I cannot hear you
When I’m in a hurry
I can see when you’re not happy.
I went to the airport
I went on the plane
I can see when you’re not happy
I went to the factory
Where they make lots of cheese
I can see when you’re not happy
This is the work of Oliver, who is a 26-year-old music student from Brighton in the UK.
Interesting lyrics, but nothing too usual, you may say. And under ordinary circumstances, you would be right. However, Oliver is autistic and echo laic. So these lyrics take you on a more significant thought trail, one that allows you a window into the world of a young man who is unable to vocally express himself in fluid speech. He is, however, more than able to express himself through song.
The significance of putting a melody to these words frees up his cognitive ability and reaches through his autistic mind, allowing perfect speech to emerge through song lyrics. This, in itself, is a little miracle, and for Oliver, one can only imagine the freedom and sheer joy of this flow. It’s like letting in the sunshine from tightly drawn curtains.
The first time Oliver and I were in the studio recording his songs, we were playing back the vocal track on its own to get a mix level, and Olli’s face lit up. He beamed like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. It took me several minutes to work out why he was having such a positive reaction, as most people cringe when they hear themselves singing back through professional speakers. Olli, on the other hand, seemed to be in rapture. Eyes closed and face pointed toward the speakers, he was listening to himself singing. He heard the essence of himself, his voice, unhindered and flowing like a river. He was in tune, in time, and in control of his expressions, and I marveled at what that might feel like after 26 years. An undiscovered part of him suddenly burst forth, singing his thoughts and feelings in a song.
Would it be perhaps like seeing a giant image of yourself on the screen for the first time?
With echolalia, Olli can only repeat what others around him say, sometimes answering ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions as well. However, with a simple melody, he was able to transform his unique thoughts into song, making the impossible possible. It was humbling to witness, and so our musical partnership took on a more symbolic meaning. This wasn’t about playing music with an autistic student: our work together was about co-creating his music and giving him a voice.
I have worked with Olli for nearly two years now, and we spend 45-50 minutes each week improvising. I follow his lead and create a musical structure for him to express himself through what I call melodic words. Melodic words are sometimes in English, French, or Slovak (his exceptional SEN support worker Peter Juhas is from Slovakia), and sometimes the words are not in any language. However, they are still creations that serve to show how he is willing to participate and formulate a flow. We traverse subjects that many people with autism enjoy—like machines and animals—and we roam around in the world of possibilities as his sense of humor explores every corner of life from his unique perspective. Songs are about ride-on lawnmowers, eating pizza in the Spanish mountains, black panthers, etc. Most recently, Olli was able to express his observations on feelings, which, again, is unusual. As the words took a melodic shape, they fell freely from his lips. Perhaps the most touching song about Olli’s ability to see and understand a relationship between him and another is “I Can See When You’re Not Happy.”
Our sessions began in a spacious music studio, with him setting up the microphone through the mixer while I faced away from him at the piano. I observed how he was standing or walking around, and I listened for his low verbalizations (usually, but not always, in F). I then musicalized his offerings and found a chordal pattern to act as a boat under him, carrying him off. Olli is also a good drummer and was able to sing and play at the same time. Musical idioms that Olli seems to enjoy are klezma, blues, and tribal drumming, and I wonder if it’s the quick rhythmic patterns of these styles that awaken and pique his musicality. He is very responsive and takes the lead with his melodies once we have established a loose structure of 8-16 bars.
We have worked especially on endings in recent sessions, and Olli is now able to read musical cues, such as slowing down, that signal the end of a song. Quite often, we are able to finish a song together at a musically natural point. Olli always takes time to process after a song, standing still and looking like he is quietly contemplating his creation. He may then rock back and forth and vocalize in his familiar low hum—perhaps waiting for the next song to set him free.
Olli is now playing with other young people at college and enjoys singing covers from his favorite bands, REM, and Oasis. His gentle and good nature makes him a popular bandmate, coupled with his dedication to the music.
He is a musical being, and being musical seems to bring him closer to his soul.
Dominique Levack is a music specialist in Brighton, England. She studied at Nordoff Robbins in London and works with various clients with mixed pathologies, including dementia, autism, and Down syndrome. She enjoys using music interventions and singing to connect and create, and she was presented with The John Lennon Songwriting Award by the PRS in her early career. Through music, Dominique helps to allow clients to express themselves and realize their musical potentials, especially when other means of communication isn’t always possible.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions