“Out and About Part 3: Spotlight on a Special Needs Friendly Music Studio”
As part of my Out and About series, I am always on the lookout for businesses and other organizations that make the extra effort to accommodate families and kids like ours. It’s important for us to be where we are not just tolerated but welcomed, and I really believe that the way forward for a more inclusive world is through people who will travel that road with us, not just to be altruistic, but because they are basically warm hearted humans who don’t balk at a challenge, and who see our kids as part of the natural order of things.
I have long wanted to write about SpeakMusic Conservatory, the music studio where G learns piano, and about the extraordinary teaching skill of Dr HsinYi Tsai, who has drawn G out through music, friendship, snack treats from Taiwan, and super cute stationary from Japan. In the process, she has become my friend too, and I am constantly charmed by her fondness for the beautiful and simple things in life. I believe it informs her teaching, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
SpeakMusic is one of my favorite places to wait for a kid to do an activity. Aaron Weiman, the other co-founder, has an insistently minimalist approach to decor, and I always feel like when I sit there, my mind can relax into music, and my eye can land on restfully pared down walls.
When I asked HsinYi if I could interview her, I thought she would come back with “I’m so busy recording and performing, but let’s email.” Instead, she asked me to send her my questions ahead of time, and she actually mulled over them. Then we set up an in person meeting, and she made amazing tea served in beautiful glazed cups, and set out cookies that were leaf shaped and had a dusting of sugar crystals that looked like late fall frost. Here they are. The ceramic owl represents the touch of flair that HsinYi always adds in, like a signature flourish. I’ve come to expect that of her by now.
We didn’t really follow the order of the questions when we talked, but I’ll lay them out here so you know what we had in our minds when we began:
1. Not knowing much about western classical music, I was wondering if there is a method that everyone must learn, and in that case, do you have to deviate much from that method in order to teach someone who processes and communicates differently?
2. I have seen G really lose their fear of piano lessons after you and I talked about not insisting they prepare for the usual exams, and after their diagnosis became common knowledge. Some of that is, of course, being able to claim a disability identity, and not having to hide it or be ashamed of being different. A lot of that past fear was because of having been treated harshly and disrespectfully by some other teachers. Do you remember doing or saying anything that may have made a difference?
3. What, in your experience, has been the outcome for people who learn differently and are interested in music? We often hear about how music is good for the brain, and how music therapy can help people on the spectrum, but if an autistic person takes music (or any field) to the level of a career, it is seen as a personal victory they grasped from the jaws of almost certain defeat. Is that true, in your opinion?
4. It is very rare for me to see a teacher take an extra interest in G. Usually it is on the level of being relieved that G doesn’t make a fuss in class, and then proceeding to give more intellectual nourishment to the more socially clued in, engaging students. G often senses that many teachers engage with them as little as possible, and brings most of their school queries to me and dad. I want to believe you are not so rare because it gives me hope as a mom. What would you say are the challenges and also the personal rewards for you as a teacher, when you work with a special needs kid?
Our conversation was meandering but also meaningful, and I’m just going to alternate between HsinYi’s voice in the first person, and my own reactions as I listened.
HY: I’ve been teaching since I was a senior in high school. I did my Bachelors and Masters in Taiwan, and then my PhD at Rutgers University. At first we just had private students, then we opened our studio right before Hurricane Sandy, which meant that we had a rather uncertain beginning, financially speaking.
My teaching style was very much guided by a Taiwanese choir conductor whom I met here in New Jersey. I watched and learned how to develop rehearsal skills, and also how to work collaboratively.
We have been so fortunate in the parents who bring their children to us. So many of them are immensely supportive of what we do, and we share similar education goals and views on developing the whole child. That’s not the case with all parents, though–understandably, many people consider cost the highest priority, and perhaps don’t know the level of rigor we bring to our teaching. I am sometimes asked if teaching is my side job!
We want to teach a good foundation right from the beginning, so that children don’t have to unlearn any poor habits later on that might affect their abilities and their interest in seeing some progress. That’s why it’s so important that very early on, they start mastering that needed fluidity between music reading and finger movements. Running a school certainly does take away from my own musical practice, but I love seeing each student unfold their potential.
Me: We are so lucky to have stumbled upon you guys on one of our many walks around town. You’ve unlocked the music nerd in G. Sometimes when they are practicing at home, I can see very palpably the mind to eye to hand connection that is happening, even the struggle to be grounded. It’s real discipline you are instilling.
HY: I already had some experience teaching people with special needs, so when I first met and interacted with G, I recognized the fear and the intelligence. I saw a high potential in them, and also the “anxiety to learn” that is really key. If I do anything differently with G, it is in being more flexible in teaching, to bring out the best. I sometimes shape my words differently, or come to a point from a different angle. But I do have to use such tactics on neurotypical students as well at times. Group classes such as music theory have been more challenging for G. They were stressed, and afraid of imperfection. I do have to watch myself so that I don’t lose patience. Mentally, G always grasps concepts very quickly, just that translating them into action can be a complex process.
Me: I do think piano being such a solo pursuit works to G’s advantage. Not so many social and communication balls to juggle.
HY: Absolutely. I have met several professional musicians who have special needs. They might need very different and customized instruction. Music is a field friendly to autism if you are mostly doing solo work, but it can be a challenge to make it financially if you don’t have the capacity to collaborate with other musicians. Doing mostly recording work is also an option. There is a pianist who is well respected, who has to be led on stage by a trusted person, and can play only if he sits on his childhood piano bench.
G played in an ensemble last year. A piece they chose on their own, called Death by Glamor, and we decided on an ensemble performance after trying out the piece. I tried to create a group that was made up of familiar peer faces, and it went really well. We should not limit group possibilities for special needs kids; they still need to learn to work together with other people. How common is true collaboration in public school? I think it is not always what it could be because of class sizes and curriculum constraints, so I feel that my contribution to the whole child is to provide opportunities that will make their personality more complete.
I didn’t always see this as my role when I first started teaching in the US. But it has become more and more evident to me that music fills this very critical need, and I’ve internalized it as part of what it means to work with kids.
Me: Speechless. That’s so perfectly in line with what I’ve always hoped for with G. I think them having limited after school activities is a real plus because a) of getting easily overwhelmed socially; and b) the teaching space you have created here is very sacred to higher ideals, and you and G can work on things that are both about music and not about music, but are built on a foundation of music.
HY: In fact, music flows through the person. Interpreting a piece in an eccentric way, as sometimes happens with someone like G–it can be a true asset. I can tell there is so much in G, just that it is hard for them to express themselves emotionally. Music can be that medium.
Sometimes, we use stories to approach how a piece of music makes G feel. G is so good at coming up with those narratives! It is so appropriate to use stories to make an emotional connection to music. I always ask permission to touch their hands.
Me: I value that so much. When a person has sensory issues, learning what is safe touch, and how to accept friendly engagement is such a needed thing.
HY: Teaching music is never just about the subject. It is about communication, about life! For example, you can use the colors in nature to describe how a piece makes you feel. Music should be experienced with all the senses. Life should be about openness.
Me: My mind is officially blown. You are demonstrating such an instinctive awareness of autism. Synesthesia is the key to understanding G’s mind. Engaging the senses in a positive way, where their natural instinct to shrink from sensory input is replaced by good associations, and where one sense can be used to awaken another–that’s what my parenting journey has been in every sphere. *mopping up some happy tears*
Also, I see now how you sat us down in an atmosphere of sensory delight so that we could talk about something we were already experiencing. This is the aesthete I’ve always perceived you to be showing its true face.
HY: *beaming delightedly because the Japanese tea ceremony aspect of things has finally become evident* Engaging the senses is difficult for G. But we work around the quirks, and never categorize them as hopeless. Making themselves vulnerable in a public space is a painful process. But it is only through the person that the music can flow.
Me: People are living practitioners of the arts, and music is not something higher than the person?
HY: Exactly. You know, I never had a teacher who sat right next to me on the piano bench. The teacher I had from seventh grade till my sophomore year in college kept a big space between us. It needs to be a mental engagement rather than physical. The student must not have that sense of someone interfering and taking over. The child should fill in the details, and thus allow their creative mind to develop. They have to involve themselves in the music, surrender to the work. No one takes on the musician role by abdicating control. This is how respect is built and shared too. We cannot manipulate (or Me: emotionally abuse) children so that we meet our own teaching goals.
I remember very clearly how gleefully G told me about their diagnosis. I have learned a lot from your family dynamic. You have made them aware of who they are, and how to present themselves, how to do their best to meet each situation. Maybe this is why I never had a huge problem working with G. The work of building character is already happening within the family. If I ever have my own children, I will take from your family the awareness of how to appreciate the children you have, how to step back and let them be, with the surety of familial love to ease their path.
Me: *just sits with this moment of mind meld and generosity of spirit* To conclude, do you think the profession could do more to encourage autistic performers?
HY: It is a brutal and competitive field. You need your own passion and motivation, and a strong personality. And, I suspect, lots of help from the side.
I will say this: you don’t have to put your true self to the side to learn music. Who you are is good enough, always.
So ended our interview. I will let HsinYi’s words speak for themselves. This combo of the cerebral and the emotional is one that will leave its own legacy.
SpeakMusic Conservatory is at 8 South 3rd Avenue, Highland Park NJ 08904.
Below is HsinYi’s professional bio.
HsinYi Tsai, piano
Pianist HsinYi Tsai has established herself as a desired soloist, chamber musician and collaborator. After her international debut at the age of 11 as soloist for Beethoven Piano Concerto Op. 15 in San Francisco, HsinYi has performed as both soloist and chamber musician in many major cities in Europe, North America and East Asia, including Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest, Munich, London, Beijing, Shanghai, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D. C., Saint Louis, etc. She is currently a regular member in Salon 33 chamber music series.
HsinYi also advocates contemporary music, cross genre collaboration and education. In 2012 and 2014, she recorded chamber music composition by American composer, John Sichel, and also recorded his piano solo repertoire later in 2016. In 2012, HsinYi co-founded SpeakMusic Conservatory, a community music school that offers innovating and creative music instruction to students of all ages and levels. Together with Catalan percussionist, Roger Noguerol and American jazz pianist, Aaron Weiman, they merge elements of Latin and pop music with classical repertoire as part of the educational project.
HsinYi received her Bachelor and Master degrees from Taipei National University of the Arts, where she studied with Michael Dellinger, Alexander Sung and Mei-Ling Wang. From 2002 to 2005, She pursued research and performance practice of Beethoven and Schubert Sonatas, as well as Chopin Ballades under the guidance of Jacob Lateiner. In 2008, she completed her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Piano Performance at Rutgers University, where she studied with Susan Starr, prize winner of Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.
旅美鋼琴家蔡馨儀出生於台北市，於十一歲時代表學校至舊金山演出貝多芬協奏曲, 自此展開其國 際演出生涯，多次以獨奏家以及室內樂音樂家的身份參與演出，足跡遍及歐美以及亞洲大城，包 括維也納，薩爾茲堡，布達佩斯，慕尼黑，倫敦，北京，上海，舊金山，洛杉磯，芝加哥，華盛 頓特區，聖路易斯等。近年來馨儀致力於室內樂，多次與紐澤西交響樂團大提琴首席Jonathan Spitz 合作演出。現為 Zimmerli 美術館以及 Salon 33 室內樂系列音樂會的固定班底。她也致力於 推廣當代音樂以及跨界音樂合作，除了於 2012 以及 2014 年為美國當代作曲家 John Sichel 錄製室 內樂專輯，並與西班牙打擊樂手 Roger Noguerol合作，於古典曲目中，加入新的元素，展現不同 的面貌 。 2016 年馨儀再度為 John Sichel 錄製鋼琴獨奏作品集，回歸獨奏舞台。馨儀同時也致力 於音樂教育，並 2012 年創立敘樂堂，提供各年齡層學生全方位的音樂學習環境。
馨儀於 2002 至 2003 年間參與薩爾茲堡音樂節，結識恩師 Jacob Lateiner ，並於赴美後跟隨 Lateiner 教授研習貝多芬，舒伯特奏鳴曲，及蕭邦敘事曲。同時期獲得羅格斯大學音樂藝術學院 獎學金，為柴可夫斯基大賽得主 Susan Starr 得意門生，在其帶領下於 2008 年取得博士學位。在 台灣期間畢業於台北藝術大學，國立師大附中以及台北市立福星國小，師事德林傑(Michael Dellinger)，宋允鵬，卓甫見，王美齡等教授。