Our son has music in his veins. From the very first time we saw him rock in perfect beat to music at 16-months old, to the way he used to surprise us by how quickly he could memorise songs, to the elaborate performances he would stage at home – it’s always been about music. His music. Constantly and consistently.
He would go through immersion in different favourites, including: Hannah Montana (that phase was a bit rough as it involved endless poorly made blonde wigs that would be dramatically shed during the performances to reveal the ‘real’ Miley Cyrus); Cher (he can do an amazingly realistic impersonation, though we had a bit of trouble with some of her language on stage and trying to match those costumes); Justin Bieber (he watched the movie and memorised how Justin Bieber used social media to become a star and couldn’t understand why the same didn’t happen to him when he posted to YouTube); They Might Be Giants; Demi Lovato. Movies like Lemonade Mouth, Camp Rock, Fame, Mamma Mia.
We are talking about hundreds of views and repetitive listening of all the above. An excellent dancer, he would memorise elaborate dance routines and re-enact them.
This involved countless too easily broken CD players and DVDs. It arched over the years as we learned the hard way what happens when CDs are smashed against the walls in frustration. (They become frighteningly sharp.) If the CDs got scratched or the ridiculously fiddly cases broken, it could throw a whole day into decline. If a CD player lid was held open and the CD spun manually – as would regularly happen, the mechanisms on the CD player would break. Smash. If a portable CD player ran out of batteries and he couldn’t find new ones, smash. If headphones were uncomfortable, smash. But we stuck with it, didn’t get mad (or tried not to). We bought everything used or took out insurance.
As he grew older, his musical tastes changed. His Little Mix fixation and a performance of “Salute” led him to winning his school’s ‘Got Talent’ show, an incredible feat for a new Year 7 student in an overwhelming 1000-person mainstream school. The SENCO said she was a bit worried that that outcome had made him perhaps too visible, too vulnerable in that setting. But it will forever remain one of the highlights of his youth. He took part in musicals in his new specialist school – belting out songs on stage. We had an amazing 13th birthday for him where, along with a team of friends and family, we helped him organise the “Flashing Lights Tour” – a prelude to his goal of playing Wembley.
His ability to handle technology improved. We made our way into the digital musical world, though that too was a bit rocky at first. Karaoke apps that didn’t really take off. Music games on the Wii that didn’t really cut it (except one that descended us back into the Hannah Montana world for several more months). Encouragingly, becoming more familiar with Apple Music and Spotify took the edge off of the CD situation, though it remains a favourite pastime to hunt through charity shops for old NOW CDs, the holy grail.
Through all of this, he took singing lessons. We were told he might have perfect pitch. He took drum lessons for a while.
And then disaster struck. His voice started to change and crack.
Our guy stopped singing in public. Stopped singing lessons. Stopped performing in our house or anywhere. Stopped all lessons and after school activities of any kind. He withdrew. He still sings every night, headphones on in the dark in his room, rocking, able to control his considerable lighting set-up on his own now. We aren’t allowed to see any of this any more, what was once a family activity has ceased. As the teenage years progressed, those long home performances complete with lights and costumes became a thing of the past. I used to roll my eyes as we sat with all the teddy bears and dolls holding a single spotlight in just the right place, ready to make the whole crowd cheer on cue. But I miss those days.
As he retreated into his headphones and his room with his iPhone and technology, we gave him space. We had been advised by therapists that the most important thing we could do was decrease our son’s anxiety. So we stopped forcing the lessons. We stopped forcing ‘together’ time. We gave him room. We backed way off.
We monitor his technology use. From before he could really understand them, we have always emphasised rules about screens – no bad words, not too much skin, no violence, no sex. We knew we couldn’t stop either of our kids from using technology, and in fact we know technology is key to both of their futures, so we chose to work with them to ensure they know how to use it safely. (Not saying this would work for everyone, it’s just how we have chosen to approach these issues.) There were new apps all the time. Some of these apps give fake ‘fans’ and create internal fake performances. So we didn’t really bat an eye when our son started to tell us that he had a single coming out soon. We nodded along.
And then one day he told us his single had been released. On Amazon, Spotify and Apple Music!
He had taken to technology to continue his music interest. He had been creating EDM (electronic dance music). He had researched and figured out how to use United Masters. He has researched and figured out how to create artwork for songs. He has been doing this for a while now, and he’s ecstatic that his songs have even been played hundreds of times around the world (the apps let him see where), including some 20 times on the radio. People are even using Shazam to identify his music that must be being played publicly. Obviously, we are now tracking this all a bit more closely, but this entire initiative is 100 per cent him. All him. And we are simply in awe. It’s not all smooth sailing, he has had several songs rejected, cover art declined. He’s learning about copyright issues. Despite this kind of harsh feedback at times, he keeps going back to it, keeps learning and finding ways to improve. It’s truly impressive to me.
He had been doing all of this on a small iPhone screen. At Christmas we took the plunge and he got an iPad (he had been asking for one for years). We have now arranged for him to have weekly one-on-one music lessons with a superb specialist music teacher who is gearing her sessions with him to help him expand his ability to use the apps to create more personalised music. She’s showing him how the app he is using will integrate with some content he creates in another app (the band lab in Garage Band) and how to link in microphones and other instruments. She speaks with him about matching tempos, showed him how to create a riff with his own voice (demonstrating with her voice). She shows him how the app he’s using can show what musical note it is and helped him for example understand what ‘b-flat-minor’ means by showing him on the Garage Band keyboard. It was magic to watch her do her stuff with him, seamlessly teaching and demonstrating while asking him to show her his process for making songs. Respecting him and his process.
It’s wonderful to see his HUGE smile at each new discovery, to hear her use words with him like calling him a “composer” and telling him there’s no right or wrong answer when creating music, that she’s never had her music played on the radio before and how awesome that was, and just generally boosting his confidence.
It’s hard as the parent of a child whose additional needs are so rarely understood to describe the feeling when watching a great teacher who understands how to work with those with special educational needs. It’s a moment of pure relief when you see them elevate your child’s engagement with what could otherwise be very complicated subjects.
I am listening in to this morning’s lesson as I type. “Bass,” she is showing him on using Garage Band, “is all about patterns that repeat, it’s about finding what you like.” She’s showing him “smart bass,” “notes,” and “scales” and how they can be used to help “make a groove.” I shouldn’t be listening but I am sneakily learning some of this lingo too.
His musical ability is going in directions far beyond what we can help him with. He’s becoming interested now in “K-pop” (Korean pop music, his new favourite band is Blackpink.) It’s a whole new genre for my husband and I who grew up with rock and roll and punk music. But we will go where he leads us.
So, here we are. He just had his new Valentine’s Day release. The cover art is amazing.
We don’t know where all this is heading. But we do know music is and always will be a huge part of his life. It uplifts him, it sustains him and it helps calm him when he needs it. This isn’t a frivolous hobby. It’s core to who he is and the adult he is becoming.
People with FASD learn best in hands-on, multi-sensory ways. It’s amazing what can happen when we step back and let their learning style unfold, with a little help as needed along the way. It’s so important not to drown out those interests, however unfamiliar they are, no matter how far away they may be from what we think “should be”.
It’s so important to celebrate those moments (like the joy I am feeling now eavesdropping on this music lesson) – sweet moments in an otherwise complicated life when you can stand back, grant some space and watch that creativity and hope unfold.