Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life

College of Music builds on summer program that explores musicianship for students with autism.

2016 Celebrating the Spectrum participants and attendees applaud successes and certificates at the finale concert.
Deborah Moriarty works with Joey Tan during a 2016 master class.
2016 Celebrating the Spectrum participants observe Derek Polischuk as he works with Kalil Olsen in a master class.
Alex McCullough performs Haydn at the 2016 finale concert
Celebrating the Spectrum pianists Kalil Olsen and his mother Ann after the 2016 finale concert.
Derek Polischuk interviews David Ginther before he and Hsin-Yi Huang performed music for piano four-hands at the 2016 finale concert.


Sean McCullough and his 13-year-old son are looking forward to a second college visit to Michigan State University. The family came last summer from Naples, Florida, and stayed for a week, immersing Alexander in an environment and routine that emulated life as a collegiate music major.

“We hope he brings home more confidence again this year and keeps a positive outlook on the goal that one day he, too, can attend a Big Ten university,” says McCullough. “The choice to apply to the program was to give him the opportunity to find musical success with his peers.”

McCullough is referring to “Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life”—a one-of-a-kind summer program for advanced music students on the autism spectrum. Now in its second year, the program allows students to preview collegiate life—complete with dorm living, dorm food, and a rigorous schedule similar to most music students at MSU. 

Alexander will join six peers ages 12 to 22 for eight days of instruction, activities, rehearsals, performances, and R&R from July 16-23, 2017. Last year, the program attracted an equal number of students, and peaked the interest of educators, researchers and universities worldwide that address the complexities of teaching children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. The festival also draws on perceptions and expertise gleaned through MSU’s involvement with the DOCTRID Research Institute. DOCTRID is one of the largest program in the world devoted to cutting edge research and training in intellectual disabilities and autism, and consists of 20 organizations across Ireland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

“We were encouraged by how the word spread on what we’re doing,” says Derek Polischuk, MSU associate professor of piano and director of piano pedagogy. “We’ve shared details of the festival at piano conferences, and we’re excited about making the program larger.”

Polischuk says the overarching goal is to provide an inspiring, high-level artistic experience for students on the autism spectrum, and to improve the perception of the ability of students with autism to attend college. Organizers also look to contribute to research and to build on effective teaching methods through festival activities.

Four students are returning from the 2016 inaugural year. Three new students will also be attending, including Rex Lewis-Clack—an exceptional young pianist featured on CBS 60 minutes.

“The abilities of students with autism vary widely,” says Polischuk, who teaches piano to ASD students through the MSU Community Music School. “It will be inspiring for our faculty and community to witness what a student with autism can do and to hear exceptional performances.”

This year’s festival will build on the format from last year, which includes daily master classes on piano repertoire taught by Polischuk and Professor and Chair of the Piano Area Deborah Moriarty. Other successful elements include hour-long lectures by national and international educators, guided Pilates, lunch, dinner and evening activities. New programming includes classes in chamber music and jazz improvisation, increased activities and informal learning sessions for families, and a workshop for piano teachers from the community.

The program originated from an idea Polischuk and Professor and Chair of the Piano Area Deborah Moriarty presented to the RAIND Program—the MSU-based institute for Research in Autism, Intellectual and other Neurodevelopment Disabilities that serves students with autism through research, outreach, artistry and education.

“RAIND is a multi-disciplinary effort, and involving the College of Music adds further dimension to what we do,” says Ian Gray, who helped create the RAIND program. “Celebrating the Spectrum gives the College of Music a place at the table to talk about research with other university colleagues. The program also increases the visibility of MSU as an institution committed to enhancing the lives of others through community engagement, inclusion and research.”

Polischuk hopes to broaden research opportunities as the festival grows in size and scope, particularly as it applies to how immersive musical experiences impact language skills in ASD students.

“Music has the ability to reach, inspire and bring people together,” says Polischuk. “We’re happy to be the messengers and to provide those inclusive experiences.”

President Lou Anna K. Simon will welcome Spectrum students and families as they attend a July 17 concert featuring the MSU graduate student mentors at 6 p.m. The eight-day program culminates in a second concert on July 22 at 4 p.m. that features festival students, faculty and mentors. Both events are free, open to the public, and take place in the College’s Cook Recital Hall.


Video Recap from 2016 event 
Also see Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life


Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life is coordinated by the MSU College of Music and sponsored by Michigan State University as part of the RAIND Program, with generous support provided by the MSU Office of the Provost, and the following corporate sponsors and donors: Sparrow Health System and the MSU Federal Credit Union, as well as generous support from MSU alumni and friends: April Clobes and Glen Brough, Lauren Harris, Merritt and Candy Lutz, Jack and Karen Noonan, along with support from the Frances Baldwin Mulnix Endowment Fund at MSU. Special thanks to Dean Trailways for generously providing all transportation needs for festival participants.  

Private support helped provide dollars to sponsor each student participant, enabling them to attend the festival tuition free. Funds also covered stipends for College of Music student mentors who buddied-up with the festival participants.

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