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    Autism, Art, Music and One Father’s Connection to his Autistic* Son

    Topics: Parents

    Justin Morell is a composer and guitarist whose work crosses genres between classical and jazz styles and is featured on several acclaimed recordings including the recent Concerto for Guitar and Jazz Orchestra.  He is associate professor of composition at Lebanon Valley College.

    In celebration of World Autism month his newest recording, made with John Daversa, a multi-Grammy winning artist and composer will be released on April 30th, 2021.

    This amazing new piece was inspired by his son Loren. As Justin tells it:

    justin-morrell-john-daversa1The theme on which eleven variations are based is built around the spontaneous vocalizations of my nonverbal son, Loren.  One evening, I sat with him and listened to the singing and sounds that he often makes, recording them on my phone.  I quickly returned to the recordings and transcribed two different segments of beautiful melody.  The theme as arranged in this piece features these two phrases slowed down, played by the trumpet, and accompanied by the orchestra.  

    In each variation, I use elements of the theme to reflect on my life with my son, the struggles of learning how to connect with a child who has difficulty with the most basic aspects of communication, and the triumph of even the smallest successes.

    What began as a mission to celebrate neurodiversity became an opportunity for me to connect with my son and hear his voice in a way I had not before.  The music is born of intense emotion—sometimes painful and sometimes joyful—and of hope for a compassionate future where all people are loved and respected for their humanity.

    The album was recorded at the Frost School of Music recording facilities at the University of Miami, where Daversa is Chair of Studio Music. He assembled an justin-morrell-john-daversa2orchestra comprising some of the top jazz and classical musicians in South Florida, many, but not all of whom are associated with the university. Because of the pandemic, each section of the orchestra was recorded separately, adhering to social distancing guidelines on the spacious main concert stage. According to Daversa, 

    It wasn’t difficult getting musicians to participate in this project, even during the pandemic. They wanted to do it because they aligned with the music and intent, because of what they have in their hearts.

    As a composer, Morell has been influenced by Bach, Bartok, and Brahms, but also by contemporary composers like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The music on this disc even contains elements of pop. Each of the eleven variations reflects different aspects of Morell’s life with his son, from the struggles of learning how to connect with a child who has difficulty with the most basic aspects of communication, to the constant pressure to find new treatments and modalities for dealing with autism, to the triumph of even the smallest successes.

    Producer Kabir Sehgal sums it up the experience of listening to these new pieces:

    This is a poignant and profound work. That maestros John Daversa and Justin Morell have come together for this collaboration speaks not only to their mutual respect and admiration, but their interest in doing good in the world. Here they have created and rendered a masterpiece, borne of personal experience, which speaks to the better angels of what music can be — a way to communicate and connect.

    Visit the website All Without Words to listen to the music and to view beautiful art inspired by the music. Each of the artists has created new work in response to the recording of All Without Words.  Many of the autistic artists showcased on this site are world famous for their works.

    Please help support the work of these artists by viewing their work, learning their stories, and visiting their web sites.  


    Check out the album video here, or buy or stream it here.


    *A Note from Stages Learning: Whenever possible Stages Learning Materials uses
    the preferences stated by an individual as to whether to use identity-first (“autistic
    person”) or person-first (“person with autism”) language. In a poll of 21,000 people,
    69% preferred identity-first language and 31% preferred person-first language.
    A thought piece by Northeastern University indicated that in the majority of cases
    autistic people themselves prefer to be called autistic people, whereas caregivers and
    professionals prefer the wording “people with autism.” We agree with the Northeastern
    article that the group being talked about should be able to dictate what they are called.
    As we move forward we plan to alternate our usage in our written materials and in our
    speech. We recognize the importance of this issue to so many people and we plan to
    revisit this issue in the coming years with the expectation that preferences will likely
    continue to shift and we will do our best to reflect these changes. We welcome your
    thoughts on this issue. Please feel free to contact us
    L.F. Stebbins, M.Ed. M.L.I.S.

    Written by L.F. Stebbins, M.Ed. M.L.I.S.

    L.F. Stebbins has more than twenty-five years of experience in higher education with a background in library and information science, instructional design, research, and teaching. She has an M.Ed. from the Technology Innovation & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Masters in Information Science from Simmons College. For twenty years she created and led media literacy and research skills programs for students and faculty at Brandeis University. Currently she is the Director at research4Ed.com and the Director for Research at Consulting Services for Education (CS4Ed). For more about Leslie visit LeslieStebbins.com.