Westmoreland high school musicians to perform piece inspired by autism
The composition “Puzzle Pieces” is no toe-tapper. It's not supposed to be.
The piece opens with round, hollow chords played by clarinets and French horns. Other woodwinds and brass take over as the clarinets introduce a playful, bouncy theme that attempts to break through the melancholy soundscape.
As the playful riff persists, it encounters a few challenges: it skips, it jumps, it repeats. It gets stuck. It tries again.
“Here's this wonderful melody. And all of the sudden it gets interrupted,” said Donald Green, band director in the Yough School District. The piece is dedicated to Green and his 12-year-old son, William, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age.
“And that happens sometimes. Kids' thought processes are interrupted,” Green said.
Written for symphonic band, the piece was composed by former Indiana University of Pennsylvania band director Jack Stamp. It's intended to convey how a child with autism experiences the world to listeners who might have no understanding of autism.
“What you have to do then is transfer your musical knowledge to that realm of reality. How do I make the music notes I know reflect autism? Somehow you have to make that transfer,” Stamp said, explaining that the piece grew out of his friendship with Green, who encouraged him to write a piece that would help raise awareness about autism.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that includes several conditions characterized by a range of social, communication or behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 1 in 68 children across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups in the United States are diagnosed with autism.
People with autism might have trouble socializing or communicating, while others might exhibit repetitive behaviors or routines. Some people might respond unexpectedly to a new situation or overstimulating setting, and others might express an intense interest or exceptional talent in a subject, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The 120-piece Westmoreland County Senior High Band, comprised of some of the top high school band musicians in the county, will premier “Puzzle Pieces” at the Westmoreland County Music Educators Association band festival Friday. The festival will be hosted at Yough Intermediate Middle School in Ruffsdale.
The students rehearsed the piece, along with the rest of the festival program, for the first time as an ensemble just the day before. It was an experience that 12th-grade clarinet player Julie Caudill, of Yough High School, described as a “light bulb moment.” All of the sudden, they were a band, telling stories through music.
Though all of the pieces the band will perform are meant to challenge the young musicians, Caudill explained that “Puzzle Pieces” is especially tricky. Conductor William Stowman backed her up.
“There are some shocking, sort of disturbing moments, and there are some dissonances that might not make sense, and there are some rhythmic inconsistencies,” said Stowman, chair of the department of music at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg and conductor of the Westmoreland County Senior High Band.
In other words, this isn't an easy piece of music to perform. The melody doesn't flow, the beat isn't steady and the sounds aren't always pretty.
“I think musically, he very much depicted what happens. A lot of times, there's anger involved,” Green said, explaining that because some children with autism are nonverbal, they're not able to communicate what they're thinking or feeling. That can be frustrating for the child as well as family or friends, Green said.
As the piece progresses, flashes of joy seem to compete with feelings of sadness. Eventually, the playful riff prevails, and the piece concludes with a sweeping, celebratory march — a moment that resonated with Maya Shick, an 11th-grade flautist from Kiski Area High School.
Shick, who has a family member with autism, noted that the piece effectively captures the relationship between a child with autism and family members. It's a journey to finding common ground with challenges and triumphs along the way, she said.
William McGinnis, an 11th-grade baritone saxophone player from Valley Junior-Senior High School, also has a family member with autism. Playing the piece gave him some insight into how she experiences the world — why some things make perfect sense to her, while other things feel surprising or overwhelming, he said.
“It gives me hope, because maybe with music, maybe people will understand what autism is,” McGinnis said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.