This post is in the Musical Practice category

Dear Reader

In early 2006 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  It was certainly not a comfortable moment but it did explain a lot of the more uncomfortable times of my life.  At the time I was in the throes of completing my Masters of Music degree, exploring collaborative practice in my work as a composer for theatre, and this foray into reflective practice had thrown up some questions around my ability to empathise and communicate on an emotional level in the creative environments in which I deliberately place myself.  There was some talk about continuing my research into other aspects of my practice, perhaps looking at the differences between the workflows around theatre and film compositions.  But this diagnosis took precedence.  According to everything I was reading, which was mostly written for parents of young children diagnosed with the condition, Asperger’s Syndrome manifested as impairments in creativity, empathy, emotional intelligence, non-verbal communication, executive function and a raft of other possibilities. These seemed to be somewhat at odds with a fairly successful career as a composer and music producer who has built a reputation on collaborating with artists across disciplines and providing evocative music for dramatic performance.  I could clearly see some of the social implications of the condition, but the effects on my music life were much more murky and ominous. In particular I wondered whether I had reached a ceiling of my abilities that was defined by autism.

This research therefore began with the dual intentions of identifying how my musical pathway has been affected by the traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, and providing the means to fix that path or find a way round the potholes. Over the course of learning and writing, the aims have changed a little, but that is where it began.

So how does a 42 year old man with Asperger’s Syndrome and minimal formal musical training end up with  a Masters of Music in Composition and a Doctor of Musical Arts thesis? Sometimes when I’m surrounded by academic musicians I remind myself that the academic musician, or the musical academic, represents a tiny proportion of the world’s understanding of the topic. In that sense I’m probably more like a folk, world or rock musician.  I can’t really avoid a musical life history here, but I can pepper it with hindsight.  I can let you in on the questions that sprang to my mind as I started to re-evaluate my whole life.

I didn’t know I was musical until I was about ten, when we moved to a larger Queensland town that had a classroom music teacher.  I remember calling him Mr Floyd once because his real name was the same as one of the members of Pink Floyd.  I don’t think he knew the reference and didn’t get the joke but he gave me a recorder and assigned his top student to teach me the basics, as the rest of my class had already been learning for two years. I reached this standard in a week and my mentor never spoke to me again.  He was top student at most things and I think I took that from him too, although I never aspired to be top of the class, I just soaked stuff up. Once a nerd always a nerd I suppose, but I didn’t have, or want, a lot of friends. Now I know what I’m looking for, I see kids with Asperger’s and realise I was a fairly annoying child, but I didn’t know or care then.

Floyd offered me the chance to play in the school band and I wanted to play the trumpet, but there was no instrument available so I took up the saxophone. I switched to trombone when I was about eleven but kept up the sax whenever I got the chance.  I don’t think I had much of a tone, but I could transpose any part on sight so I was useful if someone was missing from the ranks.  I was glad I didn’t take up the trumpet actually because the school had a couple of prodigies, one of whom ended up playing trumpet for one of Australia’s major orchestras. I wasn’t interested in competing with someone who was obviously far more talented than me.

Music as a high school subject was never a really strong area though – I really liked the high school music teacher, her name was Miss Heggarty and she played baritone sax in the Stage Band that I lived for for a time. I rebelled against learning formal harmony but I loved writing for the band and the orchestra – I found I could put instruments together pretty easily without thinking about whether I was doubling thirds or whatever. The conductor of the Stage Band was an ex-navy cook who played like the great English jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk and wrote band arrangements by ear from pop tunes on the radio. I was early for every chance to play – before school, after school, big band, school orchestra, youth orchestra. There were quite a few maths classes that I missed while “practising” in the music rooms.  Things became complicated in High School because at the age of fifteen I had a “nervous breakdown” and was on anti-depressant drugs. Two other members of my family were going through similar problems so it’s hardly surprising. I guess it was a manifestation of emotional overload related to not really having a clue what was going on. No-one had heard of Asperger’s Syndrome in those days – the condition was only described in English a year before (Wing, 1981). My “condition” meant that I was excused from assessments for half a year, so I could pretty much go to the classes I wanted to. But I never missed a music class.

I left high school with surprisingly good grades in Biology, English, Earth Science, History and not much better than passes in Music and Maths, but it was enough to get me into any of the courses I was interested in, primarily marine biology or music. I ended up in a Diploma of Creative Arts studying the trombone. I really hated theory classes. I disliked the idea that music was about applying formulae, although I could see through analysis how composers created their harmonies and tonal colour, and I could string chords together and write songs, find suitable harmonic motion for melody. My teacher would hand back the exercises I did.  “This is basic theory class, not composition” he would say, “don’t do that until third year.” I wasn’t happy playing trombone either. I think I realised that I just didn’t have the talent (or the teeth) to be a great player, and let’s face it, how many trombonists have jobs?

I had discovered synthesis, MIDI and recording by then (1985) and was pretty happy to leave uni in the middle of my second year, vowing never to return, to pursue the electronic studio dream. I was lucky to find a couple of inspirational people, record producer Mark Moffat being one, before locating to Sydney and encountering the real deal of studios and production. I learned much from people such as Guy Sheridan Gray, Don Bartlet and Peter Beveridge, who were kind enough to let me look over their shoulders and actually touch the SSL. Engineering was very much a hands-on, learn-on-the-job affair. These days we would call it reflective practice I suppose – I used to write down the day’s events, triumphs and disasters – I wish I’d kept all that.

I think the key to it all was the ability to listen deeply and pull sound apart. I am lucky to be blessed with an open mind regarding music – I can listen to anything and find something to marvel at – I don’t have to like it. In fact I don’t think “like” really comes into it – I have preferences, but everything is good if it’s done well. I can get into each individual element and explore it and figure it out. I want to figure it out.  It’s not formal but that’s the best training you can get.

Since moving from regional Queensland to the biggest city in Australia in 1986 I have pursued music primarily in its recorded form, playing with electronic instruments that let me form sound with my ears and mind rather than my lips and fingers.  I have worked in the highly collaborative environments of studio, theatre and film with various successes and challenges.  There have always been failures, but strangely, not musical ones.  When problems have arisen it has been communication, “personality clash”, mis-understanding.  In 2004 when I began, out of grave concern for my abilities to function in an increasingly freelance music business world, to teach at tertiary level, I found myself investigating how I worked musically with people for my Master’s degree.  Despite various personal and mental health issues, Asperger’s was not mentioned until I was completing that research.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Masters research itself pointed to a number of the traits and difficulties in the current investigation.

In many ways I wish I had known about Asperger’s before. I may have already answered some of the questions I had at the beginning of this research, and some of those I still have.

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