Graduate students share music for families living with autism in partnership with the Autism Society of PittsburghWhen his family moved to Pittsburgh from Baltimore, 12-year-old Aaron Birnbaum missed something he loved from home: sensory-friendly concerts he attended with his family. The Baltimore Azure Concert Series, which invites families living with autism and related challenges to sensory-friendly performances, had previously filled that gap.
The middle-school musician asked his mother, Anitra Birnbaum, to find a similar program locally. When she didn’t, she decided to create one for him. After looking online for possible partners the first person she reached out to with the idea was Carnegie Mellon University’s Monique Mead , director of music entrepreneurship at CMU. Mead and a team of graduate students in her Collaborative Project in Music Entrepreneurship course responded with enthusiasm.
Sara Frankel, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in viola performance in May, is one of those students. She is serving as the artistic directing intern for the course’s newly created Azure Concert Series of Pittsburgh.
Now a graduate student pursuing an advanced musical studies certificate in viola performance , Frankel has an older brother with special needs. She recalls the sometimes-challenging prospect of family outings.
"We always had to have a backup plan," she said. "I could see how inaccessible the world can be and how much more we can do with small acts to help people."
Some of those small acts are part of the idea behind the Azure concerts. The name was picked because azure is a shade of blue associated with calming and acceptance in an otherwise busy world for people on the autism spectrum. Stephen Prutsman, a pianist in San Francisco, created the concept of Azure concerts, which allows audience members to get up and dance, fidget, make noise while also providing quiet spaces, if needed, and hands-on activities like instrument petting zoos or scarves to play with. Other sensory tools provided are dimmed lighting and noise canceling headphones. The concept has since spread to cities such as Austin and Baltimore.
"As opposed to other concerts we had attended in Baltimore, Azure concerts welcomed all behaviors," said Anitra Birnbaum. With sound sensitivities, Aaron originally avoided music. But over the course of several concerts, he grew more comfortable with music. "It was through Azure concerts that he developed a love of music, which opened all kinds of opportunities for him to explore such as playing saxophone with his school band."
Birnbaum joins class meetings virtually and is serving as executive director for the series. "I’ve gotten to know the students. They’re very committed, driven and hardworking. I’m so impressed with the effort put forth. I couldn’t have asked for a better partnership on this," she said.
Aaron Birnbaum joined Eric DeFade on stage at a recent concert designed with families living with autism and related challenges in mind.
When: 2-3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 5
Where: Attack Theatre, 212 45th St. Pittsburgh
Cost: Free, but tickets are required
Students from CMU’s School of Music helped orchestrate a new concert series for families living with autism and related challenges.
Dayna Hagstedt, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in flute performance in May and is pursuing an advanced musical studies certificate, said the students are working to create a model for other cities to use.
"We’re all primarily performers. I had no idea of all the work behind the scenes of performances. All of these skills we’re learning will help us in the future," Hagstedt said.
Mead said that CMU’s School of Music provides a variety of ways for students to receive hands-on experiences related to the field. The CMU Music Entrepreneurship Program provides classes to help students hone their business, marketing and communications skills.
"If we learned anything from the COVID-shutdown of the arts industry, it is that resilience comes with an entrepreneurial mindset," Mead said. "During those 18 months, musicians developed new ways of making and sharing their art, making it more accessible, inclusive and equitable. I feel we are still riding that wave of arts innovation and social change, and I see a refreshing entrepreneurial shift in the mindsets of our emerging artists."
The first performance for the Azure Concert Series of Pittsburgh was an outdoor concert on Oct. 3 in Cheswick, Pa., and featured CMU faculty member and Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Eric DeFade and his jazz quartet.
"We’re hoping to include a diversity of genres," said Aaron Rib, who is pursuing a master’s degree of music in flute performance. "We like the idea of doing chamber music, new music, contemporary genres, folk music and even musical theater. We want to make sure we’re getting high level artistry from many of the fields."
Despite a drizzly day, the team was pleased with the turnout and the audience’s response. The next performance will be a "Festive Families" concert from 2-3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 5 at Pittsburgh’s Attack Theatre, which was founded by CMU faculty Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope for an interactive performance of improvisatory dance and live music by Mead’s students. At least two more concerts are in the works for 2022 with support from local organizations such as the Autism Society of Pittsburgh, Band Together Pittsburgh, CMU’s College of Fine Arts and Little Lesson House.
"Everyone has been exceptionally supportive," said Sean Regan, a graduate student in bagpipe performance. "We have had individuals providing their own insights and their own resources - financial, logistical and material."
Both Prutsman and Maria Lambros, who runs the Baltimore series, have been Zoom guests in Mead’s class and have given advice. In addition to Frankel, Regan, Rib and Hagstedt, fellow School of Music graduate students involved in the project include Melissa Hagstedt and Taylor Francis.