- Derek creates new music instantly and Lia improvises a rendition of
a classic song at the Big
Surprise Music Studio in LA.
Over recent months,
ABILITY Magazine has examined different facets of autism and the
arts. That exploration continues via world-class pianist Derek Paravicini
who has autism and is also blind. He recently traveled to the United
States with his sister Libbet and his teacher Adam Ockelford, PhD,
a professor of music at the University of Roehampton in London.
While visiting Southern California this spring, Paravicini performed
at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), an event arranged by
Dana Collinson, the schools associate director of Special Events,
who knows the musician and his teacher. Along with Dean Ralph V. Clayman,
MDSchool of Medicine and Dean Joseph S. Lewis IIIClaire
Trevor School of the Arts. UCI billed the gala as an evening
of creativity and magic, and so it was. Afterwards, Ockleford
sat down with ABILITYs Chet Cooper and Lia Limón
Martirosyan; Paravicini and his sister joined the conversation a bit
Chet Cooper: Whats your background?
Adam Ockelford, PhD: I started out as a musician in London 30-odd
years ago. Back when I was still a student, I was asked to volunteer
at the School for the Blind. They said the kids there were amazingly
musical. I managed to put off volunteering for about six months because
once you get roped in, youre there for life. Im there
Cooper: Its a life sentence.
Lia Limón Martirosyan: What kind of music did you study?
Ockelford: Im a classical musician. I studied oboe, piano and
composition. But you quickly learn to acquire the skills of playing
by ear and improvising, rather than being wedded to notes on a page.
Traditional teaching doesnt work terribly well for people like
Derek. You cant come in with the preconceived notion ofthis
is how I teach.
Martirosyan: How did Derek lose his sight?
Ockelford: He had retinopathy of prematurityabnormal blood vessel
development in a premature infants retina. But it must have
caused lesions in his brain as well, because Derek was developmentally
delayed and has an autism diagnosis. Hes not typically on the
autism spectrum, but he certainly meets many of the criteria.
Cooper: He has lots of typical characteristics.
Ockelford: Yes, stereotyped behaviors. But I work with a lot of autistic
children today and I think people are sometimes surprised how friendly
they can be. I think its a misconception that autistic children
are cold robots. The ones I work with are immensely affectionate.
Its just about giving them confidence. So I got hooked on working
at the school and then Derek came along.
Cooper: How long have you worked with him?
Ockelford: Since he was five, and today hes 33. So that would
be 28 years.
Cooper: Thats a good gig.
Ockelford: I didnt plan it like that.
Martirosyan: How many children are in the school?
Ockelford: At the school that Derek attended there are about 140 students.
Lots of kids there are very musical, and I still do a bit of work
there now. In the UK, theres quite good provision for children
with disabilities and theres been a lot of investment in new
special schools and in inclusion over the last 10 years. Its
much harder in society for adults with disabilities, so its
very unusual for someone like Derek to have a public life, a professional
life. Hes very special in that way.
I think a lot of people can be quite nervous about doing music, because
they dont think theyre musical, which isnt true
at all. Everyone is musical. If a lot more teachers, practitioners
and interveners had the confidence to use music, it would be helpful.
Most programs for kids with autism tend to be visual, which can be
quite challenging for them. Sound is another way to reach them.
Cooper: What kind of research have you done in this area?
Ockelford: Ive done everything from psychological experiments
to surveys around cognition and perception. Ive got students
studying the relationship between language and music. For instance:
Does music help kids acquire language? A lot of those things are anecdotally
obvious, but getting the evidence is quite difficult, especially with
autistic children because they dont conform to what you want
them to do. As you know, assessing them is difficult. But theres
mounting evidence that music therapy works.
Cooper: Have you looked into ways to connect students to a Web-based
program, allowing them to work at their own pace and possibly create
a program to reach a larger audience? You could also use the program
to measure how much time theyre spending on the program.
Ockelford: I havent done that, but other people have. Technologys
brilliant. Every autistic kid I know has iPads, iPods and the like,
but the kids spend so much time on them that a bigger challenge is
to get them off their technology. The first thing I say when they
come in the room is, Turn off the six iPads you brought in.
Some of them are happy to listen to six different pieces of kitsch
while taking a piano lesson. I say, It might be all right for
you, but my brain cant cope with all that. I think its
nice for them to have human interaction. I also prefer to use a real
piano, not an electronic one. Derek loves the piano; its a lovely
physical thing. When you press the note you can feel it vibrate, which
is really important.
Cooper: Are you involved with music therapy programs, as well?
Ockelford: Im not a music therapist, but music is therapeutic
and a great way to relate to the kids. And some of them may take a
year before they start to interact. Finding out what makes them tick
is the thing. The kid might be completely obsessed with the Flintstones,
so you can say, Okay, lets play the Flintstones theme.
If you can do something that a kids really interested in, then
youve got them hooked. Its not one way traffic. To start
with, its 90 percent the child and 10 percent ducking and weaving
and trying to get a hook in there, so you can gradually lead them
in a direction that you think will be helpful.
Cooper: Have you done any work in fMRIs [Functional Magnetic Resonance
Ockelford: No, I havent. We have done an electroencephalogram
test to measure brain electrical activity while Derek played Moonlight
Sonata. His whole brain lit up with the music. So theres
a huge amount of preconscious stuff going on thats really important.
Derek definitely gets into the zone. Its lovely to see.
Cooper: Seems like he can get in the zone almost instantly.
Ockelford: Yeah, its amazing. Since we arrived in the United
States, hes started thinking about what were going to
be doing when we get back to Britain. In his mind, hes done
with this trip now and on to the next thing. Before he plays, he may
be talking about any old thing, like what were doing next Thursday,
and then hell play Black and White Rag and be completely
immersed in it. Hes got that performing instinct; he feeds off
Cooper: He has an impressive mental capacity. He thinks about the
future, and yet hes in the moment, as well.
Ockelford: He understands the structure of the music and if he forgets
something, hell make something up that fits. Its typical
of the way we all learn. We cant memorize tons of surface detail,
we just learn a few rules. Derek knows the musical rules, but he cant
simply listen to a Mozart symphony and play it back. If he listened
to it 20 times over a year, he would be able to play it back, without
ever having played it. And he wouldnt get nervous. Playing in
front of 500 people is a non issue for him.
Cooper: Is it because hes blind?
Ockelford: I think its because he has a learning disability
and has always played the piano. Its easier for him to play
the piano than it is to speak or walk. Hed be much more nervous
about being interviewed.
Cooper: Do you perform with Derek sometimes?
Ockelford: Sometimes. I enjoy accompanying him and the other kids
I work with; there are a lot of talented kids.
Cooper: His performance was really good. Youre very good
at knowing in advance what Derek may or may not do, while keeping
to a minimum the possibility that an autistic episode might occur.
I think its part of the excitement that...
Ockelford: ...Dereks unpredictable.
Cooper: What other kinds of events do you do?
Ockelford: We do all sorts of different things, some straight public
concerts with other musicians and some events that are more interactive.
The size of the audience is definitely a factor; with a big audience,
its hard to interact. I did a TED Talk in the UK before 1,200
people. With a TED Talk, youve only got a quarter of an hour
anyway. A lot of the autistic people I work with would be much happier
with a set program like, Were going to play 10 pieces.
Some of the kids I work with have a playlist.
Derek is way beyond that. Hes completely flexible, which is
a great thing. Hes perfectly fine if you say, Could you
play this? Its much more difficult working with someone
if they have to play a certain piece in a certain order. Or you get
to the venue and its a different piano than the one theyre
used to. You may ask for a piano and get a keyboard. But Derek doesnt
mind. Hes absolutely fine either way.
Martirosyan: How does he react when the forum is a lot larger, like
at a philharmonic-level event?
Ockelford: He absolutely loves it. Hes got a performing gene.
Quite a few of the kids with autism seem to have it. If you try to
do a one-to-one, they wont look at you, but if you put them
in front of an audience, theyre fine. The more people there
are, the more excited Derek gets.
Cooper: Thereve been some cuts to social services in the UK.
Who pays for healthcare and education?
Ockelford: Derek was assessed as having a need, so the government
said, Yes, we must provide for it. Everyone gets good
benefits because the UK is a welfare state, although theyve
tried to cut back on benefits to people who are unemployed, encouraging
them to go and find a job. But people with disabilities havent
been adversely affected by the cuts.
Cooper: Is this the first time in the States for you?
Ockelford: Its the fourth or fifth, actually. Ive been
to LA a couple of times, Las Vegas and Phoenix, where Derek played
for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center about a year ago, at a thing
called Celebrity Fight Night, where celebrities get together and...
Cooper: ...fight each other?
Ockelford: They raise money to fight Parkinsons. I never thought
Id see Muhammad Ali; it was amazing to be in the same room with
him. Though hes very disabled now, hes still got a twinkle
in his eye.
Derek Paravicini enters
Derek Paravicini: Adam, where are you?
Ockelford: (to Paravicini) Hey! Here comes trouble! Im talking
about you, how boring you are.
Paravicini: Im not boring.
Ockelford: Derek, this is Lia.
Martirosyan: Hi, how are you?
Paravicini: Very well, thank you, Lia.
Ockelford: And Chet.
Paravicini: Hi, Chet!
Chet: Hi Derek.
Ockelford: Derek, Lia and Chet are doing an interview.
Paravicini: I like playing music or listening to it.
Martirosyan: Whats your favorite genre?
Paravicini: Classical or the cadenza.
Martirosyan: Whos your favorite composer?
Paravicini: Maybe Chopin.
Martirosyan: Do you like Mozart?
Paravicini: I do.
Martirosyan: What is your favorite piece from Mozart?
Paravicini: Maybe the Pachelbel.
Ockelford: Thats not Mozart. Mozart wrote Rondo à
la Turque. And someone asked for Mozarts D-minor Fantasia
the other day, which you knew, Derek.
Paravicini: I did.
Martirosyan: Do you listen to opera?
Paravicini: I do.
Cooper: Lias an opera singer. Would you be interested in
listening to Lia sing?
Ockelford: Lias an opera singer, Derek.
Paravicini: Youre an opera singer, arent you, Lia?
Martirosyan: (laughs) Yes.
Paravicini: Youll be singing some opera, wont you, Lia?
Martirosyan: What should I sing? Have you heard of Le Nozze
Paravicini: I havent, would you like to sing it?
Ockelford: Its The Marriage of Figaro.
Paravicini: The Marriage of Figaro. Would you like to
sing The Marriage of Figaro?
Ockelford: You can play the overture, cant you, Derek?
Paravicini: I can play the overture.
Martirosyan: How extensive is Dereks musical database?
Ockelford: No one knows, maybe hundreds of thousands of songs.
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