Matt Savage, a speaker at the upcoming International Autism Conference, is an autistic savant musician, a teacher, and an individual with autism. The International Autism Conference, is an annual conference focussed on bringing together the brightest minds working in the field of autism to improve the quality of life of persons with autism and their families.
Here are excerpts from the original interview for the CADDRE April newsletter…
It was a therapeutic transformation – the therapy that helped most was Auditory Integration Therapy (AIT), which is a sound desensitization treatment. I started AIT at theage of 6, but I underwent many therapies in total, from the age of 3 to the age of 8. My aversion to sounds was not totally all-encompassing, but it applied to most hours of the day, so my parents’ house had to be quiet. Learning the piano came naturally, thanks to a toy xylophone “piano” (with keys) in the basement of the house. This helped me to visualize things. My parents showed me the “real” piano the same day, and I started piano lessons the same week.
How did you develop a passion for jazz and who is your inspiration in music?
The first jazz album I ever heard was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” And I remember that the first thing that excited me was the fact that the average length of a song was nine minutes. I liked big numbers as a little kid and couldn’t believe that one could improvise so quickly and for so long. But it took me a little while to become attached to this particular musical genre over others. I think the big epiphany for me came when I studied jazz for the first time, and learned to [do] solo. Jazz solos, for me, are an extension of the tune’s melody, not merely a separate section.
In what way did your mother and teachers help you tune you into the world of music?
They really helped me learn to interact with a jazz group, and to help figure out the social cues required for a performance. Later on, I studied with the late jazz educator Charlie Banacos. He taught moral and life lessons with each piano lesson and helped me to decide the future of my career and open up my
musical mind. And I also can’t thank my mother, Diane, enough for traveling with me and making the complex media landscape less daunting – it is an intense life indeed as a musician.
You teach music to children with autism. Considering you were autistic yourself, do you think you have been able to form a special bond with any of your students?
What I have learned is that eye contact and body language are essential, even for “special needs” kids who might not perceive that immediately… the only difference is that stronger cues are required. And, sometimes, it is necessary to point at a musical note multiple times instead of just once. A lot of times, the nature of a music lesson is simply a question of attention and tempo (speed) – regardless of whatever condition a student might have. The exciting and movement-oriented design of musical instruments helps make every one-on-one lesson special, no matter who the student may be.
Do you think music helps unlock supressed areas in a person with autism? Could you share your perspective on it from a personal point of view and as a musician who teaches others?
Certainly, there are many people who have learned to sing before learning to speak. And lots of people I know have perfect pitch, which means that one can identify a musical note without hearing a reference note first. Having a mathematical understanding of the music can help one understand the nuances of speech in a similar way – I would say that this has happened to me, as I have perfect pitch as well.
Do you face any special challenges being a musician?
The entertainment industry is very publicity-oriented, and it is very hard for me to recognize faces – I need to put in lots of energy to be able to maintain attention for such a long time. Also, every musician romanticizes the cheap pizza and ramen diet, but that doesn’t work for me since I have a gluten allergy (which fortunately is not severe)!
What is the way forward for your career?
Last fall, I started a college teaching position for the first time, at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. I am looking forward to continuing this career in higher education in addition to my touring. Besides teaching piano, I now have a jazz-funk fusion group (Matt Savage Groove Experiment) and am focusing more on jazz and classical composition. There are many different sounds that one can create when writing for different instruments.
Are you familiar with Indian music or musicians? Would you be interested in crossover projects?
I wish I knew more names in Indian music, but I am very familiar with concepts such as ragas, talas and tihais, thanks to my studies with tabla player Samir Chatterjee at Manhattan School of Music. I played in his Music of India ensemble, which combines jazz with the complex polyrhythms of Indian classical music. I would love to do another project like this in the future.
What do you feel about coming to India?
I have always wanted to go to India and know many people who have taught there. This is an exciting opportunity. And I hope I can use this special trip to help reach out to music students, as well as parents who may have questions about starting a music career for their kids.
What is your message to parents of children with autism?
I want to help show both the parents and the children that anything is possible, and that it is wonderful to encourage kids to follow their passions – which can develop over many years and turn into a career.
Photographer, media creator, painter, and father. Bringing people’s dream projects to fruition. With a deep love for film, music, coffee, and the arts.