OSJ Music for Autism – Orchestra of St John's | Taking classical music out into the community

OSJ Music for Autism

OSJ Music for Autism

For over 20 years, under the committed leadership of John Lubbock, Music for Autism has provided a programme of accessible workshops delivered in special schools and designed specifically for young people with autism. OSJ Music for Autism engages with over 6,000 young people each year, and is offered entirely free of charge to participating schools.

During various degrees of lockdown, MfA continued unabated, taking live music to children and schools remotely through Zoom.

Why Music for Autism?

Many people like to listen to music sitting absolutely still and silent, without any distractions, so that they can focus on the music.  But a significant number of other people, in particular young people with autism, prefer to move about, perhaps dancing or responding physically to the music, vocalising or whatever.

The consequence is that such people are usually unwelcome at formal ‘concert hall’ performances. As a result, their access to live classical music is limited – sometimes impossible. This is where Music for Autism makes such a difference.

Two or three times a week, through the year, small groups of members of the orchestra go into special schools, where many young people with autism are educated, and give short concerts to groups of students. They do so with the same professionalism and quality of performance as they produce for any other audience.

The important difference is that the students can respond to the music exactly as they wish. They can sit up, lie down, move around or stand and stare. They can fidget if they wish – and some children use fidgeting as a strategy to help them concentrate, not as an indication of their boredom as is often assumed.  Nothing is forced; yet, with John Lubbock gently facilitating and encouraging throughout, the interaction between the children, the music and the musicians is very often a deeply moving experience.

Visits by OSJ musicians mean that young people with autism can have similar access to the experience of live classical music as those of their peers who can meet the behavioural expectations of formal concert attendance.  For young people with autism, it is these socially constructed behavioural expectations that form the barrier – not the music itself. The OSJ musicians’ visits provide a significant model of the way that social justice can be furthered by a combination of professionalism, flexibility and imagination.

‘The Music for Autism concerts in schools in which I have played are one of the highlights of my professional life. Nowhere else has the transformative effect of music been so palpable, the inspiration and need to play with as much love and beauty as one can muster, so strong.’

Emma Shepherd, viola player

‘The work of Music for Autism touches upon two of my great passions: music and supporting individuals with autism. I applaud the work of this charity for not only focusing on young children with autism, but also aiming to improve the lives of young adults with autism. I applaud Music for Autism for enabling children with autism the ability to experience quality music – something that we should all be able to experience – and for giving them the opportunity to listen to music in an environment where no one will be embarrassed. We should celebrate these young people for what they can do as opposed to what they cannot.’

Cherie Booth, QC, wife of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair

MfA – a brief history
Mezzo soprano Christine Cairns, the wife of John Lubbock, established Music for Autism (MfA) in 2002 to share their love of music with young people with autism and their families. Christine founded MfA in response to the transformational impact music has on their own autistic son.

Since then, MfA has delivered hundreds of workshops in special schools up and down the country, and touched the lives of thousands of young people with autism with the joy of classical music. So far, we have played to over 130,000 children and their parents, teachers or carers. And we continue to offer around 70 days a year of workshops in special schools, both locally in Oxfordshire and further afield. Such is John Lubbock’s commitment to this work that he personally takes part in and leads virtually every one of these events.

In the last few months of lockdown, we have continued to reach children and schools by playing remotely through Zoom. We have also created a set of online video workshops which are freely available to teachers and schools who wish to use them.

Music for Autism workshops in schools incur absolutely no financial cost to the schools involved. For the past twenty years, John Lubbock has ensured that he could raise sufficient funds to enable this work to be provided to schools entirely free of charge.

‘Your musicians have some kind of magical aura that permeates through every moment of the session – not only do the pupils enjoy it but the staff feel like they have had a positive, enriching and nurturing session too!’

Samantha Devenny, Franwise school, Devon Nov 2020

Support OSJ Music for Autism

if you would like to help support our Music for Autism work in schools, please make a donation via the Charities Aid Foundation. Please click on the DONATE button in the page footer.

To become a sponsor of our work, please contact admin@osj.org.uk.

A day in school with MfA

‘It was lovely and moving to watch – though … John also made sure that the atmosphere was light-hearted with lots of laughter too.’

Shortly after joining the OSJ’s Board of Trustees, Sami Cohen attended a day with MfA at a school in Oxford. Here is his account of the experience.

‘I went to the … Academy in Oxford last Thursday for my first first-hand experience of MfA. John and three OSJ musicians were in school for much of the day, playing a series of short concerts to small groups of children that came in in turn with their teachers. It was wonderful; and I thought it was worth sharing some impressions.

John was fantastic with the children, interacting with them in an effortlessly empathic and very personal way, always finding ways of enabling them, individually and collectively, to take an active part and engage with the music.

The three musicians (violin, cello, and viola) were amazing. They played and played, for several hours, practically non-stop – they even played through their short breaks when there were no kids in the room! It was a treat to hear three musicians of this calibre play in such intimate surroundings.

The school staff were welcoming, appreciative, upbeat and brilliant with the children. Made one appreciate just what an amazing job they do day-in-day-out in challenging circumstances.

And now for the most important part of all this – the children. It was lovely to see children of all ages (this was a secondary school, so 11–18 year olds) enjoying the music and the sense of active participation that John gives them by simply inviting them to take turns to ‘conduct’. Some were eagerly willing, others self-consciously reticent but, one way or another, and with John’s help and encouragement, pretty much everyone took part. It was lovely and moving to watch – though I should say that John made sure that the atmosphere was light-hearted with lots of laughter too.

Two particular highlights come to mind. One was of a relatively young girl who conducted with some gusto before suddenly parting her arms so decisively that the musicians stopped playing mid-piece. For a moment it wasn’t clear who was more surprised: the players at being instructed to stop mid-flow or the conductor herself, taken aback at the effect her (almost certainly ad hoc) gesture had had! At least it showed, as John said at the time, that the musicians were watching the conductor.

The other was of an older girl who, at least outwardly, appeared to be the most severely autistic of all the children we had seen. When sitting down, she rocked vigorously back and forth in her seat, shaking her hands with frenetic nervous energy as she did so. It all looked physically exhausting – until she got up to conduct. Instantly, the violent, jerky movements gave way to a gentle, rhythmic sway and well controlled hand movements. And, at the final note of the piece, she leapt up in the air in spontaneous exhilaration with an audible, yet very personal, cry of ‘Yessss!’.

MfA, and John’s and the musicians’ enthusiastic commitment to it over so many years, are just fantastic…”

SC, February 2020

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How to support OSJ

You can support all aspects of the work of OSJ by donating to us via the Charities Aid Foundation. Please click on the DONATE button in the page footer.

Why an orchestra must work in the community

John Lubbock recorded at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Workshop videos

Available online for SEN schools