of these girls and, in some cases, shared some of the songs with them. These songs are very emotionally intense in that they reveal my true feelings with little restraint and with plenty of dramatic effect. Looking back in hindsight, I know that this musical exercise helped me get my feelings under control, come to terms with reality and even remain friends with the ladies, thanks to a few of the great benefits of musical expression: finding peace of mind and inner strength thru alternative emotional release.
When you know that you function in fundamentally different ways from most or all of your peers, that you face challenges in social situations that others don’t and that you have to exert considerably more energy than others do in achieving the same result, building self-esteem is an uphill battle. It certainly was for me, though my involvement in music contributed greatly towards this effort and I eventually won the battle. For a long time now, I have felt very proud of who I am. Discovering my passion, working hard and getting good at it definitely helped. Many doors opened for me that would otherwise have remained closed. So many friendships and other meaningful relationships that I have enjoyed over the years would otherwise have eluded me. The achievements of earning a degree and a teacher certification in music provided a strong sense of accomplishment. My performance and songwriting talents and my work as a piano teacher helped me earn the respect and admiration of many people. It all figured into my longtime journey in learning how to love myself despite all of the challenges I have confronted and all of the struggles I have had to endure which stem from my Asperger’s profile.
My sincere hope for Spectrum folks who read this is that if you aren’t as happy as you would like to be and haven’t yet discovered an activity that you feel passionate about, that you find it soon, run with it and don’t let anything or anybody get in the way of your pursuit of it. Just as I did prior to discovering the piano any my other musical endeavors, you might end up going through a period of trial and error before you discover your passion, but don’t quit until you find it, whether it be music, one of the other performing or fine arts, reading, creative writing, a sport, etc. At one point, I had an 80-year old piano student who was completely new to the instrument at the time. He didn’t let his age get in the way of trying an unfamiliar activity that might add something that was missing from his life, and though the piano didn’t work out for him, I greatly admired him for keeping an open mind about it and jumping in despite how old he was. You do the same, don’t stop, and what you end up finding just might transform your life, as music did to my life. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you.