Welcome to this, my first post.
It’s always a challenge to battle the fear of the blank page, but I’m going to do that here by sharing some thoughts about one of the ways in which I have found, maintained, and developed my “voice” throughout my life.
I am autistic. And as is commonly accepted, being autistic implies a difference in communication and social interaction – and difficulties in communicating in an unsupportive social environment. This means that we sometimes find our own creative, diverse ways of expressing ourselves.
For me, this has always been music.
There are several ways in which I could tell this story – several scripts that I could articulate. I could take the ‘autism script’ wherein everything I say relates to my experiences of autism. But this is problematic, because a significant part of the story is about how one expresses an identity that is not part of the mainstream, and is often thought of as ‘deficit’ or ‘deviant’. How one speaks without having access to the words to explain this identity. Or, I could tell the ‘music story’ – about the wonderful properties of music to help someone with a disability to express themselves. But that’s not right either, because music is not the right thing for all disabled people. For some, it would be absolutely impossible or intolerable. So the script that I’m speaking from is the one that helps me to explain a way in which an autistic woman developed her “voice” and began to tell her own story.
I will pick up the story in junior school, where music lessons and instrument loan were available without cost to a given number of pupils. I don’t remember the process that led to me being one of those pupils, but I do remember being given a choice as to which instrument I would want to learn. I chose the trumpet. I am very clear about my reason for choosing this – it was very deliberate. I chose it because ‘girls don’t play the trumpet’ – the other girls played flutes, clarinets and violins. I wanted to play the trumpet. I didn’t understand the other girls, I didn’t feel any affinity or connection with them and I felt I was failing miserably at being one of them. That isn’t to say that I felt any more in common with the boys, but then there was no expectation that I would. So I chose to play the trumpet as a way of setting myself apart from something that I couldn’t do, and couldn’t be – and finding a different sound, a different “voice” – a “voice” that I felt wasn’t expected of me. No expectations meant no pressure. I could express myself as I wanted.
When I was eleven, I began playing the piano. To be more accurate, I fell absolutely head over heels in love with playing the piano. I had formal lessons and passed all the exams, but mostly I played, and played, and played. In particular, I used to play during lunch times at school. The school had a large hall, which was otherwise empty of people, but where I was allowed to play the grand piano. I used to go there on most lunch times to escape what felt like the pain and hostility of unstructured social time with peers – and was undisturbed except for the occasional person, usually members of staff, who would pass through the hall and, if they talked to me, would talk about the music. So I found a “voice” that could resonate with those around me, and this opened up the possibility of more than just self-expression. It brought with it an aspect of interaction that I could understand, and undertake with a degree of competence that was often absent in other forms of interaction that were expected of me.
So, clearly for me, music was about rejecting scripts that felt painful and uncomfortable (‘you do “being a girl” this way’), writing my own scripts and finding a “voice” that was achievable for me. However, music is in itself a script – and accessing this script is a way of connecting with the world. In this sense, it matters that it was the folk and traditional music around me that stood out to me as most meaningful and most appealing. And it matters that it is this script as opposed to others (other musical genres – classical, jazz etc) that has given me a “voice” in the social world around me.
The thing about singing traditional/folk songs is that they are social scripts. They are ways of telling what it is to be human in the social world – and they belong to everyone, and they belong to no one. This means that when I sing them, my voice is joining in with an ongoing act of carrying and shaping social scripts. I sing songs that touch on the whole range of human emotions – love, sex, anger, hurt, jealousy… I can express these emotions to the world, without needing to disclose how they relate to me. This is a big deal for someone who grew up without access to the words to explain myself. When I sing, the script is already written for me, I just have to claim it. Likewise, I can sing protest songs that bring into the foreground power and marginalization; that tell stories of those to whom society has denied a “voice”– I can connect with that, without needing to put ‘autism’ and all the assumptions that go along with that word up front as the explicit reason why I connect. I focus on the experience, and on shared experiences and common ground with others. I sing in folk clubs and festivals, where those around me know the script – where it’s their script too, and they join in, and we share. I also sing in other spaces, where these scripts are unfamiliar – in pubs and other social environments where my voice performs an act of bearing witness, and a way of enabling others to connect with the complexities of the human condition.
It would be wrong to assume though, that in order to access the scripts that form social identity one needs words. For me, dancing is a way of connecting and self-expression too. When I clog dance using steps collected and passed on from others, I’m aligning myself with the scripts of those who have gone before me – the (mainly) women and girls who danced in mills in the valley where I live, the music hall ‘stars’ who sought to bring pleasure to others and to achieve acclaim themselves – and those dancers before me who have recognized that those steps were something worthy of doing, and of saving.
And when I freestyle, barefoot at home, in a pub or at a festival –to music in my head, on a CD or with people playing music just for me, I don’t need a script to find my “voice”. My body just feels the music. It’s a purely sensory delight, a moment of absolute liberation – and we all need those.
So throughout my life, music has enabled me to find my “voice” – to express myself, to interact with those around me, and to connect with the “voices”of generations that have gone before me.
With, or without a script – with, or without words
Music is a powerful “voice”.