So Simple, Yet So Complex
Precollege student and Myra Jackson Blair Scholar Sarah Elizabeth Musgrave was introduced to autism when her young cousin was diagnosed with the disorder.As a sophomore,Musgrave, who performs and records as “Sarah Elizabeth,” held one of her first full-length dulcimer concerts to benefit theAutism Society of Middle Tennessee. Last year she began teaching dulcimer to a student with autism. So when Sandy Conatser, adjunct teaching artist for dulcimer, was approached last summer byVSA arts Tennessee about creating a dulcimer choir that would include students with autism, she immediately thought of Musgrave.
VSA secured funding and 10 dulcimers for instructional use, and Blair provided teaching andmeeting space. In January, Musgrave began looking for students with autism in Sumner County, Tenn., who showed a natural affinity for the dulcimer or who had so much fun in group lessons that they wanted to continue spending more time with the instrument.A group of eight students emerged: four fromSumner County, three from Davidson County and the student with whom Musgrave was already working.These students have been receiving weekly private lessons.
Musgrave loves the versatility of the instrument she’s been studying since she was six. “It’s like a blank palette, and I can do anything I want with it.The dulcimer has a level of simplicity that allows anyone to play it, yet it can also be really complex.”
Musgrave’s work with the dulcimer choir has served as her senior project at Merrol HydeMagnet School in Hendersonville, Tenn. She also organized a benefit concert held in March that raised enough funds to buy more dulcimers.As a result, the eight students currently in the program were given their own dulcimers at a ceremony in May.
This fall,Musgrave, student of the late David Schnaufer and current student of G.R. Davis, will attend Belmont University on a Presidential Scholarship.The most prestigious scholarship Belmont offers, this award covers tuition, roomand board, books and fees.Accepted into both the songwriting and honors programs, she will design her own major to incorporate performance, songwriting andmusic business into one degree.
Musgrave received the 2008 Award of Excellence in Leadership, a national award, from VSA arts, for teaching these students. She plans to continue their instruction throughout her college years.Conatser has been assisting Musgrave with the students’ private lessons, and she, too, plans to continue teaching students with autism.
There’s much instant gratification in working with the students says Musgrave. “It’s been so neat to see the interactions, to get a hug, or for the first time to have a student respond vocally.” She describes a student who was not very verbal but who, when he strummed the dulcimer, broke into a big smile because he was so amazed that he could do it.
“I always knew music was a communication tool,” notesMusgrave. “I see that it’s not a cliché, that music touches and communicates with everyone.”