Changing habits: A gifted student with autism

Last year, I had a fascinating consultation with a talented young pianist, improviser and composer, Lara Ljubisavljevic, which I have often since thought about. Her biography below will give you an idea of her talents.

Lara Ljubisavljevic is a year 10 student (15 years old) who was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Her interest in piano came as a surprise to her parents when her teachers informed them that Lara has  perfect pitch and is capable of quickly memorising music. She has achieved A (honours) gradings for most of her AMEB exams and last year she was awarded the bronze medal at the Eisteddfod competing against adult performers. Lara is a month away from sitting Grade 8 AMEB exam. While Lara is very skilled in classical piano, she is also a very talented jazz musician and works hard in improving her jazz skills.

As well as her weekly piano lessons with my colleague Kent Farbach, an excellent pianist, composer and improviser himself, Lara also studies jazz piano, plays in the jazz band at school, and performs advanced repertoire such as Beethoven’s Rage Over the Lost Penny Op. 129. 

I admit I was a little nervous to work with someone who was nearly non-verbal. Her mum warned me that communicating with Lara was “a bit of a challenge”, but offered to step in if needed. Lara’s issue was pain in her left wrist in certain passages in the Beethoven. It was easy to diagnose: her wrist height was a little low, and rather than gradually moving in to play a thumb on the black key, the movements were often sudden, and misaligned.

What I wanted to highlight in this post was not what we worked on, but Lara’s intuitive approach to learning, and how this differed so positively from neurotypicals. When Lara first experienced pain, she stopped practising the piece that was causing pain. It’s worth reflecting on that. The common response is to keep playing despite the pain, to get through the next performance / exam / lesson etc. This consolidates not only the incorrect motions, but also the pain response, which can quickly become chronic pain in as little as three months. However, Lara was clever enough to recognise the specific passages that were causing problems, and in tune with her body enough to recognise that she could still play her other pieces that felt comfortable.

Lara was extremely quick to make physical changes in the lesson, and to replace the incoordinate movements with healthy ones (eg moving in gradually for the thumb on the black key, and avoiding twisting her hand away from her arm). Importantly, once she experienced and understood these correct motions, she wanted to practice them over and over in the lesson. Most people might do variations on the wrong motion many times, play it correctly once, or still not quite correctly, then be in a hurry to move onto the next thing. I’ve been guilty of it myself. 

But Lara understood that you have to repeat the correct motion several times to completely internalise the new sensation, and to fully replace a faulty movement pattern. She didn’t want to move on to the next question until she was certain that she could recreate the correct feeling without me helping. She also quickly grasped the direct cause and effect that Dorothy Taubman was so brilliant at decoding: if my wrist is lower than level, I feel discomfort, if I twist my hand, it hurts.  More often than not, a neurotypical student will experience a correction but then fail to apply it to similar situations. They are then puzzled that “sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t”. Inconsistent movement patterns produce inconsistent results. The more perfectly you repeat the correct motion, the faster you can get out of pain, and improve your technique permanently.

I was humbled by working with Lara, and was struck by how much we can all take from her learning process. Her autism offers her musical superpowers that many of us can’t access: extraordinary memory, ability to synthesise information very quickly, perfect pitch, a deep self-awareness of not only how movements feel in her body, but of the necessary work to change a habit. All of that aside, I was also blown away by the sheer joy and connection to the music in her playing. I challenge you to watch Lara playing Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and without smiling and tapping along!

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