Category: Articles

Teamwork in the Conservatory: In the Game of Music, We Can All Win

Three people at the mixing desk of a recording studio

My yoga teacher once said something that really stuck with me: What helps “we” also helps “me.” Time after time, my experiences have verified this to be true. The occasions in which I have grown the most have all involved collaborating with my peers and coworkers. I strongly believe that no collective growth can occur without there first being individual growth, but that when an individual grows, so does the group. This is also a key component of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s (SFCM) Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program, where there is a large emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. I want to see my peers succeed, so I’m constantly asking myself how I can contribute to their success. Through collaboration, we grow together.

One Friday night during my freshman year, a group of students and I got free tickets to see the San Francisco Opera. I arrived at the opera house and found my seat next to another TAC student, Thomas Soto. We began chatting about music and other career-related things. He offhandedly mentioned that there was a really cool professional development program for college students pursuing a career in music called GRAMMY U. He told me how the program hosts “SoundChecks” with big-name artists like Jason Mraz, The Weeknd, and Khalid, which include a Q&A session and a photo with the artist. I was intrigued. After the opera, I went home and immediately applied for a GRAMMY U membership. Fast forward one and a half years and I’m sitting in a corporate office interviewing to be the next GRAMMY U Representative for the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy. Now, after having the job for nearly a year and four months, one of my many roles is to pair 10 to 15 high-achieving GRAMMY U members with a mentor in their field of study each semester. It all came back around this semester when I paired Thomas, the same person who told me about the program, with an awesome mentor who has been teaching him audio engineering, mixing, and arranging. Looking back at that night in the opera house, Thomas had no idea what wheels he had set in motion at that time. He was simply sharing a really cool opportunity with me and ended up benefiting greatly from it himself some three years later.

[banneradvert]

A few weeks ago, after hearing a decent number of my peers in the TAC program complain about how difficult it is to find an artist manager, I decided it was time to use my rep position to make some magic happen. Through GRAMMY U, I organized an Industry Insights event on the relationship between artists and managers. I knew some GRAMMY U members at UC Berkeley studying artist management, and of course I knew members in my own TAC program who were in great need of management, so I thought it to be a perfect fit. I called up the music director of the Berkeley Careers in Entertainment Club (BCEC) to see if they wanted to co-host this event with us. They agreed, so I sent an invitation out to all of the GRAMMY U members in the Bay Area. We invited a guest speaker, Joe Barham, artist manager for the Stone Foxes and creator partnerships lead at Patreon, for a Q&A. During the event, I asked Joe about the roles and expectations of artist managers, how these relationships are built, and the red flags to look out for when searching for your perfect match. Following the Q&A, we gave out colored name tags and mock-business cards with each student’s info for them to hand out during the networking session. At first, when we announced that the networking session had officially begun, nobody moved from their seat. Only after an inspiring pep talk about seizing the moment from Michael Winger, the executive director of The Recording Academy SF Chapter, did students begin to shuffle around the room. Surprisingly, the networking session lasted longer than we expected, resulting in us having to move the event next door to a pizza joint.

The feedback I got was very inspiring. Some students admitted, “At first, I was scared to walk up to someone new, but after the fourth and fifth time it became surprisingly easy,” and, “I didn’t realize how cool everyone in the room was until I started talking to them.” This is a much smaller industry than we realize, and many students we sit next to in class will be the working professionals of tomorrow. Every day is an opportunity to make these connections and long-lasting friendships. These relationships will serve you for the rest of your life. Due to the huge success of this event, I’m now in the process of planning another Industry Insights session for production and engineering students in May.

Teamwork in the Conservatory

I didn’t know what I was in for when I signed up for a winter term class called Synesthesia and Microtonality this past January. There were only three of us in the class: Jonathan Herman, Jessica Mao, and myself. We showed up to our first class meeting to have the professor tell us that we had one week to figure out a solution to his dilemma. Our task was to program a keyboard to play microtones and another one to trigger specific colors on a screen for a live performance. The three of us, not yet knowing each other very well, had no idea how to go about accomplishing this on our own. It was only when we started to communicate our different skills that we realized where one person lacked, the other made up for. I knew just enough about the program Max/MSP to start building a color organ, Jessica started mapping out the different color combinations and how they would correspond to specific keys, and Jonathan, who is well-versed in Ableton, began on the microtonal tunings. The collaborative process was so seamless it felt like we were a machine. After only three days we had worked out a brilliant solution, something I never thought would happen when we began. The piece is scheduled to be performed at SFCM in May. Due to its unique curriculum, the TAC program at SFCM is collaborative by nature. Not only did I accomplish a goal I previously thought impossible, I also developed great friendships in the process. I learned a valuable lesson in trusting others’ abilities. That’s what a team is for.

There’s a place for everyone to succeed in this game. We come from different backgrounds with varying life experiences that contribute to our own unique skill sets. If I could do anything right now, I would want to encourage students to not treat work life as a competition, but more so like a game with only one team. Rather than competing against each other, we can utilize our individual knowledge to work together and create immensely beautiful things. Before entering the TAC program, I had not realized the mighty power of collaboration, nor thought about how my unique skill set could support the needs of others. Both the TAC program and my work with The Recording Academy have helped me see the tremendous value in teamwork. Life’s
much more fun when you work with others!

What kind of music do you write?

A still shot of a selection of records in a store

What kind of music do you write? Composers all get this question. All the time. I was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago this past December where I spent a lot of time with composers, conductors, and band directors, and you can imagine how many times it came up. As composers, we even ask other composers this question knowing full well that the answer can often times be quite complicated.

While at Midwest, I finally had the opportunity to meet Libby Larson. (And if you have not met her, I highly recommend figuring out a way to do so because she is an absolutely wonderful person.) Even someone of her esteem asks me this question. What kind of music do you write? I rummage through all the different answers I have prepared for this precise situation depending on the audience. From one composer to another composer is a much different answer than to a potential commissioner, or to a family member, or to a random stranger I am sharing a car ride with. I begin to tell her that “my music is an amalgamation of my lived experiences represented in music,” while I am careful not to indicate an aesthetic to her. I then go on to explain that “my music recently has strayed away from a specific style or medium and that I have recently written pieces for live electronics, a semi-classical sounding woodwind quintet, and a percussion piece using found objects, all while in the process of developing a new work for wind band.” She then tells me that I’m doing the right things, by keeping my options open. Coming from her, this was like being told I had made all the right choices in life.

A year ago, I interviewed 20 composers asking them to describe their music and discuss if aesthetic was important to their work. After each conversation, I realized more and more that I was not ready to write about the subject matter. My perspective shifted from one where I thought aesthetic did not matter at all, to one where it really just depends. I was oversimplifying the topic.

Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us.

I was quite surprised to see that there were generally only three types of responses to the question, “What kind of music do you write?” There were the responses that used some sort of musical language or referenced an aesthetic—“I write tonal music” or “I write groove-based music.” There were the responses that noted some sort of ensemble—“I write opera” or “I write band music.” Finally, there were the more philosophical or non-musical answers—“I tell stories through music” or (as in my example to Libby Larson) “I write music that is an amalgamation of my lived experiences.” This is all composer to composer, of course. I personally do a little bit of the medium/philosophical approach more so than the others, but I definitely air quote and wince and say classical from time to time. After interviewing so many colleagues, the only thing I discovered was that I had no idea how to answer the questions about aesthetic I had at the time, and every person I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion.

So where does that leave us composers who may or may not fit in an arbitrary box? Shortly after I completed all of these interviews, I came across Hannah Schiller’s article on post-genre context here on NewMusicBox. We are definitely on the same page. She quotes Missy Mazzoli, who accurately says what I’ve been thinking for the past few years now: that the word composer is a good description, but the word classical is not. Every composer that I spoke to said that they would never self-impose a box on themselves. Annika Socolofsky wishes that we would just erase classical music genre boundaries: “It’s a narrow-minded viewpoint that is keeping us stale and super white.”

When I asked if they fit in a specific style camp, almost everyone said no. Aaron Garcia described their style camp as somewhere between “nerdy composer music and punk,” and Jay Derderian said, “I’m not sure if I qualify, but I gravitate towards romanticism.” Alex Temple said “poly-stylist,” which I appreciated because it acknowledges the fact that many of us are writing in more than one specific aesthetic. Tina Tallon said that she “often gets lumped into the experimental avant-garde,” but it isn’t what she is necessarily going for. Everyone else felt pretty strongly that putting a name on what they do limits their ability to create great art. Something that really stuck with me that a few people said was that “they strive for artistic honesty,” owning artistic choices as a means of expression.

The language that composers use to describe their music is incredibly interesting and should not be ignored. Shelley Washington, for example, suggested that her work was “a frankencake of sound, one forkful at a time.” What an incredibly unique thing to say! More recently Shelley has said, “I have heard others describe my voice as unique, but I feel like I haven’t ingested enough of other people’s music to be able to make that sort of comparison about myself.” She then went on to say that the concept of unique is “very weighted.” I single out Shelley here, because when I asked her about the composers who she admires and considers influences, her response was everyone—especially her teachers and colleagues—and that her musical community was just as important to her as her own art-making process.

One area that people seemed to all agree on was that labeling style is for the audience and musicologists. Tina Tallon made a great point that “style can be helpful for performance techniques, such as referring to a work by someone else as a way of conveying the sound the composer is going for more effectively.” The overall consensus is that composers just want to make their art and not be boxed in, though Marcos Balter does say that “people tend to be tribalists.” He also pointed out that “so much of these divisions exist because many composers believe there is power in numbers.” Almost everyone understood why these boxes exist, but most seemed to wish that they didn’t. Garrett Schumann made the point that “millennials are more inwardly focused,” which would explain much of the direction music has taken in this demographic area. Much of the music being created has become more about self-expression, as opposed to fitting into a specific mold. The idea that there is a wrong way to write music did not come across.

We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.

Overall what I learned was that today, a composer’s style is specific to them. Kevin Clark described it as “style as people,” and Alex Temple concluded that “music is written by people, and people have personalities.” Judah Adashi said something similar, explaining that he writes music that is “personal, rather than unique.”

I think it is important for composers to think about how we describe ourselves to others. Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us. These words are all triggers that, through centuries of performance practice, may dictate to performers how to play the music. The biggest thing I found is that knowing your audience is important. When you describe your music to someone who knows nothing about music, giving them anything but the most important tidbits of information about the inner workings of your process can create an artificial barrier to entry. Use language that they understand. My music comes from my lived experiences as a way to express my thought process in that moment or over time. If composers do their job well and communicate effectively what they want played to the performer in the score, anything more specifically categorically aligned risks indicating a performance practice that might influence interpretation. We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.


Much appreciation to all of those involved:

Garrett Schumman
Gemma Peacocke
Kevin Clark
Jay Derderian
Monte Weber
Alex Temple
Aaron Garcia
Dennis Tobinski
Griffin Candey
Ed Windels
Marcos Balter
Paul Frucht
Ben Salman
Annika Socolofsky
Shelley Washington
Will Stackpole
Tina Tallon
Judah Adashi
David Biedenbender
Lyn Goeringer
Garrett Hope

I Came Here With Nothing: 21st-Century Paths in Music Education

A woman and a man at a mixing desk

I applied to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program as a very lost graphic design major transferring from the University of San Francisco. While I didn’t come from a strict classical background, I was a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and a passionate electronic music maker. Thankfully, SFCM saw a certain sense of originality and talent in my art, and I got accepted into one of the newest and most groundbreaking music technology programs that a conservatory has ever seen.

Why should a conservatory have a technology composition program? Music is always evolving, and conservatories should be the place where we can explore and pioneer this evolution. For 98 years, in general at SFCM you’d hear music from the 17th to the 20th centuries radiating out of its practice rooms and into the hallways. The game changed with the birth of TAC, founded by Executive Director MaryClare Brzytwa. With programs like TAC, students get the best of both worlds—the opportunity to study foundational classical music as well as the ability to explore new cutting-edge music technology. Coming from a graphic design background, using the latest tools and software had always been second nature to me. What I deeply hungered for was access to knowledge of the classical music world, something which most other music technology programs severely lacked. Every conservatory should offer an integral technology and applied composition program as a bachelor’s degree course.

The TAC program is designed to push students out of their comfort zones and into the realm of growth, experience, and discovery. From building musical applications in Max/MSP to cranking out a fully orchestrated score for a five-minute film cue, students are constantly challenged to learn more and perform better.

As freshmen, we are thrown immediately into the fire as one of our first tasks is to compose a one-minute suite for a fictitious video game. Only the work of a select few will be chosen to be recorded by professional musicians at Sony PlayStation’s studio in San Mateo. This assignment is especially challenging because most of us are scrambling to learn how to use a digital audio workstation for the first time.

It’s a fun ride to be on, when we walk into the classroom not knowing what to expect then suddenly have a ton of opportunities thrown at us. Last semester we worked with a local filmmaker on his documentary. The filmmaker himself had contacted the school looking to see if any composition students were interested in scoring his film, as the film had a heavy opera theme throughout. This became one of TAC’s main semester projects and, like every project, we poured everything we had into it. I ended up scoring 20 minutes of music for this project, and it became my first real professional credit.

Recently, TAC students have been working in collaboration with the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) on scoring their student film. The students at SFAI are creating a modern Macbeth, and our scores will be recorded at Skywalker Ranch.  Opportunities like these are continually laid out on the table for us, and we are responsible for grasping as many as we can and then running with them.

These are just some of the experiences we get, on top of having the traditional conservatory experience of studying music theory, orchestration, and harmony, as well as history and other general education classes.

If I were to offer advice to other conservatories based on my experiences in the TAC program, I’d say there are a few core ideas that will need to be implemented:

Recording Department
It’s important to teach students the most foundational recording studio skills. Recording, mixing, and editing know-how are invaluable for a lifelong career in music. Every live performance at the conservatory needs to be recorded, so teaching and allowing students to run this process achieves both goals at the same time. The recording department at SFCM is now almost completely student-run, with the head audio engineer being third-year TAC student Seira McCarthy.

Special Projects
Find outside projects that people in the community are passionate about and see if they would like to collaborate, or have students put together a seasonal concert of live electronic and avant-garde music. It’s important to be open and allow students to explore their creativity in a program like this. There is no straight path to achieving music nirvana, so it’s important to have an accepting and open program for students to show off their performance and composition skills.

A Badass Executive Director
My director and mentor MaryClare Brzytwa has pushed me further than I ever dreamed of going, and has never let me get away with cutting any corners. As an example, when I applied for a job to be a department assistant, she assigned me to be a recording engineer because during my freshman year, when other students were setting up audio equipment, she saw me hiding because I didn’t know how to do it. She wanted to be sure I would do the work I ran away from. And it worked. By forcing me to break down those barriers, I’m no longer afraid of setting up mics or running Pro Tools sessions.

Danielle Ferrari at the mixing desk

Photo by Carlin Ma

After four years of TAC, when you look around the conservatory, classical music is still radiating out of practice rooms. But now, there are also students playing synthesizers, building MIDI instruments, and collaborating as creators and musicians as well.

As that lost graphic design major, TAC was the gold mine I found that allowed me to learn everything I needed and more to be happy as a music creator.

Pro-Tips and Scripts: Autistic Accessibility in Music

An LED red arrow pointing to the right

You’ve reached Part 4 of the Introductory Course to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and this one’s full of action! Today, we get into the nuances of common things you will stumble upon as you increase your autistic awareness and start organizing with autistic people in mind. I offer pro-tips, concrete ways to take positive action, and sample scripts for a variety of music-related scenarios.

If you need to review the basics, check out the primer in my Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague, the epic Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music, and the Q&A featuring questions submitted by musicians and organizers. Now, here we go!

Quick navigation

[banneradvert]

Pro-Tips

  1. Do not argue with someone who tells you they are autistic, even if you “don’t believe them.” Why don’t you believe it? Unravel your assumptions about what an autistic person looks and acts like. Keep in mind that some autistic people may blend in more than you think.
  2. “But you act so normal!” Please do not utter that phrase in the vicinity of autistic people. Other variants include “ You don’t seem autistic,” “I couldn’t even tell!” and “I see beyond that; all I see is a talented musician and friend.” These are not compliments; they are indications of your discomfort with acknowledging autism and make us feel pressured to maintain our “normal behavior” in front of you. Appropriate responses to someone telling you they are autistic include “Cool,” “I didn’t know that!” and “How is this space for you, by the way? Let me know if there’s anything in particular I can do in our future interactions, as I’d love to help make sure you’re comfortable, even when you don’t want to speak up.”
  3. Adult diagnoses are a thing. In fact, many autistic people are diagnosed as adults, particularly women, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people. The old diagnostic criteria for autism had a strong male bias and thus favored male diagnoses. In addition, social pressures can cause girls to learn how to mask their autistic traits or remove themselves as a means for survival. Luckily, medical and mental health professionals are starting to catch up and look out for more varied sets of traits now. I was diagnosed as an adult as well. You can read more about that here.
  4. Self-diagnoses are valid. Some people are self-diagnosed, and in most of the autistic community, we validate that. It is a matter of privilege and access. Pursuing assessment and diagnosis is expensive, and many people lack the resources to obtain to that kind of “proof.” Unfortunately, that “proof” is sometimes necessary for gaining access to accommodations. In my mind, getting an autism diagnosis is like getting a diploma to hang on the wall to prove that you went to school. But even if you never picked up your diploma, it doesn’t mean you didn’t go through the classes too.
  5. “I don’t have any spoons left.” Have you heard of the spoon theory? It was a term coined by Christine Miserandino that provides a helpful metaphor for assessing physical and emotional energy among disabled and chronically ill folks. Many autistic folks use the metaphor of spoons to describe their capabilities and energy. As an ally, it would be helpful to understand what this means; otherwise, you will likely become confused when it comes up.
  6. Don’t guilt an autistic person into attending something, even if you’ve made specific accommodations on their behalf. Like any other person, sometimes, we just don’t show up. Maybe we’re tired, anxious, out of spoons, need a different accommodation, or have reasons unrelated to you. Don’t make us feel bad that you provided for us; in fact, making a big deal about your accommodation effort puts unnecessary pressure on others and can signal that you aren’t interested in being an autistic ally unless you’re getting recognized for your “benevolence.” Plus, even if your friend doesn’t attend, there may be another autistic person in your audience who still appreciates the safer space nonetheless.
  7. Autistic people can have specific clothing needs. This is largely due to sensory issues with fabrics, cuts, and breathability but can also be attributed to other things. If you notice an autistic person wearing what you think is unusual clothing or shoes, don’t give them flak for it. If you manage performing artists for shows, consider offering lenient costume options or being open to accommodating those with clothing-related sensory issues. It could be as simple as allowing a different fabric, a looser-fitting option, or a sweater. I’ve written about my own clothing specifics several times.
  8. We don’t want to hear about a cure. Don’t talk to us about curing autism or supporting research that cures autism. Also, keep in mind that ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy is very controversial in the autistic community. Many of us do not support it and/or have been damaged by it. If you’re interested in treating symptoms associated with autism, first try changing your environment to make it more accomodating for autistic folks. I’ve written more on that subject here.
  9. Avoid using functioning-labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” While some autistic people use them, this is also a point of controversy in the autistic community. The short explanation is that these are judgments from the perspective of neurotypicals, autistic people contain various combinations of supposedly “high” and “low”-functioning abilities, this all creates a hierarchical divide in the autistic community, and it leads to self-described “high-functioning autistics” excluding so-called “low-functioning autistics.” If you’re trying to refer to an autistic person’s capabilities for the purpose of planning something more accurately and safely, just be specific about what you need (i.e. “autistic folks who can drive” or “autistic people who don’t require supervision in a public place”). But if you’re allistic, just let us handle this mess within our community; you should avoid the terms altogether.
  10. Ask before touching. This includes handshakes, hugs, and good-natured pats on the shoulder.
  11. The pattern of opposite extremes among autistic people is truly a grand irony. This irony, which we’ve covered in previous parts of this series, refers to the fact that various autistic people have vastly different — if not outright opposite — needs. For example, one autistic person may have an extreme aversion to heat, while another has an extreme aversion to cold. Moreover, these needs are often not consistent within the same person. For example, I detest being touched most of the time but also crave deep, extreme pressure in other instances. If you’d like even more specific examples, check out this post from Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog; it’s the best articulation of the phenomenon that I’ve read so far.
  12. Don’t expect us to be prepared. An allistic person once asked if I could make a list of helpful compensatory aids to distribute to fellow autistic people — along with specific brand recommendations and costs — so that we could start better providing for ourselves. Their explanation was that “most places cannot be accommodating of all special needs groups” and that “preparation on both sides is key.” A lot of this is true! It’s impossible for a place to be 100% accessible for everyone, and of course, self-planning can help. But this is not an inclusive notion to operate under, for many reasons. First, many autistic people cannot afford a plethora of ideal aids, especially if they are high-quality. I’ve seen the length of the waitlists for weighted blanket donations. Second, not everyone has the executive functioning capabilities, physical ability, or space to obtain, manage, remember, and hold onto all of the things they need. If I carried all of the things that made me comfortable at events, I would need a suitcase. Thus, if I know in advance that, say, temperature won’t be a problem and noise won’t be an issue, then I can leave my blanket and fancy headphone case at home. Another thing: Autistic people may not recognize or know how to name their triggers or needs; they may only recognize that they are feeling bad. And finally, autistic people already do swap information, try different solutions, and put a huge amount of pressure on themselves. Accessible spaces are still necessary.
  13. Provide gender-neutral restrooms and ask pronouns. Get in the habit of taking action to ensure that your space is gender-inclusive. Three big reasons: 1) Intersectionality. Many autistic people are gender non-conforming or queer (really, it’s kind of a thing), and yet most people don’t facilitate safe spaces to hold both identities. Regardless, don’t you want to make your space more welcoming anyway? 2) Cognitive difficulties can prevent autistic people from speaking up, making decisions, and processing information, so being misgendered, having to decide which restroom to use, or being bullied at your event could have heightened serious effects for an autistic person. Likewise, not knowing which pronouns to use — or not knowing how to disclose pronouns — can prevent a gender non-conforming autistic person from speaking or feeling included. 3) Some autistic people may need help or accompaniment in restrooms, and if their caretaker, friend, or family member is a different gender, this could cause embarrassment, harassment, or medical issues.
  14. Autistic accessibility doesn’t negate the importance of physical accessibility. A reader of this series submitted the following comment, and I think it’s important to address: “I am autistic and have a physical disability as well. I use a cane to walk, can’t stand for a long time, and cannot be in places with flashes of light because of epilepsy and seizures. This makes it very hard to navigate any venue, particularly music events that are in bars, with standing room only, or that have several obstacles to getting in the event. Because many people lump autism with disability, venues will work on autistic accessibility while not creating a place that accommodates physical disability. It is not comfortable.”

It is not okay to brush over needs like the ones described above. While many autistic people proudly and validly identify as disabled, autistic accessibility alone is not a substitute for all forms of accessibility, nor should it be conflated with physical disabilities. Organizers who either lump the two together or assume that taking care of one is “sufficient enough” to cover “all the disability bases” do a disservice to all disabled people and their loved ones. Able-bodied autistic folks need to be more mindful of this, too.

Here’s the thing: accessibility is not a concern to brush over, and that goes for autistic, cognitive, sensory, physical accessibility, and more. Your events really must be physically accessible. In fact, in many instances, it is federal law. Unfortunately, ADA requirements barely scratch the surface of accessibility, but knowing that there is a minimum requirement in this (not-so-inclusive) nation in the first place says something about the importance of this matter. You can do better than this bare minimum. Whenever in your power, make sure to accommodate both manual and power wheelchairs in the entrances, restrooms, and seating areas, provide clear paths to move through, and provide wide, sturdy seating options for folks who need to sit down. Be aware of other power-driven mobility devices (OPDMD) too, and be prepare to welcome them (depending on your venue, it may also be law).

Many people reading this series are musicians who put on smaller concerts in alternative spaces. I know you may not have the power to change the venue you rent, nor might you be able to secure a place in your budget, but you can still do things to make your space more physically accessible. Talk to the venue owners (or house owners). Ask if certain entrances can be used, if there can be someone on hand to assist guests, and if furniture can be moved to provide bigger pathways. If chairs are small and flimsy, try to add seating that can hold more weight and bigger sizes, otherwise fat people won’t be able to sit. If you’re looking for a house concert venue, consider asking hosts if they have accessible restrooms and entrances. No matter what venue you end up choosing, remember to be transparent in your invitations, clearly stating what you are and aren’t equipped for.

People who want to attend artistic events exist in all kinds of bodies and have all kinds of needs. This includes wheelchair users, fat people, autistic people, visually impaired people, folks who use canes or walkers, and people who sometimes use aids but sometimes do not. It includes both visibly and invisibly disabled people, as well as those with multiple disabilities. If you haven’t seen much physical diversity at concerts before, it’s probably because most concerts aren’t sufficiently accessible to begin with.

white shoes ready to step forward on red carpet

Image: Christian Chen

Take More Action

  1. Contact venues on your own to discuss accessibility. Did you go to an event and notice an area for improvement? Perhaps there was incomplete information, sound bleed from the adjacent room, extreme temperatures, or unaccommodating procedure. Let them know! Ask if something can be changed, or if more information could be added to the announcements and event details beforehand.
  2. Offer to help venues or donate items. If you notice something that’s not autistic-friendly, you could take your suggestion a step further by offering to help. You could volunteer to write out the details that are missing on the venue page. You could offer to make relevant signage. Or even donate or offer to buy items that could help (like seat cushions, stim toys, comfortable chairs, sunglasses, earplugs, blankets, weighted blankets, etc.). I’m not suggesting you randomly donate all these things to places; have a conversation first.
  3. If you have more info, share the info. If you see an invitation and notice a lack of logistical or accessibility details, ask the organizer if they can provide more information. But if you yourself know further information that could be shared, go ahead and share that! If it’s a Facebook event, for example, you can make a post saying “Dress code is casual, and parking is $3 cash only. There is a small step up going into the space that might not accommodate all wheelchairs. Folks with with sensory sensitivities, please note that floral scents will be used in the performance, there are also fluorescent lights overhead, and the room gets loud during amplified pieces, so plan accordingly.”
  4. Make everyday thoughtfulness part of your routine. The more aware you are of autistic accessibility needs, the better you will be able to notice them. I was overwhelmed and agitated at an important group meeting in a loud coffeeshop one day, when someone asked very matter-of-factly, “Chrysanthe, do you want to go inside the quiet office nearby?” I said yes, and we moved without further conversation. She didn’t need me to thank her or praise her awareness; it was just the thoughtful thing to do.
  5. Be careful which organizations you support. Unfortunately, many of them do not have autistic people in their leadership or don’t truly serve autistic people at all. The biggest autism organization in the world is one of the biggest offenders. I considered omitting the name, but because Autism Speaks harms and triggers many autistic people to hear about, I want you to be aware of that. The iconic blue puzzle piece logo and “Light It Up Blue” campaign are also closely associated with them, so autistic people participate in the “Red Instead” campaign. Feel free to look up “Autism Speaks boycott,” if you’re interested in seeing years of extensive writing on the subject. On the other hand, if you’d like to explore the work of pro-autistic efforts, check out Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Autism Women & Nonbinary Network, Respectfully Connected, Parenting Autistic Children with Love and Acceptance (PACLA), and other autistic-run groups instead.
  6. Support local efforts and individual autistic people or projects. It’s not just about the big orgs. In fact, it can be even more powerful to support smaller or grassroots efforts. Are all the venues in your hometown accessible? Can you see areas for improvement in the spaces you frequent? Do you consume, like, and learn from the content of autistic bloggers, YouTubers, and artists? Many autistic people have alternative careers due to workplace discrimination, inaccessibility, or other needs that aren’t conducive to a traditional structure. Support those creators and activists. Think of all your activities and interests and see if there’s room to improve your little corner of the world or amplify autistic voices. Is your cooking club autistic-friendly? How about your thrifting aficionado Facebook group? If you love literature or podcasts, throw some support behind an autistic book project or podcast. There are so many autistic people creating change and adding their unique voice to the world on a daily basis. Support. Them. (Us.)
  7. Google “actually autistic” and search the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. This hashtag and label is what many autistic people use to share their stories, humor, ideas, and experiences. You can also try #AskingAutistics on Twitter. If you have a question for #AskingAutistics, be sure to disclose whether you are non-autistic.

Sample scripts

Stimming PSA

Last week, someone asked for a suggestion regarding how to tell audiences that simming and moving are okay, as well as good ways to let allistics know that this may be happening. I suggested writing a “stimming PSA” and including it on programs, event pages, signs, and in verbal announcements. There’s no perfect way to do this that prevents all issues and pushback, but it’s worth a try. Here’s an example of a stimming announcement that you can make.

“This event is a stim-positive space! All means of expression are valid, and we want you to express yourselves comfortably — whether that means sitting still or flapping your hands. We ask that you refrain from touching other people, but if you’d like to make noise or move around beyond the confines of your seat, you can do so freely in [designated spot]. [State whether the entertainment will still be viewable or audible from that spot]. Last but not least, respect is required for all, so if you notice a means of expression that you’re not used to — and as long as it’s not harming anyone — be kind.“

Emailing a venue about accessibility

Option 1:

Dear ___________,

I’m hoping to attend your event next week but wanted to check on a few accessibility things beforehand.

First, will there be ____________? Second, might there be an option to ____________? Third, can you provide more details about ____________?

___________[I, My friend, Many of my colleagues, etc.] am/are autistic, which can make it difficult to ___________ and ___________. Knowing your answers in advance could help me plan better or know what to expect before confirming my ticket.

Anyway, your concert sounds right up my alley, so I hope I can be there! ___________ is simply the best…

Thanks so much,

___________

Option 2:

Hi there,

I’m really hoping to attend your event tomorrow, so could you help me by answering a few questions about accessibility? I am autistic and have trouble ____________.

First, is there more information you could provide in advance about parking, restrooms, and ____________? Having more information would lighten my cognitive load and help me plan.

Second, is the venue air conditioned and/or heated? I am very sensitive to ____________ and would like to come prepared either way.

Thanks so much. Hope to be there!

____________

Option 3:

Dear ____________,

Spectacular performance of ____________ last night! I particularly loved the ____________.

I noticed something in your venue that I wanted to make sure you’re aware of: The ____________ in the ____________ is quite ____________, which can make it difficult for autistic folks and other people with cognitive or sensory needs to ____________. Perhaps you could try ____________ instead? [Optional: Something like that would certainly make it easier for me/my ____________ to attend in the future.]

Thanks for considering! I’m happy to help with the endeavor if I can. Bravo again on the concert.

Sincerely,

____________

Calling out ableist language

Ableist language runs rampant, even in progressive communities. It is often unintentional and due to lack of awareness. If you notice ableist language, it can be difficult to speak up, but we all must try. Check out this great list of ableist terms and alternatives to consider. Here are some ideas for how to phrase these tricky conversations:

“What do you mean by ____________? Do you just mean ____________ instead? Okay, yeah, let’s use that instead, because ____________ is actually considered ableist, and I know you’re not trying to be like that.”

“Whoa, I haven’t heard that word in so long! Turns out, it’s actually a huge bummer for people with cognitive impairments. I think what you meant was ____________, right? You normally don’t use ableist language, so I’m telling you this because I know you care.”

“Oof, I totally agree with your sentiment, but that’s not a word I like. Can we say ____________ instead? I don’t want to make ____________ people feel unwelcome.”

“Hey, I think you accidentally used an ableist slur. Did you mean that? It’s interesting how language can be so ingrained in our culture that we totally forget about the origins.”

“Heads up, you used an ableist term on page 3: ____________. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a degrading word, but once you know it, you can’t unsee it… If you think about it, it makes sense why it’s offensive.”

“Trust me, I make mistakes all the time. Some of this stuff is so ingrained that we never realized what we grew up saying. Good thing we’re still learning now, because yikes! Glad that word is gone from my vocabulary.”

“Hey, I know you don’t mean it that way, but that phrase is actually considered derogatory toward people with disabilities.”


This concludes our four-part series on Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music. Thank you to NewMusicBox for giving me this platform. And thank you, readers, for your time, for putting art into the world, and for your commitment to improving accessibility for autistic people.

If you’d like to contact me personally, request an autistic accessibility consultation, listen to my music, join my artistic family, commission work, or talk to me on social media (@chrysanthetan), the proper links are below.

Professional: Website / Email / Spotify
Social: Twitter / Instagram / Facebook / YouTube
Personal: Patreon

Sincerely,
Chrysanthe

“This event is probably not unique”: On communication and metaphor in Robert Ashley’s Improvement

Stage performance with teal backdrop

Editorial note: The text of this article has been corrected. Though the Varispeed Collective (Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons) has worked deeply with the music of Robert Ashley previously, this production was performed by a larger vocal ensemble which also includes Amirtha Kidambi. Mimi Johnson, through Performing Artservices, produced the opera, and Tom Hamilton served as music director.

The opening words of Robert Ashley’s Improvement are a bit of a head-scratcher: “To continue, I must explain an idea that I am inadequate to communicate in the music.”

Continue what? It’s the first line of the opera. And communicate what? If he didn’t think himself capable of communicating via music, why write an opera, of all things?

Over the course of the next 88 minutes, seven voices attempt to communicate this unexplainable idea alongside an orchestral accompaniment consisting of a MIDI-controlled synthesized harmonic environment. The issue of communication was a concern for the composer throughout his life. Ashley, who was born in 1930 and died in 2014, composed “television operas” and other experimental theatrical works employing a vocabulary of ordinary folks mumbling, humming, chanting, and occasionally singing. Ashley conveyed quotidian experiences, such as getting old or getting divorced, in a United States vernacular woven through with grandiose metaphors and allegories: at the end of his prerecorded opening narration to Improvement, he intones, “For the sake of argument, Don is Spain in 1492 and Linda is the Jews.”

Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is Ashley’s first in a series of four operas exploring the experiences and consciousnesses of a collection of ordinary Americans: Don, Linda, Now Eleanor, and Junior Junior. The tetralogy is “based on the notion of a sequence of events seen from different points of view.” In Improvement, the seven vocalists converse with each other in question-and-answer sessions (“Do you have a ticket?” “Yes.” “Do you have baggage?” “Yes.”), interrogating each other Inquisition-style, and adopting different identities when the narrative demands it. The vocalists shift seamlessly from their roles as named individuals to Greek-chorus-style delivery, whispering and echoing underneath. The result is at times laugh-out-loud funny, as when Linda gets a ride from the “Unimportant Family” (“my name is unimportant, and this is my wife, whose name is unimportant, and our two lovely children, whose names are unimportant.”) Other moments are eerie, and still others are imbued with a profound sense of loss and isolation. But the opera never loses its sense of momentum, of getting the listener from one place to another.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked….An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line.

Ashley’s works sometimes have the feel of a code waiting to be cracked. Even though the texts burble along in a seemingly haphazard fashion, they are arranged according to Ashley’s careful cosmology. An entire article could be written about a deceptively throwaway line such as Mr. Payne’s comments in Improvement that “still words would be useless, if the sound were not the meaning” or “The world moves on the air of music. There’s nothing like it. It’s the only thing we had before automobiles as four-dimensional.” Mr. Payne represents Ashley’s philosopher muse Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600), and his character betrays much of Ashley’s complicated approach to language and communication. Words can be helpful, but are most helpful when they are sounded out loud; music can convey the meaning of words while also transporting you from point A to point B.

Which is ultimately what Ashley’s music does so effectively. Ashley was more interested in the process of musical communication than in its end product. His metaphors and allegories aren’t nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek operatic devices; they illustrate the interconnectedness of human experience across geographies and temporalities and encapsulate human sensation on a much broader scale than a story concerned only with individuals locked into a specific place and time. For these reasons, I must disagree with Ashley: he is possibly one of the only composers who is adequate to communicate “in the music.” Ashley’s operas remind us that sound is metaphor—they make us hear what music really is: sounds that are meant to communicate something beyond themselves.


Improvement, which Ashley wrote in 1985, was first recorded in 1991. The first version existed only as a recording, with the vocalists doubling their own voices in live performance. The most recent production of the opera (presented to sold-out houses February 7–16, 2019, at The Kitchen in New York City) was reconstructed over a period of two years by producer Mimi Johnson (Ashley’s widow) and music director Tom Hamilton (Ashley’s longtime collaborator). (Production information and libretto available here.) Although the subsequent operas in the tetralogy were first performed live, Improvement first existed as a recording (upon which live productions had to be based) for almost 30 years. The assumption being that “this piece was not going to be performed live in concert,” Hamilton told me—ostensibly because it was the first in a tetralogy that its creators suspected would not be of interest to venues or live music programmers. Although some of the original tracks were found for the 2019 performance, some of them weren’t, which meant that the opera essentially was reconstructed from scratch.

Johnson, as producer, was involved in the process from start to finish. She told me that “the orchestra and voices had been mingled irrevocably,” and so both components of the opera had to be recreated. In the first version, the singers were doubling their own voices—which meant they could occasionally take a breath during a live performance, knowing their own voice would be doubled. But according to Johnson, “the new version is 100% live,” with only a click track in the vocalists’ ears to keep the beat. This presentation maintains the sound world of the original, but also imbues Ashley’s opera with a new sense of expressiveness: unexpected sighs or syllabic emphases or vocal inflections resulting in twists of humor or jolts of sadness.

Ashley’s libretto does not specify these sorts of things. His timings are exact down to the second —Improvement runs precisely eighty-eight minutes: no more, no less—but he granted musicians the freedom to interpret the stories and conversations and ramblings however they chose. Ashley’s textual narratives are inextricable from his musical scores: typically, there is one row for each line of the libretto, with columns indicating extratextual information, such as which vocalist should be speaking, a tonality on which the vocalist should be centering their speech, and how many beats per line and beats per minute. In the case of Improvement, the chorus is presented in all caps, solo voices are lower case, and Ashley indicated that “all lines for chorus begin on the first beat” and “underlined syllables fall on the beat and are somewhat accented.”

The team rehearsed the opera five days a month for roughly two years. The cast members—Gelsey Bell, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons—were not strangers to Ashley’s oeuvre, having performed in the 2011 remounting of That Morning Thing and in Ashley’s last opera, Crash. Gelsey Bell, who was tasked with reincarnating the role of Linda (originally played by Jacqueline Humbert), explained in the New York Times: “There’s been a moment in this process where I stopped listening to the recording and just saw what came out of me. My voice is different from [Humbert’s] in many ways, and so there are certain things that sound more natural and sincere coming from me: a slight change in the way I’m handling timbre, a slight change in the way I handle ornamentation in certain scenes.”

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley's Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)

Gelsey Bell in Robert Ashley’s Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) at The Kitchen, February 2019. © Al Foote III

When I sat in on a rehearsal in January, the performers seemed equally as concerned about doing justice to Ashley’s work as they were about adhering to their own personal sense of creativity and musicality. After Hamilton brought their attention to a problematic moment (line 614, in which Linda sings “right at the airline ticket counter” with chorus) the group hashed it out, with Bell ultimately deciding to “just do it the way I’ve been doing it” and the others making slight rhythmic modifications so as not to throw off the overall flow of beats and syllables and sentiments. Simons then began sifting through a box labeled “Bob’s ties,” selecting shirt and tie combos for McCorkle, Pinto, and Ruder before the three male cast members went out to get haircuts together. The cozy rehearsal space reverberated with warm excitement, mingled with a touch of silliness and a touch of reverence.


The performers did not need to attempt to communicate Ashley’s presence from beyond the grave; he could do that for himself. The only voice that was carried over from the first version was Ashley’s own: at three different moments in the opera, Ashley’s narration crackled through the air, slamming our ears and hearts with the weight of something that seemed much more solid than invisible sound waves. “I am inadequate to communicate in the music,” the voice ironically claims, but Ashley’s operas are so much more adept at communicating than “traditional” opera. The conversations, mumbled soliloquies, and half-remembered songs within Ashley’s operas refuse to objectify the sung voice. Instead they allow the spoken or sung voice to communicate universal concerns and human experiences within the immediacy of the sound waves themselves.

Ashley’s cosmology always concerned itself more with communicating big ideas through a focus on particular microcosms of American life. Ashley’s musical language reflects this interest in escaping traditional conceptions of time. As he himself put it in an interview with Kyle Gann:

The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple other guys, music had always been about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. … There’s a quality in music that is outside of time, that is not related to time. And that has always fascinated me. … That’s sort of what I’m all about, from the first until the most recent. A lot of people are back into eventfulness. But it’s very boring. Eventfulness is really boring.

In focusing on the sound rather than the event, Ashley’s music communicates events and entities and ideas beyond the sound. Ashley’s resistance to musical “events” imbues the entirety of Improvement, in which Don and Linda’s breakup (and their subsequent airport mishaps) represent suffering on a much larger scale and across a much grander scale of time.

Ultimately Don and Linda’s breakup is irrelevant. It’s not about Don leaving Linda; it’s about violence and persecution as central themes to human existence. Through repetition of words and sounds, Ashley makes us hear how Linda’s situation—even while isolating and alienating for her—is just another variation on the repetitive nature of human experience. When the “Unimportant Family” picks up Linda after she gets left by her husband, she is reminded that her discomfort—in the van, in her new life circumstances—does not make her special, no matter how lonely or isolated she might feel:

This ride is uncomfortable, I know.
…there is a certain wornness about it,
and this wornness makes the
passenger uncomfortable,
reminding him or her that this
event is probably not unique.

Bell’s rendering of Linda’s suffering was so apt, managing to capture the sadness of Linda as an individual as well as the sadness one goes through even while realizing that others have gone through it too. She is able to express this while also conveying the allegory of Linda’s role as a metaphor for much “bigger” and more abstract ideas.

And so Improvement, as an eighty-eight minute “event,” does not exist for the sake of sounds becoming ideas or vehicles for linguistic communication. As Ashley himself stated in the libretto for Improvement, “music has no calories.” Instead, the sounds become communication itself as they direct our ears to what exists beyond these sounds happening in this moment in time. They help us to see and hear and think beyond ourselves. Improvement is not “about” Linda and it’s not even really “about” the persecution of the Jews by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It’s about how the event of heartbreak ultimately can be kind of funny and mundane—because there’s a certain wornness about it, because it’s probably not unique. It’s about how the universal can exist within the particular. It’s about the conveyance of human suffering with musicalized sound.

Q&A: Autistic Accessibility in Music

A person with their hand raised in the air

Welcome to Part 3 of my Introductory Course to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music. In this post, I will answer a selection of the wonderful reader-submitted questions, covering topics like sensory-friendly rooms, classroom techniques, wheelchair accessibility, stimming, and more. I have condensed, edited, and combined several questions.

As always, my answers represent solely my own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of other autistic people, whom you should learn from as well.

If you need to catch up, you can check out:

Part 1: An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague
Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

Here are all the questions in this post.

  1. If an autistic student has challenges with speaking up in class, how can I help?
  2. How can educators make musical groups more accessible to those on the spectrum?
  3. How can I provide better guidance for autistic students interested in performance careers?
  4. How can we navigate situations that welcome some autistic people but exclude others?
  5. Is it okay to ask audience members what their needs are?
  6. What are some good ways to tell audience members that stimming is okay?
  7. How can we accommodate audience members in louder genres like rock, pop, metal, etc.?
  8. What autistic needs can I be more aware of when designing virtual experiences like webinars?
  9. In sensitivity training, I learned to use person-first language, but you use identity-first. So which is it?
  10. What do I need for my sensory-friendly room?
  11. What are your thoughts on traditional “accommodations conversations” and the fact that autistic musicians are often left out of discussions?
  12. Would you be able to consult with us?

[banneradvert]

Education:

1. Comfort and participation

If an autistic student has challenges with speaking up in class in discussions, how should the instructor react? Should we call them out by name, i.e. “…and Kathy, how do you feel about that?” Should we get even more specific, i.e. “Kathy, what kind of chord is in measure 4?” I’m curious how the neurotypical teacher + autistic student relationship can be developed comfortably so as to optimize the student’s learning.

Great question. It seems your key goal and thus, guiding principle, lies at the end of your last sentence: The goal in mind is to optimize the autistic student’s learning. For the purposes of my answer and this audience, I’m going to assume that you mean “learning” in a holistic sense that prioritizes every student’s individualized experience with the material, accounts for different paces, and embraces each person’s unique synthesis of information. I’m also going to assume that you have not already spoken with the student privately about this.

Anyway, you’ve posed a question here about how to compassionately handle an autistic student that has challenges speaking up. First, you might determine whether the autistic student is actually having challenges speaking up, or whether they are simply not speaking up (for whatever reason). Perhaps the student simply does not realize that speaking up is expected, useful, or serves a purpose other than “getting my participation points” or “making the teacher happy.” Moreover, the student may not realize they are being quiet in the first place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped mid-conversation while talking to a loved one; I simply do not realize that the words have stopped coming out of my mouth, because my thoughts and feelings continue in my brain. Students who are not aware of their silence may respond better when specifically invited to talk.

If the student has challenges with speaking up, I would approach this from a broader viewpoint: In order for any student to speak up in class, they must first feel safe and supported. Thus, if I were a teacher, I would do everything within my power to established a safe learning environment in the classroom from the outset. Safe environment means not only safety from harassment and bullying but also explicit normalization of autistic needs and behaviors. To be clear, I don’t mean specifically naming autism and calling people out, but establishing right at the beginning of the semester that your classroom is neurodiversity-positive, that stimming is welcome, and that you support everyone’s need to take care of themselves, would be a great first step. Throughout the semester, it would then be important to avoid singling the autistic person out. This includes imposing rules on the rest of the class that don’t apply to the autistic person, because as soon as the autistic person “breaks the rule,” other students call it into question (“how come Kathy can do it?”), which prompts the student or teacher to awkwardly justify “because Kathy is autistic and needs an exception.” Yikes.

It would also help to address your expectations with class discussion head-on, give specific reasons why individual contributions may add to the greater whole, and lay out any protocol you have in mind for conducting discussion. You could even ask students to weigh in on the agreed-upon discussion requirements and protocol, though if you let students influence the decision, make sure to hear from every person, not just the dominant few. Do they want to pass a baton around? Engage in discussion loosely? Hear from every person during every class? Allow for ebb and flow? While this may not be possible for all classrooms, it’s an idea to consider when appropriate. This is also a good time to establish hard lines for respect and affirmation during discussion, to note that people have different speaking styles and that while some people speak quickly, others may take a longer time to get their words out.

Now to address your specific, in-the-moment question! Here are some tips.

  • Invite the student to the discussion by using their name (pronounced correctly) and giving them a question that you’re fairly certain they will be able to respond to. Don’t ask a specific, tough question that they may embarrass themselves on. Rather, ask them about something they have experience in (“Kathy, you’re a bassist, what is it like from your perspective?”), something that you already know they have thoughts on (“Kathy had a fascinating take on this in her paper; do you mind telling us more?”), or something that you notice them reacting to in real-time. It is fairly important to help them have a couple discussion wins at first, so they build confidence and learn that their voice is valued in the class.
  • Try having a predictable pattern of responders one day. If you’re simply going down the rows, for example, an autistic person may appreciate the predictability of knowing when it’s their turn.
  • Try having small group discussions instead of large ones. You could even try “turn to your partner and share your answer for a minute.”
  • One technique that I always wished a teacher would implement is accepting written comments during class. If I could have just teleported notes to the conversation facilitator in some way, that would have been awesome. I never used to speak in class, as I wasn’t comfortable with my verbal expression. My written language has always been more cohesive and how I wished to present my thoughts.

Last piece of advice, I swear, is to just let a quiet autistic student be. If they have been cognitively drained by other stressors during the day, they may simply not have the juice to participate or even learn.

2. Children’s musical groups


How can we help autistic children navigate participating in the music community? I’ve run a children’s choir for a number of years and have struggled with trying to successfully include children on the spectrum. For the ones who have joined us, we’ve worked through ways to help them, and the musical opportunity has been SO good for them, including helping them make huge connections with language and social skills. However, it is not an easy atmosphere for someone on the spectrum, as it can be loud and overwhelming. I’m a mother and sister of autistic people as well as a music teacher. I’d love to hear your insight as to how you grew up in the music community (what worked and didn’t) and how educators can make musical groups more accessible to those on the spectrum.

My experience growing up in the music community included private violin and piano lessons, orchestras, concerts, recitals, competitions, auditions, evaluations, and very briefly, choir. A few specific things that did work: one-on-one time with teachers, options for quiet time and space, and hearing my questions and comments validated (made me feel important and encouraged me to talk more). A few specific things that didn’t work: unclear instructions, rules without a reason, nonspecific start and end times, when teachers called attention to my unusual behavior.

However, the worst part is that felt I didn’t belong. Even more awful, I felt that the burden was placed on me —to fit in better, to learn how to talk to the other kids, to learn my social skills, to erase myself and my needs—rather than on my peers and facilitators to validate and understand me better. I see this happen often. Autistic people are always taught skills to “blend in better,” to play better with the neurotypicals, and are even subjected to therapies that reward acting “normal.” Even outside of a formal setting, hearing continued positive reinforcement for acting neurotypical instead of “autistic” (i.e. stimming less in public, not complaining about noise, etc.) can be damaging for autistic children, as it reinforces the notion that they are not intrinsically okay and that they should hide themselves, deny their own needs, and be ashamed of themselves. Let me tell you, the effects of this play out well into adulthood. I still struggle with it daily.

Thus, the best thing an educator can do to make a musical group more accessible to those on the spectrum is to make adaptations that intrinsically make it easier for autistic youth to participate without needing a special exception or aid. You mentioned that the atmosphere is not easy for an autistic child, as it can be loud and overwhelming. Are there any aspects of the loud, overwhelming environment that are within your control? If so, start there. Maybe you can’t control how loud it is when the choir sings together, but you teach “quiet voice” rules during social time. Could you also make a special “quiet signal” to help the class snap to a quiet state? If you currently use a bell or something loud and obtrusive, consider switching to a more muted, less jarring signal. Perhaps it is also possible to make a safe escape zone, though I understand that can be difficult if you don’t have help monitoring students. You could also offer earplugs, sunglasses, or other aids to assist with sound and lights.

Last but not least, you mentioned that you have an autistic sibling and child. If you were designing a choir rehearsal for them, what would you provide for them to feel comfortable? Maybe you could even ask them what they would like. If other parents ever insinuate that you’re unfairly giving autistic people like your child “special treatment” that “encroaches on the fun and freedom of everyone else,” then I kindly invite you to nod and smile, because yes, the aim is to make life easier for autistic people and indeed make it harder for others to conveniently ignore us.

3. Career preparation

I have had at least one autistic student in my bands and orchestras every year throughout my 20-year teaching career. I would like to provide better guidance for those students considering a performing career. What are some possible differences in career preparation and career development between an autistic and allistic aspiring professional musician?

Great question, and I love where your mind is going. My thoughts:

  • Help students really “see” and lean into their strengths. Many students and early professionals are either not sure what makes them unique, or they’re only able to frame their unique aspects as negatives. Thus, the more you can guide a student toward owning and harnessing the power of their strengths, rather than focusing on weaknesses, the more confidently they will be able to approach a career. Are you familiar with the Strengthsfinder 2.0 book and accompanying strengths test? That helped me in ways I didn’t expect.
  • Expose the student to a wide variety of career options, not just on paper but with specific role models, videos, interviews, and a breadth of examples. Include autistic folks too, so they can see people like themselves in a variety of music careers (even if not performance).
  • Be creative with your guidance and embrace alternative techniques, careers, and options with the same amount of respect and enthusiasm that you do traditional paths. Some autistic people want a traditional career, like playing in an orchestra, teaching music, or becoming a soloist. Others do not. Some autistic people who want a traditional career only do so out of default, not knowing other options, or hoping it makes them gain respect.
  • Look out for signs that the student is trying to please someone other than themselves. There’s a bit of a joke within the autistic community that many of us are “late bloomers.” After being told what to do and how to act for so long, it can take a while for an autistic person to trust their own instincts.
  • When giving advice, get to the heart of why your suggestion is important. Autistic people may have a harder time adapting to new skills, particularly if we experience roadblocks beyond the normal learning curve or general discomfort. Having a concrete reason to learn a skill might help us stay motivated along the path, assuming we also agree it is a worthy goal. On the other hand, having real reasons may help us devise a creative workaround that accomplishes the same goal instead. One example is with networking. Instead of saying, “Going to networking mixers is hard but important,” speak to why exactly they are helpful. If the goal of attending a networking mixer is to build relationships, establish a continued presence, or show off a recent project, perhaps a student can think of alternative ways to accomplish those aims. I’ve had great success building relationships online, sending personal emails instead of congratulating performers at concerts, and sharing my thoughts in writing rather than verbally.
  • Help autistic students come up with a plan and some initial action steps. Cognitive hurdles can make it tough for an autistic person to organize a plan, especially with limited knowledge of the industry, so any hands-on guidance or accountability would go a long way.

audience taking notes

Events:

4. Conflicting Needs

How can we navigate situations that make one autistic person feel welcome but another feel excluded?

There is no easy answer to this. The best I can think of is:

  • When it comes to sensory environments, give preference to less stimulation rather than more stimulation. Being overstimulated tends to be more painful than being understimulated.
  • When appropriate, see if it’s possible to have different zones for different needs.
  • While not perfect, in group settings it is necessary to negotiate different needs. The more an organizer can do to assist in this endeavor, the better. For example, in order to accommodate people who may need to walk, shuffle, or move their feet during a concert, an organizer can lay out a fuzzy rug or other soft floor material that absorbs sound. Socks or slippers can be provided while using the rug. Sure, these guests would be compromising a little by remaining in the sound-dampened space, but I believe the genuine effort would be better than nothing.
  • Autistic author and educator Nick Walker has great suggestions on the subject of conflicting access needs in their blog post “Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism.”

5. Can I ask?

Is it okay to ask audience ahead of time to let me know if they have any specific needs? If so, how could I pose that question without making autistic people feel uncomfortable and different? I don’t want to inadvertently embarrass someone who doesn’t want to be open about their autism, but on the other hand, if I know specific needs, I can tailor the experience more.
Generally speaking, I think it is okay to ask an audience ahead of time if they have specific needs. However, this would all be dependent on how you’re asking, through what medium you’re directing the question, how well you know the audience, if you’re talking about specific audience members, and other factors.

If you’re unsure how to go about this, applying concepts from the Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music is a great place to start. You could even use the guide to help you come up with specific leading questions. Perhaps you could provide a link to a Google form or other survey that includes checkboxes with options for various sensitivities and needs. But before even going through that trouble, I would operate from the basic principles in the Master Guide, remembering that when it comes to sensory things, less is best, even though some autistic people prefer more.

If you have specific friends or acquaintances in mind who are already open to you about their autism, then I think it’s worth asking. It would help if you gave them a starting point (such as providing two options or describing the basic concept), rather than listing needs with no baseline. Personally, it makes me feel vastly more “uncomfortable and different” to go to an event clearly not designed with people like me in mind than it does to be asked and provided for. Keep in mind when asking that an autistic person may not feel like responding and may even ignore your message. Don’t take it personally. And don’t cross the line and starting asking them to “okay” your every decision. Simply try your best, put on the event, solicit honest feedback, and tweak your efforts.

6. Stimming PSA

What are some good ways to tell potential audience members that stimming and moving around at a performance is okay, and good ways to let allistics know that autistics may be doing so (how to prepare for allistic push-back, really)?

I’m so glad you brought this up and specifically mentioned the importance of communicating the message to non-autistic folks, too. I hope everyone reading this takes note: It is never enough to privately let autistic people know that their stimming (or other behavior) is welcome. Unless everyone knows and gets it, stimming will never truly be welcome.

I would write a “Stimming PSA” and state it as plainly and unapologetically, in as many formats as possible. If an event has printed programs, put it on a main page of the program. Make a verbal announcement at the event. Put it on the Facebook invite. You could even print out some signs with a few audience reminders on them. Think of the places (visual and verbal) where parking, transportation, accessibility, and other information would go, and those would also be good spots to include the stimming PSA.

I’ll think of some ways to phrase a potential “Stimming PSA” and put that in my next post of this series. Post 4 will be all about pro-tips and sample scripts for autistic accessibility, so this would fit in nicely.

7. Rock concerts

What are some good ways to accommodate audience members who become easily overstimulated during live shows, especially in louder genres like rock, pop, metal, etc.?

Be upfront in advance about the sensory warnings, designate a few “safe zones” for sensitive folks to escape to, and offer earplugs and other helpful aids. The Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music will provide more things to keep in mind! Aside from noise levels, big rock and pop productions may have overstimulating visual triggers (such as strobe lights) or elements of surprise (like pyrotechnics). Communicate these in advance as well. Last but not least, enforce audience conduct, minimize situations in which autistic people may be touched, bumped, or splashed, and provide a point person to help with any onsite accessibility requests.

8. Online events

What autistic accessibility needs can I be more aware of when designing virtual experiences, like online workshops and webinars?

A lot of accessibility needs are the same in virtual events as they are in live ones. Thus, the information in this Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music applies.

Particular things to keep in mind:

  • Provide clear, detailed instructions prior to the event. This should include the start and end times, how to log in to the event, protocol for interaction, and anything else that would enhance an audience member’s experience (i.e. bringing a notebook, being in a quiet place, etc.).
  • List any potential sensory (sonic + visual) triggers or trigger warnings for the event, and of course, minimize the occurrence of triggers.
  • Provide closed captioning, a transcript, and/or other written materials whenever possible.
  • If you’re showing slides, offer to share them afterward, even if upon request.
  • Please get your sound issues sorted out prior to the event! This is huge. Crackling, feedback, static, pops, or other things can be prevented with soundchecks. As a musician and frequent livestreamer, I am very sympathetic to sound and tech issues—and I know how out of our control they can be at times—but if you have any power to make your sound clear and smooth, please harness that power! (It will also make your event much more professional for everyone else, too. Win-win!)

Intricacies

9. Sensitive language

In all the “sensitivity” training I have had in the past ten years about supporting people with disabilities, we learned that you should use person-first instead of your suggested disability-first (i.e. “autistic person”) language. Now I’m so confused. Would you say this is just for autistic people, or am I now a few years out of date if I refer to people with disabilities… ? Help!

I’m glad you’re asking, because as you can see, the tips learned in sensitivity training are always subject to change. Indeed, most autistic people prefer identity-first language: autistic person. This is how all my autistic circles talk to one another and refer to ourselves.

Autistic self-advocates, and yes, many other disabled self-advocates too, tend to prefer identity-first language: autistic person, deaf person, disabled person, etc. However, like I mentioned in the Open Letter, there is no universally agreed-upon way, so you can never be 100% sure. Always default to whatever an individual prefers.

It is worth mentioning that the parents and loved ones of autistic folks sometimes insist upon person-first language. This may be confusing, because it contradicts what I (and many other autistic people) are saying. But I kindly ask you and other readers to prioritize the requests of autistic people rather than their parents. Thus, if autistic people want to be called autistic people, then call them that, even if their parents insist on people with autism.

Hope that helped! Remember that sensitivity training should always be taken with a grain of salt, as it often comes from the perspective of teachers who do not belong to the groups they teach about. It also tends to have an “us” vs. “them” vibe. I’m glad you’re using your sensitivity training as a starting point while also taking care to dig deeper.

10. Details for an autistic-friendly room, disability

I run a concert venue and have received feedback from numerous autistic audience members. I am now working on a plan to turn two soundproof tech booths (with full views of the stage) into rooms for people with different sensory needs. Each room will hold up to four people, have adjustable sound, have four moveable high stools along with, perhaps, a bean bag chair. What should we call the rooms when we launch this program? Surely not “Autism Rooms”? How do we deal with those that feel they will be segregated? How do we determine if someone qualifies to use the rooms? What if someone has a physical disability and sensory issues? Are we obligated to have the rooms be wheelchair accessible? In a perfect world, yes, but the rooms as they exist would need major renovation to accommodate wheelchairs, and we already have other wheelchair seats in the main house.

I absolutely love that you’re thinking about this and taking real steps to create an autistic-friendly space. This has the potential to be groundbreaking. Here are my thoughts:

  • First and foremost, bring an autistic person on board as soon as possible to help you plan and build this. It is imperative to have autistic people guiding the needs of the space, or it’ll be easy to overlook obvious things.
  • In addition to your high stools (which I assume are there in order to see through the window) and beanbag, I also recommend providing more seating, like a couch or wide, sturdy chairs. Stools are difficult for many people to sit on, and they have limited weight maximums. I would additionally put in a soft rug or install soft flooring (like the ones you see in Kindergarten classrooms), provide pillows, and other moveable comfort aids. Anything to make the room truly comfortable would be lovely.
  • To take these rooms to the next level, you might consider providing a chest or box of sensory aids, like fidget cubes, pipe cleaners, Play-Doh, or stress balls to squeeze.
  • You’re right; don’t call them “Autism rooms.” I’d go with “Sensory-friendly room” or something similar. Focus on the qualities of the room itself, rather than the target audience.
  • Regarding “those that feel they will be segregated,” I’m assuming that you won’t be forcing autistic people to go into that room, no? I don’t think it will be much of a concern, especially if the room is presented as a friendly, optional
  • How do you determine if someone “qualifies” to use the rooms? It’s simple: You don’t. There should be no barrier and no gatekeeper. If the rooms get too crowded, you could try having a volunteer at the door to keep track of capacity and manage a waiting list. If it is still unwieldy, think of other fair ways to manage the room and give people their turns without ever asking someone to prove their disability or discomfort. This is incredibly important.
  • Are you obligated to have the rooms be wheelchair accessible? Yes, you must make these rooms wheelchair accessible, or they will only serve a half purpose. I give this advice both from a “compassion and inclusivity” standpoint and from a business perspective. First of all, it is a common fallacy among well-intentioned allies and organizers to assume that autistic people are “only” autistic. The default autistic person is generally assumed to be able-bodied, white, cis, straight, hearing, sighted, or otherwise socially dominant, because this makes it easier to triage the autistic person’s needs. However, the reality is always more messy than that. Many autistic people reside in a complex set of identities, and if only one of those identities is being welcomed, then it is still not enough. For example, I am a queer, autistic person of color. I often do not go to queer events, because they aren’t autistic-accessible. I often don’t go to autistic social events, because they are not always queer and poc-friendly. You will have autistic concertgoers who use wheelchairs. You will have autistic concertgoers who are accompanied by friends or family members in wheelchairs. Thus, going through all the labor to make an autistic-friendly room without also making it wheelchair accessible would be tinged with fallen potential. Able-bodied autistic folks may even notice it too, and it may impact whether they invite their physically disabled friends to the venue.
  • From a practical standpoint, people will notice the lack of wheelchair accessibility, especially since the intrinsic purpose of your endeavor is to be welcoming toward more disabled folks. There aren’t many venues with sensory-friendly rooms, and for that reason alone, I have a feeling your rooms are going to attract attention, both publicly and by word-of-mouth. If I went to a great event with an accommodating sensory-friendly room, for example, I would be eager tell everyone I know, spread the good word, and urge people to support the venue. I’d hate to see your good-intentions and positive news marred by a glaring lack of wheelchair accessibility. As you state, accommodating wheelchairs would require a big renovation, and from an outsider’s perspective, it seems easier to fix it up sooner rather than later. If cost is a major barrier, could you rally your local arts community and raise funds for the effort? Apply for a grant? It seems like a worthy reason to raise money, and it is certainly worth waiting extra time for.

11. Inviting autistic folks to the accommodation discussion

As an autistic musician and composer, I find a lot of the proposed “accommodations” for autistic people in performance environments like concerts, film stagings, etc. don’t work for me because they don’t account for the particular ways I synthesize music and sound. For example, it is often suggested to allow people to vocally react or to keep the lights on during performances, but I would just find that distracting (it doesn’t help that I also have ADD in addition to autism). I was wondering if you had thoughts on how autistic musicians as a group are underrepresented in these conversations and some of the ways traditional “accommodations” conversations don’t always work for you.

I’m with you. Many traditional “accommodations” don’t work for me (including the same ones you mentioned), and autistic musicians are definitely underrepresented in these “accommodations conversations.” In fact, autistic people in general are left out of these conversations, which usually take place within a group of well-meaning allies. I can often tell when an event has been organized by an ally, because there will be some awesomely accessible things but then other blatant concerns will be missed. As well-studied and compassionate as an allistic ally is, their knowledge will never cause them to fully understand what it’s like to exist in an autistic body and mind—and it’s not their fault. That makes it even more crucial for autistic people to be included in these discussions as well.

Sometimes, non-autistic “autism experts” or loved ones of autistic people are brought on to inform the conversations, but their secondhand experience is also not a substitute for real, autistic experience.

You specifically mention autistic musicians not being incorporated into accommodation discussions, and that is a great point. For music-related events in particular, having an autistic musician on board to consult with on accessibility details could save time, effort, and provide a better experience for audience members. I recently made an audio accessibility suggestion at an event, and because I both noticed the sensory triggers and knew how to describe the origins of the triggers (a piece of equipment and a style of mixing), the organizers now have a better idea of how to troubleshoot sound next time. With regard to your particular examples of keeping lights on and allowing vocal reactions, this touches on a broader issue of conflicting access needs. I talk more about that in question #4.

By the way, I also have ADHD. Apparently, it is not uncommon for autistic people to be neurodivergent in both ways.

12. Consulting

I run a prominent center for music therapy that works with a variety of people, including those diagnosed with autism. We were recently approached by the head of a vocal performance program who wants help in supporting autistic students. She maintains a policy that she cannot accept any student who will not be able to successfully get a job singing. She wants to do all that she can to help these potential students get accepted into her program and succeed. Would you be able to consult with us and share your ideas, both on how to create accommodations to make classes more conducive and also how to help the students develop the social skills and emotional awareness the program director deems necessary to complete the program? We are considering having a support group at our music therapy center to help these students succeed.

This is a complex question, but I’m happy to hear that the head of a performance program is interested in supporting autistic students. I’m curious what it means to “successfully” get a job singing, as well as what kinds of “social skills and emotional awareness” the program director deems necessary. I think having a support group at your music therapy center sounds like a great idea, provided that it is facilitated by autistic people. If you’d like to consult further, you may email me at [email protected] and we can set up a session.


Thank you to everyone who submitted questions! I hope this Q&A was helpful. If I didn’t get to your question, or if you’d like further consultation, you may email me at [email protected] to schedule a conversation, as availability allows.

To all readers, thank you for your attention and consideration. I appreciate your curiosity, compassion, and commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your corner of the musical world. Stay tuned for Part 4, the final installment of this series, next week!

Quick Cuts for Big Ears

A crowd of people outdoors

Attending the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville is a delicious game of choice and chance, forcing you to pick between such things as overlapping performances by Rhiannon Giddens, Theo Bleckmann, and Joan La Barbara—and that’s just the first night! But with only a week to go until the kickoff of the 2019 edition of the festival (March 21-24), decisions will need to be made, so we’re combing through the schedule and getting excited to consume as much music as we can cram into our ears (and the hours available each day).

Meanwhile, we’ve been digging through our archives and revisiting the amazing conversations we’ve had with some of this year’s featured artists to get ready for what’s ahead.

The time Joan La Barbara gave us a masterclass in extended vocal techniques

(“The Unexpected Importance of Yes” 3/1/06; @ Big Ears here)

These are things to play with; they’re just ways of experimenting. These are the beginning rudiments of extended vocal techniques. What I want to give to you and what I want to give to every singer is just to play with voice, just play with it and see what else it can do. There are all sorts of wonderful things and if you listen to the music of other cultures you’ll hear very, very different uses of the voice.

The time Gabriel Kahane told us the tale of the golf sweater, the crumpled letter, and the Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies hidden in the back of the closet

(“NewMusicBox LIVE! Presents” 8/4/15; @ Big Ears here)

The time Meredith Monk spent an hour sharing personal stories and trading ideas about music with Bjork

(Radical Connections, 3/16/07; @ Big Ears here)

Counterstream Radio OnDemand: Meredith Monk and Björk

 

[nm_stream_boxes ids=”277006, 272862, 270886″ title=”More on using the voice with this year’s Big Ears artists:”]

The time Wadada Leo Smith explained how to leave room for personal interpretation

(“Decoding Ankhrasmation” 5/1/12; @ Big Ears here)

I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course.

[nm_stream_boxes ids=”274664, 271855, 277478, 275469, 274957, 273586″ title=”Other deep conversational dives with this year’s Big Ears artists:”]

The time Carl Stone showed us how to make music on a laptop using MAX (in the year 2000)

(“Intellectual Property, Artistic License and Free Access to Information in the Age of Sample-Based Music and the Internet” 11/1/00; @ Big Ears here)

[nm_stream_boxes ids=”271023, 147595, 274129″ title=”More from Stone on intellectual property and the creative experience:”]

The time Alvin Lucier offered us some excellent advice on evaluating new music

(“Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier” 4/1/05; @ Big Ears here)

I’m not interested in your opinions, but I’m interested in your perceptions.


With an admittedly overwhelming number of options to explore, last year I took festival founder Ashley Capps’s advice when selecting from among the myriad options:

The art of fully enjoying the festival experience is to “be here now” as they say, and once you make your decision, to go all in and be fully immersed in what that experience has to offer.

It was guidance that held up under the pressure of so many great performances in 2018. We’ll be reporting from the festival again live this year via our social channels if you want to follow along, or get a taste of what’s to come right now with our 2019 Big Ears Playlist.

The Tennessee Theatre

The Tennessee Theatre, Big Ears 2018. Photo: Molly Sheridan

Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

People sitting in a restaurant watching a violinist perform center stage

“Something’s wrong!” my mom cried. “My headphones malfunctioned! My video sounds blurry!”

I put on her new, fancy headphones and watched the video. It was the singer in the plaza. It sounded crystal clear. I had been there.

“What do you mean it’s blurry?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of noise! It didn’t sound like that in real life!”

“Um, that’s exactly what it sounded like in real life,” I retorted, frustrated with her imaginary tech issue. My mom looked hurt by my dismissal of her problem. This wasn’t going well.

And then it dawned on me: Perhaps arguing was futile, because we hadn’t heard the same thing in the first place. In real life, my mom had experienced a soulful musician playing her favorite songs amidst an ambient backdrop. I, on the other hand, experienced a cacophonous soundscape of live music plus wind, laughter, chimes, talking, traffic, footsteps, car engines, drive-by radios, overlapping accents, multiple languages, paper cups and plastic spoons colliding with metal trash cans, and more.

Thanks to high-quality headphones, my mom could now hear the noisy background, too. But her rude awakening was my realtime reality, and likely that of many other autistic folks.

Hi again, colleague, I’m glad you’re here. In my last post, “An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague,” I referred to the music world’s “unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility,” gave you a primer on autistic etiquette, and introduced this four-part series as a “no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter.” I alluded to my fear of asserting my own needs and declared it time for all arts professionals to improve autistic accessibility in our concerts, rehearsals, and interactions.

Today, I present you with the heart of this series: an organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts. These tips aren’t just for organizations and presenters; they are also for musicians, students, teachers, and other music-adjacent allies. If you are not autistic, consider this required coursework.

The reason I began this post with an anecdote is twofold: 1) It nicely illustrates some of the sensory processing discrepancies between allistic and autistic people, and 2) It prioritizes autistic stories. As a conscientious ally, it is critical to listen to autistic stories, learn about our diverse lived experiences, and consider how our needs may coincide with or differ from your own. Without that context, even the best list of tips couldn’t help you.

[banneradvert]

My own guide will be rife with gaps and even contradictory information that another autistic person may not agree with. As I mentioned in the last post, “if you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person.” I bring my own set of experiences, identities, and privileges to the table (queer, non-binary, second-generation, biracial person of color, Cambodian, Chinese, and Greek, American citizen, thin, able to drive, sighted, hearing, physically able, financially secure family, elite college education, etc.), and you will have to adjust to your audience’s particular needs. I am not an autism expert; I am merely a student of my own autistic experience.

The Guide:

I came up with the acronym SCALE to help you remember the five main themes in this guide to improving autistic accessibility. You will eventually forget most of the tips, but if you can remember the main themes (SCALE), you may have an easier time filling in the blanks and adding your own points.

S – sensory needs

Sensory needs are one of the most discussed hallmarks of the autistic experience. Many autistic people experience sensory hypersensitivity, resulting in the magnified perception of sound, smell, touch, taste, and other senses. This overstimulation can be not only painful but dangerous, causing disorientation, loss of balance, shutdown, meltdown, and other cognitive or physical impairments. On the flip side, many autistic folks experience hyposensitivity, which may cause us to seek extreme, additional sensory inputs for stimulation.

Given that it is neither practical nor feasible to simultaneously accommodate all autistic sensory needs at the same time, what, then should you do? In my experience, err on the side of reducing sensory input. As the writer of the Autisticality blog says: “It’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable…In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous.”

  • Be conscious of the venue’s lighting, temperature, acoustics, seating, and restrooms. Any of the following could be devastating for an autistic person:
    • Fluorescent lights, strobe lights, very bright or very dim lights.
    • A reverberant, cavernous space, which can make sound bounce off the walls, especially when there’s a crowd or amplified sound. I feel physically sick from being in spaces like this and certainly cannot handle conversation.
    • Restrooms with extremely loud flushes or hand dryers.
    • Loud music, bass, and people. Be mindful of appropriate sound levels.
    • Air conditioning and heating. Not just the temperature but also the noise of the units, the blowing sensation, and the way that impacts the room, sound, and individual seats.
    • While it’s best to provide a scent-free space whenever possible, at least take care not to spray or otherwise adorn the space with scents. If there is a critical, artistic reason to include a scent, make sure guests receive a warning in advance.
  • Specific musical sounds and extended techniques can be jarring for an autistic person—including high-pitched registers (violin, coloratura soprano, etc), harsh static, sound walls, and crunchy attacks. However, I am not advocating for the removal or banning of these sounds in your composition, programming, performing, and classroom efforts! As with everything discussed here, we autistic people do not agree on what bothers us, and removing one thing can be taking away another’s greatest pleasure. As a violinist and 21st-century composer myself, I understand how tricky these needs are to negotiate, and rest assured that you’ll never manage it perfectly. But if you can provide warnings to audience members in advance, that communication can go a long way.
  • Limit competing noise. If we are watching a concert and meant to focus our attention on the performer, be mindful of additional sonic inputs as much as possible. These can distract an autistic person. Examples:
    • Outside conversations
    • Music from other rooms bleeding in
    • Loud A/C, slamming doors
    • Buzzing speakers.
    • The same rule applies to classrooms, meetings, and even social interactions. I have skipped class and left concerts many times due to jarring, competing noise making me anxious.
  • List the potential sensory triggers in advance. If I know one part of the program will be too loud for me, I can step out for that part, rather than suffering in my seat with no way out and possibly experiencing a meltdown.
  • On the flip side, consider offerings things to stoke sensory pleasure! Not only can this increase an autistic person’s enjoyment, but it may also help to soothe us. Stimming is a term used to describe the “self-stimulating” things autistic people do to cope with external stimuli. I recently went to an event that offered fuzzy pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for people to use in their seats as wanted or needed. It was delightful, and certainly helped soothe my anxiety during the intense discussion.

C – cognitive needs, clarity, and communication

Cognitive differences—that is, differences in mental processes that encompass skills like attention, memory, executive functioning, decision making, and awareness—are another predominant marker of the autistic vs. allistic experience. Cognitive needs are tricky to illustrate but still require devoted attention and effort from allies. Because it can be hard or inappropriately taxing for an autistic person to explain why a particular aspect of something is difficult, allistic people are often left to either take our word for it or dismiss it. This puts us in the position of having to prove our impairment or the severity of our need to an allistic gatekeeper. Don’t do that. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing, and ableist. Never make assumptions about another person’s cognitive needs.

So how can you validate the cognitive needs of autistic people and make your efforts more autistic-friendly? Communication and clarity are your friends! Here are some basics:

  • WE LOVE (and need) DETAILS! Include as many details as you can, whenever you can. This goes for your concert invitations, announcements, and interactions. Information that’s extraneous or obvious to you may be crucial or non-obvious to an autistic person, and clarifying details can help us feel safer.
  • Location: Share not only the address or name of the venue, but also directions, a map, parking instructions (including the cost), directions to the entrance, where the wheelchair-accessible entrance is, and how to find the specific room. The more photos and visual descriptions of the building, entrance, and room you can include, the better.
  • Venue Specifics: Tell us what to expect.
    • Is it wheelchair-accessible, both inside and out? Include whether some parts of the venue are accessible but not others, so folks can plan accordingly. It is incredibly important to communicate this info in advance.
    • Will there be seating for fat people? Couches, benches, and other forms of sturdy, wide, armless seating can be more accommodating for fat people than flimsy fold-up chairs. Note: “fat” is not an insult, but these 11 fat-shaming phrases are. (Source: Nakeisha Campbell for The Body Is Not An Apology blog.)
    • Restrooms: Provide gender-neutral restrooms. If the venue doesn’t have any, write “All-Gender Restroom” on a piece of paper and stick it to the door. Make sure that at least one gender-neutral bathroom is wheelchair accessible. Whatever the bathroom situation is, though, make sure to communicate in advance.
    • Is anything banned, like food, drinks, or selfie sticks? Who can we contact if we need an exception? Will anything be for sale?
  • Basic Protocol: Autistic folks do not always follow the same social conventions as others, nor do we innately understand the same “rules” as allistics. Try to provide any rules, implied rules, guidelines, dress code, and any other relevant information in advance.
    • Examples of less-obvious things to communicate: Expected arrival time, how long parking usually takes, if we’ll be expected to check our coats or take off shoes, if seating is assigned or first-come-first-serve, if we are not supposed to clap between pieces, etc. (You will get better at learning what details are relevant as you practice.)
  • Detailed schedule: For concerts, provide a program or communicate what the run of the show is. Include information about any pre or post-concert talks, break lengths, meet and greets, places for refreshments, etc. If you don’t know at the time of program printing, try offering a separate insert as guests enter.
  • Tell us, for better or for worse: Is this a scent-free space with quiet areas, soft light, moderate temperature, and comfy seating? Great, please let us know in advance! We won’t know about all these good things if you don’t tell us. On the other hand, will there be harsh fluorescent lights? Does the room get hot and stuffy? Is there a part of the concert that gets extremely loud? Then, you must also let us know.
    • Never omit information for fear of people not showing up. Every autistic person has a different concoction of needs and sensitivities, and while the information you share may cause one person to decline, it may cause another to attend. For example, I’m not bothered by most heat, so if I knew an event would get hot, I actually wouldn’t be deterred. But without factual, detailed information, we are left to our own guesswork, and I usually default to expecting the worst and skipping out.
    • Being upfront about both positive and negative details can also help autistic people plan accordingly—i.e. bring earplugs, sunglasses, or dress in layers.
  • A Complex Chain of Steps: Keep in mind that the cognitive processing of autistic people may cause us to consider each event or action as a complicated chain of micro-steps. For me, something as simple as getting a drink of water can send me in a stressful spiral, as I consider the potential aspects of the water, the steps I must navigate in order to get it, the short-term effects of hydration, whether I will bother other guests, whether it will impact my seat comfort or exit time, and more.
  • When in doubt, make an announcement. If there any changes, do your best to communicate. Don’t take any understanding for granted.
  • The cognitive (and sensory) barriers add up. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel relaxed at the beginning of an event and utterly discombobulated by the end.
  • Check in with us. Autistic folks may not always speak up for themselves, due to hurdles with cognitive processing or fear of drawing negative attention.
  • Just because someone hasn’t complained doesn’t mean you’re being accessible. Many autistic people feel uncomfortable complaining, have trouble explaining their needs, or are used to being brushed off. Moreover, if you haven’t put effort into your autistic accessibility, autistic folks may not have experienced one of your events in the first place.

A – aids, accommodation, and assistance

No event will exist with perfect conditions for every autistic person, but something you can always do to help is provide assistance and aids. The more you know about autistic pain points, the better you will be able to anticipate needs.

  • If the event will be loud or crowded, consider offering disposable earplugs. My music school provided earplug dispensers in all of the classrooms.
  • Whenever you have aids to offer (earplugs, etc.), make sure these are either publicly or very obviously and easily available upon request. You could even try offering them to guests upon entering the building.
  • Designate a space in the venue as a “quiet room,” “escape room,” or “sensory-friendly room.” An autistic person may get overstimulated, anxious, or experience other challenges during a concert, and it would be a relief to have a safe place to take a break.
  • Provide language and communication aids. When screening a video, turn on closed captions. Many autistic people have trouble processing auditory language.
  • If applicable, consider providing name tags — some autistic people struggle with reading and recognizing faces
  • Many theme parks provide attraction and accessibility guides that list rides with sensory warnings, wheelchair accessible areas, baby-changing stations, and more. You could do a similar thing for your events, including gender-neutral bathrooms and other information.
  • Offer (compassionate) personal assistance: Provide and make sure guests know of a compassionate, designated point person they can speak with if they have a concern. If your event can manage, consider having the point person check in with special guests throughout to offer anything or see how they’re doing. To be clear, I am not advocating that organizers visually pick out guests with “probably special needs.” But if someone has designated themselves as needing special assistance, or if they have already sought help at the event, then it may be nice.

L – language

Never underestimate the importance of affirming language. Our words and the mediums we use can signal (explicitly and implicitly) who is welcome in our presence and at our events.

  • Do use affirming language. Autistic, autistic person, on the autistic spectrum, and uses a wheelchair are examples of generally appreciated terms.
  • Avoid ableist language, including: handicapped, handicapable, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, gimp, stupid, dumb, weak, idiot, mentally challenged, mental problems.
  • Avoid the phrase “differently abled.” Your intentions may be good, but many autistic and other disabled folks find it condescending. Unless a disabled person specifically requests otherwise, default to “disabled.”
  • Ensure that you, your materials, announcements, and staff never use derogatory language, whether autism-specific or otherwise. This can immediately signal that your space isn’t aware, safe, or welcoming. But if you use affirming, inclusive language in most areas but aren’t great with autistic language yet, someone like me may give you a chance, as your overall inclusion gives me hope that you are willing to learn.
  • Let go of the slurs and condescending phrases you’ve unknowingly grown used to (as many of us have) and learn affirming alternatives. This post on the Autistic Hoya blog about Ableist Terms and Alternatives is a good place to start on the ableism side of things.
  • As mentioned in the “A” section, provide closed captions and other language aids when screening videos.
  • Explicitly normalize the welcoming of autistic people and behaviors. This may seem small, but it can make a huge impact. It’s one thing to privately do things to make autistic folks feel safe, but if an autistic person feels like a secret exception in the larger context, it can be alienating. Example: If you have a sensory-friendly room available, tell everyone, and don’t make it awkward. Instead of saying “We have a sensory-friendly room available for guests with autism or other people in need of escaping this concert [insert audience chuckles], but seriously, most of the concert will be fine, unless you’re really sensitive,” try “We have a sensory-friendly room available in the back of this hall, which includes beanbags, toys, and quiet space. If you’d like to go in at any point, just go straight there, and a volunteer in a red vest will provide any assistance.”

E – expression and embodiment

One aspect of autism that cannot be erased is our unique way of embodied expression. As mentioned earlier, stimming is a natural response to emotions and other stimuli. It manifests in infinite ways, including waving arms, flapping hands, pacing, spinning, clapping, rubbing things, repeating words over and over, making noises, wiggling eyebrows up and down, and more.

Unfortunately, many autistic people are taught that their stimming is unacceptable, either explicitly (via behavior-changing “therapies,” admonishments, being teased,) or implicitly (being praised for “normal” behavior, etc.). This results in massive amounts of shame among some autistic individuals. The irony is, stimming is far from unhealthy, and stifling an autistic person’s ability to stim can actively harm us or lead us to meltdown. Stimming is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not harming anyone else, and we often use it to show excitement or cope with stress, negative emotions, cognitive dissonance, and sensory discomforts.

To accept an autistic person, you must accept stimming.

But it goes without saying: It is not always possible to encourage all forms of stimming simultaneously at every event. There will have to be some balance and negotiation. Here are some ideas:

  • Can you allow areas for freer motion? Consider designating spaces for this, if not already available. The sensory-friendly room could be such a place. If your event is outdoors, or if it is casual, stimming should be acceptable regardless.
  • Consider holding a special, dedicated event for autistic folks that includes ample space to move freely.
    • This is NOT a substitute for making your regular events more accessible. In fact, many autistic people prefer to attend the general events.
    • Many organizations already hold sensory-friendly events, but most of them are tailored toward children. While this is certainly valuable, keep in mind that autistic adults want welcoming programming too. When every “autism-friendly” concert, event, or activity is for kids, it sends a message that 1. You don’t see autistic adults or validate our existence, 2. We should have grown out of it, or 3. You don’t think we are monetizable.
  • Do not ban or draw attention to specific behaviors that you may consider unusual, distracting, or rude. Not everyone will like this, but I do not recommend banning cell phones, fidget spinners, notebooks, or other things like that. If you do so, you may be removing a person’s accessibility aid, stimming aid, or self-soothing mechanism.
  • Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that you absolutely must allow jumping jacks and cell phone use in the front row of your audience or classroom. After all, what would you do if an autistic person’s front-row jumping jacks were causing sensory distress for another autistic person? Point is, needs and civilities are a constant negotiation, and it will never be perfect. However, I’m willing to bet that autistic folks compensate and negotiate on behalf of neurotypical and allistic folks significantly more than the other way around. I highly recommend reading Nick Walker’s Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism post on his Neurocosmopolitanism blog for further ideas on how to negotiate a variety of conflicting needs.

Recap:

S – sensory needs
C – cognitive needs and communication
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
L – language
E – expression and embodiment

I hope this guide points you in the right direction as you develop your framework for autistic accessibility. But it is far from complete. Though I spent over fifty hours drafting this guide and incorporated both my own experiences and those of various peers, online friends, and blogs, I am still coming across experiences I left out, glossed over, or contradicted.

So colleagues, please promise me the following:

  1. That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
  2. That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
  3. That you will start somewhere. I do not expect you to immediately apply everything tomorrow. Don’t let that stop you from taking small steps, starting conversations, and paving the way for future accessible possibilities.
  4. That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
  5. That you will send this guide to your collaborators, co-workers, teachers, peers, and/or anyone else whom you think needs to read it.

Really, please share, and most of all, please use this.

Come back for Part 3 next week, in which I will do a Q&A and troubleshoot case studies.

PS: If you share this guide and have the energy, I would appreciate credit! I’m Chrysanthe Tan (@chrysanthetan), and you are reading this on NewMusicBox (@NewMusicBox).

Artist Financial Profile: Tony Manfredonia, Game Music and Orchestral Composer

A black-and-white photo of a man with a teal tie

Let’s Talk About Money, an Introduction

You can learn just about anything on the internet. For musicians, there’s a trend in talking about, teaching, and practicing entrepreneurship—an essential skill for anyone who wants to make a life in the arts. To clarify, entrepreneurship, in the artistic sense, has evolved to encompass everything from the hard and soft business skills needed to run your career to starting your own business.

People like Angela Myles Beeching, Mark Rabideau and 21CM, Garrett Hope, David Cutler, and Andrew Hitz realized that students and professionals needed tools and discussions centered around anything but practicing for the next audition. These resources are now great and many, but they all side-step one thing: the money.

  • How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

    Adam Schumaker
  • Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out.

    Adam Schumaker

As musicians, how much are we making? How do we negotiate for more? How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

At some point we need to know what is reasonable, what are the lows and highs in our region, and whether or not we can live off of it. If you avoid talking about the financials of being an artist, you do a disservice to anyone who wants to come up into the trade. Falling in line with the status quo leaves the younger generations of artists clueless, all the while perpetuating the position of power held by those who control the money. The taboo of money talk stems from a complicated history, but sits with corporations trying to get the best bang for their buck out of employees, so profits can soar and owners can become rich. Yes, it’s a dramatic generalization but let’s go with it so we can inspire change.

There is no one way to make a living in music. There really are too many paths to talk about. But knowledge is power, so I have recruited three amazing musicians and one ensemble who have generously agreed to openly discuss their finances and how they make it all work. This is not intended as an instruction manual but as a way for you to learn, compare, and set your own goals—and hopefully develop your own ways of finding financial success through your art with more perspective and clarity.

For this series of articles, I will interview Tony Manfredonia, game and orchestral composer; Lisa Neher, composer and mezzo-soprano performer; Loadbang, the new music ensemble; and Pamela Z, an electronic music composer and performer.

For this installment, meet Tony!

Tony Manfredonia Talks Money & Lifestyle

Tony is two years out of his bachelor’s program at Temple University, married with no kids (at the moment), living in Petoskey, Michigan, (despite hosting the Bayview Music Festival, it’s not generally a music mecca), has no plans to pursue a graduate degree, and is making a living primarily from being a church music director and a concert and game music composer. Tony and I had a wonderful talk via Skype, and it is highlights from that discussion that will be laid out here. Tony has also allowed me to share some personal financial data with you all, so let’s all take a moment to appreciate his openness and bravery.

Last year [2018] Tony made approximately $50,000 pre-tax. For Petoskey, Michigan, this is good! The median household income is $39,690. It’s also slightly above the average male wage for the Northwest Michigan region. But dear readers: although comparing numbers is helpful to know where one sits, it doesn’t define your experience. Tony’s wonderful wife, Maria, has been working through some medical problems and many of their “extra” resources have gone to appointments with specialists and a long list of medical expenses. Thankfully, with Tony’s income, and Maria’s work (when her health allows), they get by just fine and hope to start saving for a house once the medical bills lighten up.

Here’s the breakdown of Tony’s 2018 income. Again, thank you to Tony for sharing and breaking down the taboo:

$35,000 Music directing at a Catholic church, full-time (organ, choir, planning mass)
$13,600 Game, film score, and concert music commissions
$1,400+ Composition lessons, weddings, funerals (the numbers are still coming in)

It’s also helpful to have a general idea of what Tony’s workweek is like. It is interesting and inspiring to see how he maximizes his time blocks to do various things by focusing them together. However, he only has one day off a week.

Monday:          Compose 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Lessons approx. 3-5 p.m.
Tuesday:         Compose 5-7 a.m., Church music 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wednesday:    Repeat Tuesday
Thursday:        Composing all day
Friday:          DAY OFF – focused time with his wife Maria
Saturday:        Compose in the morning, Church (mass) in the evening
Sunday:          Church services all day

Tony hustles. Sometimes his days are long, and his “weekend” is only one day NOT on the weekend. In between all of this, he still finds time to work out and cook—two things that are very important to his and his family’s well being.

Tony's home studio setup

Tony’s home studio setup

What I also find to be inspiring is that Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out. From 2017 to 2018, his composing income has doubled. Also observe that Tony’s primary income is condensed into four days, leaving room for his craft and saving some commuting miles. His primary income also offers opportunities to increase his pay through extra wedding or funeral planning and performing. These types of situations are perfect for a music portfolio career.

Most all music careers require you to maintain a “gig mentality”: keeping your brain creatively thinking about and pursuing the next gig. It can be difficult to find the energy for this while working a full-time position, so for artists, it’s important to find work scenarios that allow a little freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. To keep the side income growing, it’s also important to be in a continuous state of networking.

Networking Strategies

These “composing” timeblocks that Tony adheres to are also peppered with very important tasks, including targeted networking. Since Tony lives in a more rural area, far from busy music scenes, he relies heavily on active networking and leveraging his contacts. During our conversation, he frequently spoke about keeping up with his contacts by scheduling time to respond to emails and keep discussions going with past and future collaborators. (Tony prefers to use Workflowy to keep his to-do list organized. I have found Google Keep to be another effective digital list-making tool.)

In my own interactions with Tony, I have always felt very comfortable communicating with him, whether it be via email, Twitter direct messages, or phone/Skype. One of the reasons I feel Tony is a strong communicator is his ability to take interest in others, and to have a great exchange. The conversation is never one-sided. Tony has taken the natural, positive approach to networking (vs. the infamous “schmoozing”) by being deeply interested in others first, and finding connection points second. This type of networking is easier on the psyche and can lead to easy collaborations. You also can realize quickly when your activities/styles/projects don’t align.

Through scheduling a to-do list of keeping up with contacts, Tony keeps himself in the forefront of his collaborators, and potential collaborators, minds. More importantly, Tony also constantly meets new members of various music communities which keeps his network fresh. This is why attending concerts and meeting people is high on Tony’s to-do list. He currently dispels the myth of the late-night composer by composing early in the day and leaving his evenings open for family, friends, and concerts. Tony makes sure to introduce himself to performers and conductors wherever he goes, keeping his ears open for potential collaborations, and following through to keep the conversations going.

At some magical point in the networking timeline, conversations turn into projects, and projects turn into viable income. But instead of an employer offering a salary up front, we composers and performers are asked to quote our rates. This causes anxiety for many, but the funny thing is, this practice is no different from any other service industry. However, most people don’t wonder why they are paying a plumber so much.

Self Worth & Fee Negotiation

Artist contracts, fees, and rates will likely always be something of a Wild West: a land full of no rules and shady propositions. But to be financially viable, everyone has to cross this territory. When speaking about fees, Tony said that he starts with the New Music USA rate calculator, but immediately noted that those rates are the ideal, and often the reality is lower. And this is the guiding principle: quote higher and negotiate to a reasonable fee.

We also spoke about the battle of having the lowest fees. To that, Tony said, “People try to grab gigs by lowering their rates” but continued with an alternative idea: “You’re going to find more gigs by raising your value.” This value isn’t about money grubbing; it’s about being an advocate for liveable wages and quoting the client your worth.

Your Worth is a culmination of what you need to live, and the time and money you have already invested into your craft and equipment. Many musicians spend 12 years studying an instrument, 4-8 more years in schooling for a degree in their craft, and countless hours practicing their craft – all for no pay. The investment is huge so you should always quote your worth to potential clients.

Tony’s approach to fees allows him to be more selective with the projects he takes on, without joining the rat race of fee lowering to get the next gig. This allows him to position himself as a serious professional, receive fees that allow him to create a liveable, and growing wage, and decide when he wants to take on a project for a friend, or for a value that is not in dollars.

To receive appropriately sized fees, it takes some negotiation skills and finesse. There’s no magic formula, but Tony has a few tips that keeps him happy with the fees he receives. 1.) Quote higher than you think, so you can be happy with a negotiated price; 2.) understand what your peers charge for like-projects, and; 3.) have a benchmark for what you want to make per hour for the project. My favorite thing that Tony said regarding fee negotiation:

There should be a part of you that feels a little uncomfortable…maybe it should feel uncomfortable because it helps you grow.

I asked Tony if he ever wrote commissioned pieces “for free.” He said he gives himself “1-2 projects a year.” He doesn’t take these pieces lightly. They are typically for friends/colleagues, fit his overall goals (concert music or game music), and have guaranteed performances, or in the case of a game, great distribution and publicity. These pieces also help Tony build his portfolio of work.

Let’s Talk More

Tony invests a lot in his self-worth—perceived and realized—and it shows with his increase in activity between 2017 and 2018. At the time of our interview, it appears that Tony is taking charge of his career path and finances through consistent networking, strategic acceptance of projects, and an already well developed and growing financial literacy.

The confidence to hold your rates at a standard, and negotiate as necessary, takes a certain comfortability with talking about money. Setting financial goals and seeing the paths to get there takes an honest awareness of your financial situation—how money comes in and how it goes out. Income generation is always important, but budgeting can help you gain control of the money flow early on. It is hard to do both of these things in a vacuum. Although society thinks talking about money is rude, being more open about our cash flows allows us to take ownership of our financial futures, see what’s ahead of us, and find ways to leverage the tool of money for our use. This is especially important for musicians in career paths that are complicated, non-linear, and have no consistent expectations.

For your financial success, here are a few tools to start budgeting:

For those who are more DIY, here’s a budget template of my own design, using Google Sheets, for personal or for business use: Make your own copy here.

You Need a Budget. Loved by many, this is an affordable budgeting software. At $83.99 a year, it’s cheaper than Netflix and pretty sophisticated.

Mint. A free app, this connects to your bank and cards and helps you track your expenses when they happen.

Personal Capital. Like Mint, but with investing options!

At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice

large spacial cube

So much of Seth Cluett’s concert music and installation practice deals with memory and embodied experience. Cluett, who grew up in rural upstate New York, recalls the experience of standing on the porch and hearing the wind come through the trees before he could feel it on his body. “There’s always been this haptic connection between being present in a space that makes sound and feeling the source of that sound.” That is what draws me to Cluett’s music—the way it evokes memories and his attention to how the listener interacts with the sound in space.

I recently met up with Cluett, acting director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, to discuss his current exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories” (January 15 – March 23, 2019). The exhibition adopts the concept of the circuit to rethink the histories that are told about electronic and computer music. Equally significant is how the exhibit sits at the intersection of research on digital audible histories and experimental music practice’s treatment of historical objects and past technologies.

In the process of walking through Cluett’s exhibition, I had a strong sense of the personal relationships that existed between artists and researchers working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs, which has been a key site for research and development in technology during the 20th century, regularly engaged artists and composers to work on projects relating to sound and recording technologies.

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse's connection to Bell Labs

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse’s connection to Bell Labs and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; (left) letter from Varèse to Vladimir Ussachevsky, dated March 11, 1960; (right) letter from Ussachevsky, dated May 11, 1972. Photo: Molly Sheridan

I asked Cluett about the circuit between Columbia, Princeton, and Bell Labs, and how it encourages us to think about the history of electronic music in new ways. He illustrated the connections, explaining:

The traditional histories that you read of electronic music often involve a positivist, teleologic unfolding that is tied to available technologies. There’s the classic triumvirate of musique concrète, elektronische Musik, and music for magnetic tape in the United States—all of these things leading to the next step down the chain. Often the histories of electronic music and computer music are even told separately. In my current roles as acting director of the Columbia Computer Music Center and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, I started to see evidence of a blurring of those traditional historical boundaries. I read accounts of people like Charles Dodge, who was a graduate student at Columbia and was working on the code at Princeton and then going on to Bell Labs to have the sound rendered on their digital-to-analog converter. The idea of a circuit of these relationships, interconnections between people who would go back and forth between two of the three poles—or would pop out to Brooklyn College and back—seemed to suggest a non-linear, constellation history that was more generous to the real human relationships that existed between people.

This non-linear history is evident in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of eclectic historical artifacts such as oscillators, an enlarged color photograph of the CPEMC’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer, a loudspeaker from the 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Rally in New York, Pauline Oliveros’s Apple Box, and sketches of Varèse’s Déserts—just to name some of the highlights. I asked Cluett how his knowledge of electronic circuits shaped his understanding of the circuit as a metaphor for networks of people. “As an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s, I was working in an electronic music studio that didn’t have a single computer in it. Because the circuits in that studio consisted of things like patch chords, oscillators, filters, and ring modulators, I started to get a real appreciation for electricity as a living thing. But even earlier than that, because I grew up around a dad who was a machinist—a sort of self-taught engineer, who builds things and tinkers—and a mom who is a craft jeweler, I’ve always thought of things connecting to other things.” He later went on to add that “circuits are a great metaphor for history. Things come full circle constantly, but they still do new work each pass. I think the circuit is a great metaphor for new music… you have moments where, like a capacitor, something stores up energy and then when it’s time, it releases the energy. There are moments where things slow down because either the culture or the community is resistant to that change. You have composers who are pushing current through in a way that is relentless and non-stop, and when these things interact, you get some magic.”

Cluett’s collaborative project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts began last year when he was asked by the International Contemporary Ensemble to participate in its OpenICE program at the library. Several months prior to Cluett’s concert in November, he began a research residency at the NYPL and the library commissioned him to compose a series of works in response to their collections of electronic music. However, Cluett noted that his work at the NYPL actually started much earlier. While he was in graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s, he was the processing archivist, digitizing the collections of Pauline Oliveros, Eric Siday, and helping with Charles Dodge. The majority of the Sounding Circuits exhibition consists of materials Cluett selected from the NYPL, though a few items are on loan from Columbia’s Computer Music Center and Bell Labs. Ted Gordon, Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, wrote the prose for the contextualization of the historical materials.

What particularly fascinated me about Sounding Circuits is how it provides a fresh perspective on audible histories. (For another important example of audible history, see Emily Thompson’s project The Roaring ‘Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City.) As scholar Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden writes, audible history is not just the recovery of past sounds—whether through sound recordings, historical artifacts, or models of acoustic space—but also the reanimation of past ways of listening. Similarly, Cluett’s exhibition sheds new light on the history of early electronic music by reanimating the experience and feelings that listeners had when encountering this music in its original historical context. Cluett reproduces a similar experience by means of an ambisonic cube: an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound.

Ambisonic cube

Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo Molly Sheridan

Cluett described how his exhibition works to reanimate the history of early electronic music:

I think so much of the history of electronic music now, the early history that is, is replayed on YouTube or Spotify playlists, or people going to the library and digging through the archives and putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it in isolation. There’s something much different about standing inside an ambisonic cube of speakers. In this environment, you’re sitting in the middle of a voice; you’re embodied in sounds that are creating air pressure around you. By doing things like repositioning these works not as a frontal presentation in a proscenium or in a headphone presentation in isolation, but putting people right in the middle of the sound, you get a remarkable new life to these pieces. That’s been a comment that comes up over and over, as people have gotten back to me about their experience in the exhibition.

Similarly, Cluett explained, the exhibition’s photos and historical artifacts bring new life to the hopes and aspirations that inspired early electronic music composers:

Then there’s reanimating the history by putting the color back into black-and-white photographs. We have a custom green mixer that in the photos looks black-and-white, and it’s kind of boring and scientific. But [in the exhibit] you see this absurd green that could be nothing else but the 1960s, and it breathes new life into these artifacts—in a way that when people see them, they see the sci-fi, the futurism, and the lofty goals of a bunch of people that were really optimistic about the future of electronic music.

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening's studio at Columbia

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening’s studio at Columbia. Image courtesy: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

What makes the audible history of the Sounding Circuits exhibition so different from other projects is the way that it incorporates Cluett’s own personal history. A highlight was learning about his relationship with Pauline Oliveros. The collaboration began with a commission for poet and accordion sent via a postcard from Trudy Morse, who never said Oliveros would be the accordionist. After performing the piece with Oliveros, their work together continued, including making field recordings in Italy and performing her Apple Box Double, a piece that involved contact microphones placed on an apple box and improvised sounds that she had first developed with David Tudor in the 1960s.

A crucial aspect of the exhibition, however, is how Cluett uses sound recordings, historical artifacts, and past technologies as a reference point in his own experimental music practice—in particular the works that he was commissioned to compose for the NYPL. (For more on composers and sound artists who make use of historical objects and past technologies, see the scholarship of Jennie Gottschalk.) These newly composed works are responses to classic works from the history of electronic music, many of which had an impact on him as a composer. They do not attempt to imitate their models stylistically, but rather respond to the experimental mode that the composers were working in. For example, Cluett’s Affordances responds to Laurie Spiegel by being algorithmically generated, but it is in his own vocabulary. Cluett nevertheless acknowledged that his vocabulary “has a lot of Laurie Spiegel and Oliveros in its practice.” In the exhibition, these new compositions are played alongside the classics that inspired them. “The ambisonic cube has a playlist that rotates around the room like a clock face, consisting of Cage, Varèse, Pril Smiley, Laurie Spiegel, Charles Dodge, Paul Lansky, Jean-Claude Risset, and Pauline Oliveros. And as it does that, each of those works has a piece between them that I composed that mitigates the experimental difference between the poles of pieces adjacent to my work.” Cluett aimed to highlight how “audible histories are an attempt to think about how earlier generations of sound practice influenced current practice, and how current practice recontextualizes history—both in a personal way for me, but in a real way for the objects on their own, for everyone who comes to the exhibit to see and hear them.”

Seth Cluett’s Accordion Alone

The exhibition Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories is on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until March 23, 2019.