WEST MILFORD, N.J. — Paul DeSavino’s mother grew increasingly nervous as she watched her son sit at a piano during one of his first public performances last year. He wasn’t playing.
Minutes passed and then DeSavino, diagnosed with autism more than three decades ago as a child, played the piece perfectly.
“After the performance I said ’Paul, it was so wonderful but why did you wait so long?”’ Marlene DeSavino recalled. “And he said, ’Mom, don’t you remember? You told me to take my time, to concentrate, to look ahead.”’
For his family, who once was told DeSavino would eventually have to be placed in an institution, those early performances represented an opportunity.
Music offers children and adults with autism a way to express themselves, said Cindy Edgerton, co-director of the music therapy clinical services at Michigan State University. For many, it can improve language and social interaction skills, she said.
Some, like DeSavino, have what musical experts call perfect pitch. Yet the difficulty communicating that accompanies autism can make musical instruction a challenge.
“We can’t discuss something in a way that I would with another student,” said Cosmo Buono, DeSavino’s instructor. “That I would say really is the biggest issue — I need to make sure that the concept has been understood and once that occurs, then there’s no other issue at all.”
Interest in music came early
DeSavino, 34, will perform a 30-minute recital before a special benefit performance at the State Repertory Opera of New Jersey on April 24. The performance will raise money for autism research.
It marks another step in the journey DeSavino and his family have taken since he first began withdrawing as a toddler. His interest in music came early, but the ability to channel that into studying classical music didn’t happen for decades.
“His sister used to start singing a song and he would say ’no, no, no’ and he’d start singing the song again but in a different key and we realized, ’Wow, why was he doing that?’ and it would be the key that he had heard the song in,” his mother remembered. “So he had heard it, remembered the sound of that key and corrected his sister and sung it in the right key.”
By the time he turned 5, DeSavino would sometimes sit at the piano, only to run away if anyone came near him. About seven years ago, his mother decided he might be ready for formal lessons.
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At first she feared he might lose interest in piano and get frustrated.
“Because of his love of music, he has continued, and he’s a bit of a perfectionist, so the teacher was able to apply enough pressure but not too much so that it wouldn’t frustrate him,” she said.
DeSavino has performed twice at a Carnegie Hall recital hall with other students from the music conservatory where he studies.
“I feel OK about it,” DeSavino said last month, days before he played a piece by Beethoven in front of hundreds of people. “I hope things go well.”
Making people smile
Polite and articulate, DeSavino sometimes struggles to answer direct questions; his mother says he often thinks of more than one answer and doesn’t want to say the wrong one. But at the piano, there aren’t any “I don’t knows.”
“More and more he’s able to express himself; that’s why I think that music is a good way because that’s an easy thing,” his mother said. “Now he’s unable to verbalize that, but clearly when you see him after he performs, you see that he is clearly happy that he has made people smile.”
“When you play for people, how does that make you feel?” she asks him.
“Nervous. Excited,” he said. And why?
“Because I would be too famous,” he says to laughter from family and friends at the group home run by the National Institute for People with Disabilities of New Jersey, where he lives.
Marlene DeSavino said it’s up to her son to decide whether to continue performing in public.
“I want him to continue to have a love of music, whatever he wants to do with it — it’s for him. It’s for him to enjoy any way he wants to.”
She added: “It’s been a lifetime to get him to where he is. To have this happen, it’s a wonderfully rewarding thing for a parent to see.”
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