The only instrument I ever played “successfully” was the handbell. As I acknowledge that many of us immediately think of the hilarious SNL “cowbell” skit, I must redirect all of us to think about the Christmas tune, “Carol of the Bells.” This may have been the most challenging piece in which I ever participated. Handbell choir was a smaller group at my church growing up — those of us who liked music enough and liked being together. I had a couple of bells, I had to play them at the right time, and with practice, it usually worked out. We would perform at our church, and the handbells always had a beautiful sound to it in our acoustic-friendly sanctuary.
I never jumped to another instrument. My parents had a piano in our home, but I never had lessons. I couldn’t sit still that long. I plunked around on our Yamaha spinet-size piano occasionally. We had a play-by-color music book in the bench cabinet; it came with a color-coded strip of paper that could be aligned behind the keys to guide rookie piano players. With this cheat sheet, I mustered through “Rock of Ages ” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” several times. But there were months that would pass without me touching it or noticing that we had a piano. My sisters had lessons, but I believe the piano languished most of the time.
Most of my music training was choral singing. There were a few elementary school instances of music instruction. I’m sure they contributed to my bank of music appreciation, but church is where I sang regularly, both in worship and rehearsal with two choirs.
Pianos were everywhere in this church, whether the room hosted a group of 4 kids or 40. Most classrooms had old uprights or newer console pianos, or the smaller spinets. Some may have needed tuning, but I was not savvy enough to know better. I remember, for lack of a better word, a “heavy” sound. Good enough to charm a group of kids to quit pestering each other and sing for a few minutes.
One special memory I have of pianos in Sunday School happened before the teachers showed up. The room was half full of fifth and sixth graders and one young rock’n’roller sat at the piano and showed his talents for us all to behold. “Sweet Home Alabama” rang though that wing of the educational department of the church. It was remarkable, even stirring! I don’t remember anyone getting in trouble, maybe because this young savant was so impressively good. Whenever I happen to hear this Skynyrd song today, I don’t think of its meanings, but of Sunday School. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few others from the class testified of the long-term effects of this experience!
Singing is where I fit in during those years. But could I really do it? When my college choir sang at my grandmother’s church out of town, she told me how she had gotten a comment on my lack of singing ability – from when I was 7. She must have been holding on to that comment for 14 years, and seemed finally justified that I had turned that situation around. (Life lesson: Don’t pick on anyone’s grandchildren!)
But singing was fun. Inclusive. Not knowing that I had ASD, it was good to find an accepting place. Around eighth grade, I got involved in youth choir – which was the main activity for middle and high school students. Most Sunday nights, I was at church, eating with a group of 30-40 of us, all from various neighborhoods, various schools, but we all got along well. After a fun meal we would head to the choir room and practice. That piano stayed well-tuned; the minister of music and youth, and the accompanist, were serious about having the practice instrument as well-tuned as the sanctuary piano. It was a shorter piano, but in their masterful hands, it did what we needed it to do.
If I could hear another voice nearby singing my part, I could usually imitate. Not brave enough to try any solos, one summer youth week at camp after my junior year of high school changed all that. Trying to impress a girl will lead a guy down strange paths sometimes! It wasn’t long, about two lines, but I made it work. My music minister then called on me for other bit solo lines in various songs and concerts during the next year.
At UVa, I didn’t sing, other than as part of the crowd in Fellowship of Christian Athlete meetings, and in the congregation at a church outside of Charlottesville for the first two years. At the beginning of my third year, I had a wild idea to try out, so and I went to an audition for a faith-based concert chorale. Several friends were members, and I was looking for more ways to build relationships. After butchering the sight-reading portion – singing a neglected (unknown to me, that is) hymn with no accompaniment – I was surprised I got in. But once I went to practice and could hear what the other basses were singing, I carried my weight. At least I didn’t weigh the others down! We did concerts at school, and traveled to churches throughout the state. Both Spring Breaks for the next two years were choir tours; we traveled to New Orleans and back one year, and Disney World and back the other. The New Orleans trip was instrumental in my grad school choice, and I might not have met my New Orleanian wife-to-be if this choir hadn’t sung and did some sightseeing there.
Most neuroscientists agree that music fires parts of our brain that seem to be good for it. I don’t have any data on the effects of singing, but singing in worship is usually a joyful and emotionally fulfilling experience for me. Occasionally, I’ll sing aloud to the radio in the Mini…and sometimes laugh at myself. Training in any musical instrument, even the voice, would probably be good for me, if I could fit it in with all the other ASD therapies I’m working on. I’m thankful for the training and the experiences I’ve had around music. I will continue to appreciate the good stuff, and hopeful that I can regularly be surrounded by real instruments and impassioned singers. I think participating in music does this body, and this brain, good.