Go ahead and flap your hands

Sensory concertHarvard Wind Ensemble and Harvard Undergraduates Raising Autism Awareness offer a sensory-friendly concert as part of an ongoing project 

By Sasha Barish '20

When Taylor Minor ’19 was in high school, she noticed that one of her friends never went to her band concerts. It wasn’t that he didn’t like music – he was an extremely musical teenager who loved both playing and listening – but he was on the autism spectrum and would be unable to sit still and stay quiet in the audience. His natural ways of reacting to the music would not be in line with the social rules of a band concert.

Those with sensory processing disorders, or who have children or are fidgety adults in general can relate to that young man’s issue to one extent or another. Sitting through a show is hard when you want to move, want to hum and want to flap your hands but you’re stuck in a small, uncomfortable seat, especially if the performance itself is overwhelmingly loud or jarring.

Dancing Winds posterEarlier this month, Taylor, who is a percussionist, brought together two student groups she’s in: the Harvard Wind Ensemble and Harvard Undergraduates Raising Autism Awareness, and organized a concert in Lowell Lecture Hall designed for those whose sensory limitations might make a traditional concert experience hard. HURAA runs a regular Friday Night Club for special needs adolescents, where they can have the support and mentorship of college students, make friends with other kids like them and do activities. This concert, Dancing Winds, was designed for members of the Friday Night Club and anyone with similar challenges, including those with autism, Down’s syndrome, Sensory Processing Disorder and small children. The event was also open to first-time concert-goers and anyone else who wanted to come.

The concert, which was free but raised approximately $80 in donations for the American Music Therapy Association, was set up so that audience members could walk to a quiet room and return to the concert hall at any point during the show. The lights remained on over the audience. Stim toys to fidget with and volunteers trained in working with special needs youth were available. There wasn’t a lot of unusual fidgeting or movement during the show, but it was made clear that everyone’s ways of listening to the music were welcome.

When I spoke to Devlin, an autistic teenage amateur musician and composer who attends the HURAA Friday Night Club, his opinion on the concert was positive. “It’s really cool,” he said.

Sensory-friendly performances are not unheard of. American Repertory Theater has had a few sensory-friendly versions of children’s shows, and a Harvard class explores the intersections of music and disability. But such events aren’t widespread. The idea of sensory accommodations as a part of accessibility in the performing arts is new, but the movement seems to be growing nationally, particularly at performing arts centers.

I played in the concert. The experience of rehearsing and performing was surprisingly typical, though a little extra effort did go into selecting and rehearsing music for audiences with extra sensitivities . (The program was March in C Major by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach [trumpets and perc only], Street Tango and Oblivion by Astor Piazzola, Suite of Old American Dances by Robert Russell Bennett and Satiric Dances by Norman Dello Joio.) Though my recording was mostly drowned out by the poor quality of my phone microphone and by Devlin’s enthusiastic marimba playing in the background, I talked to Taylor about the musical aspects of creating an inclusive performance.

Taylor Minor
Taylor Minor '19
“What was easy is that [with the Wind Ensemble] we’re already a small ensemble, and we don’t have that many instruments,” she said. “In ensembles that have lots of different instruments you have to think about texture, which is what instruments are playing,” to make sure that the texture isn’t too raucous or overwhelming.

We also made sure that the pieces didn’t rely on sudden, volatile dynamic changes, which can be startling. The theme of the concert, dance music, was well suited to sensory-friendly textures and dynamics, because we were able to play pieces that centered on interesting rhythms and melodies.

Taylor was sure to specify that that doesn’t mean no dynamic changes, though, “You don’t want the music to be the same all the time,” she said, “because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to assume that, for example, all autistic people like quiet music.”

There was another thing, too, something I’ve noticed several times when working with musical spaces for nontraditional audiences: The music returns somewhat to its state as an interaction between the audience and the performers. In the world of music, especially in classical and concert music, musicians are often disconnected from their audiences. In a traditional concert-hall setting the audience sits down, the performers enter, the performers perform and the audience applauds, and the performers exit. I’ve been on both sides of the interaction quite a few times, and there is almost no personal connection.

In this concert, we knew a little bit about our audience going in, and what was more, both audience and orchestra stuck around after the concert. The teenagers tried out the percussion instruments, our Harvard friends who had come to hear us congratulated the musicians, and everyone chatted.