Harrison is a pianist, violinist and composer creating original music by ear. As an artist on the spectrum, he often finds solace in music while navigating challenges in life.
A self confessed biology enthusiast who has worked with stem cells, he briefly studied at Berklee College of Music.For World Autism Awareness Day, we got in touch with Harrison to learn more about his journey with music and autism. Listen to his thrilling, multi-instrumental track, ‘Chopin Reimagined’ below.
How did you discover your passion for music?
I first discovered my passion for music in part due to my first piano teacher. I did not start off formally trained, and skipped through most of the beginner books, going straight into classical repertoire. I was somehow able to feel my way through much of the fundamentals on my own, which meant my teacher could spend more time introducing me to all sorts of music, especially from the classical genre. She would always be reading through a Chopin Nocturne or Waltz when I came in for my lesson. From there, I fell in love with Chopin and other Romantic-era composers, like Rachmaninoff. She gave me the room to explore and discover my musical identity, which as a musician on the spectrum was exactly what I realized I needed. Had I received a more structured or ‘formal’ musical training, I may not feel the same level of connection to music as I do now.
What are some of the challenges or obstacles that you face, and how do you overcome them?
My childhood was rather chaotic as I was only diagnosed with autism in my early 20s. I was unknowingly missing social cues, struggling with sensory issues and executive dysfunction all the time. It was my ‘normal’. Cultural stigmas surrounding mental health and illness did not help either. I was very self-critical because I struggled with the things that came easily to my peers. Since my diagnosis, I can acknowledge the day-to-day things I occasionally need extra support with, while learning to embrace the quirks I have as strengths. It’s all still a work in progress.
As a biology student at Rutgers University, I needed to work through a lot of past trauma, but had a difficult time understanding what I was feeling. Apparently the term for it is alexithymia. I had a powerful experience with a therapist where neither of us could figure out why I couldn’t emotionally connect with the experiences I described. She eventually asked me to improvise or compose something for her every session to highlight anything I might be feeling. So I sat in front of the keyboard, and just let my hands take me where it made sense to go. From that time, I realized that my improvisations could help me recognize and ultimately work through the emotions.
Becoming a musician was always my dream but due to personal circumstances, I studied biology and worked as a stem cell laboratory technician for two years. In 2020 I received a full-tuition scholarship to Berklee College of Music so I took a leap of faith and seized the opportunity. Unfortunately, I was injured in an accident and developed a chronic pain condition. It’s been a slow healing journey and I felt confused with my musical identity for a time. Now I think new sounds and colors are evolving in my music as a result of everything I’ve been through.
What part does music play in your life?
Music is everything to me. It has saved me from so many crises in the past and it brings me joy when I see people around me feel uplifted by the way I express myself. But music is just so central to the way I think, feel, and communicate with others that I couldn’t imagine a career without it.
How do you express yourself, your emotions or your personality through your music?
Music is how I am able to truly express myself. Some people may believe I’m very verbal because of how descriptive or expressive I can be when I speak. But I’m mostly very quiet, and being autistic for me also means that social interactions are often very draining. Whenever I have trouble expressing myself verbally for whatever reason, I always turn to music.
Piano improvisation plays a huge role in all this for me, and I consider it one of my love languages. It has always felt right for me to use music as a way to express empathy or support for others. After all, when words fail, music speaks, right?
What are some of the projects that you are most proud of?
One of the projects I am particularly proud of was a product of my struggle in finding peace with my pain condition. Around the same time I was working through this, I’d been wanting to make classical music more accessible to the general audience by rearranging it with modern genres. I was unsure of how the classical community would receive it, yet also thought there's little to lose with everything life was throwing at me. So I took a leap of faith, pulled a motif from Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No 4, and incorporated it into my own melodies.
The amazing thing about being involved with the Berklee community is that the faculty and students there are all about exploring new sounds. I felt accepted and heard by my mentors, friends and bandmates. To that end, I invited my guitarist (Kevin Bian), drummer (Isaiah Rowe) and audio engineer (Théo Laurent-Vitale) to join me on this “classical crossover” endeavor. They did such a wonderful job adding their unique styles and expertise to the piece that would eventually become “Chopin Reimagined”. This piece has been so central to my recovery, so I hope it encourages listeners to express themselves unapologetically and passionately regardless of what they’ve experienced in life. Overall, the piece is a huge stepping stone for me to accept the kind of music I connect most strongly with, no matter what others may think of it.
There are just so many ideas and elements to be developed from ‘Chopin Reimagined’, that we are currently in the process of expanding it into a series of orchestral pieces.
What DO YOU wish people knew about autism — and what advice would you give to autistic people who want to pursue music?
This is such a big question, and one that needs to be discussed more often!
I wish more people knew that autistic traits don’t just manifest in the stereotypical ways. It’s a spectrum and everyone who identifies as autistic has varying support needs which cannot be overlooked. There’s so much pressure to fit into society that some of us can temporarily ‘mask’ our autistic traits that wouldn’t be considered appropriate. I experience this a lot in the workplace, where I can struggle dealing with constant loud noises and social interaction. While I’m able to temporarily maintain my energy and focus, it often comes at the expense of my mental health.
My autistic friends are among the strongest, empathetic, and productive people I know. As a whole, there are frequently many hurdles we need to overcome to take care of ourselves daily, all while attempting to meet societal expectations that are not often accommodating to the way we process the world. Some people tend to avoid autistic individuals due to misunderstanding them, or they see their traits mostly as superpowers.
There are also scenarios where autistic people are celebrated for certain autistic traits, but lack appropriate support when they show other, less socially acceptable ones. For example, someone may be valued for their unique skills in the workplace but is neglected if they shut down from sensory overload. While it’s important to recognize the value autistic traits have in society, it’s equally imperative to acknowledge that people on the spectrum operate differently.
Failure to accept how autistic people function and express themselves is what causes so much misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and exploitation of autistic people. Work and school accommodation are a good start, but society has much more to do, to support autistic individuals.
I encourage all autistic people looking to or currently pursuing art, to work on embracing everything that makes them neurodivergent. I consider art and music to be a field where we shouldn’t feel as much pressure to fit into a particular mold. We can really showcase what makes us unique; where others value us for the work we do, not by judging us on the way we talk or what we do. To me, the arts are all about a journey of finding self-love and acceptance.
What are some of the goals you have FOR THE FUTURE?
I would love to become an artist who travels the world, bringing classical music to a broader audience. I envision myself as a pianist and composer who performs live often, incorporating motivational talks into my sets. I once put together a recital that was like a hybrid of performance and TED–talk, and I really look forward to doing more of those in the future. Musically, I’m often told that my improvisations feel cinematic in nature and could fit well in a film or video game score. So if I return to Berklee in the future, I would love to pursue studies for that area of the industry.
What advice would you give to aspiring new artists?
Learning a new instrument and playing music is all about embracing every part of yourself in the moment, even if normally you would have a harder time doing so. It’s never too late to start. Whether through self study or formally, make sure you find a safe space to grow. This could be finding an instructor who aligns with your goals, or a group on social media where everyone shares their progress free of external judgment. I’ve noticed some of the main reasons why people may cut short their musical journey is either due to lack of time and resources or, negative experiences with a teacher. I don’t want others to feel confined to learning music a certain way. Our personal relationships with music are all unique and all equally valuable and it's important to not be discouraged by plateaus in growth or bumps in the road. Progress is never linear and learning an instrument is akin to journaling. Regardless of how you choose to incorporate music into your life, providing yourself with a safe space to explore and discover your sound is of utmost importance.
Have you ever created a score on MuseScore 4? Or performed a piece of music you found on MuseScore.com?
I recently have switched over to MuseScore 4 to notate some pieces as opposed to Finale or Sibelius because it feels more intuitive to me. I have also used MuseScore extensively in the past to access many of the contemporary pieces I was interested in playing. I’m sure I’ve downloaded many Joe Hisaishi and Yiruma works through MuseScore over the years!
Photos: Raisa Akhtar
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