Music as Escape

photo of piano keys strewn with out of focus fairy lights

Alex Dunkley

I’m thinking about my brain as I play the piano. I’m not having to work hard every minute to ensure that the words make sense, but instead I’m translating the dots on the page (effortlessly now after more than thirty years) and turning them into a place of safety and joy, coupled with tantalising moments of visceral bodily feedback.

As a late-diagnosed autistic woman, it has taken me months to really begin to unpick what music has done for me over my life. The reality is, music has saved me time and time again. The patterns that have become so familiar – be they Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op3, no2 or the simpler stride pattern of Gnosienne no1 by Satie – save me in moments of anxiety or stress or meltdown, if I remember to let them.

Those patterns live somewhere in my brain that doesn’t need to question them – it just allows them to unroll and exist. The learning I did as a child paid off, the muscle-memory that people talk of has become more than that and allows my hands to act almost on their own, much like I imagine sculptors or painters do when they are creating work. For me, as an autistic person, it is extraordinary to notice that the connection between my own hands and my often very busy head exist in an almost parallel place, outside of me, outside of being autistic. Perhaps they are the very thing that points to me being autistic, as my assessor wondered?

Music became my focus, my obsession, at the age of four when I demanded over and over to learn the recorder I succeeded in my pleading and never really looked back. Practice wasn’t practice after a while, it was escape. Escape into this neat little set of twelve notes that repeated in various different patterns and created wonderful new patterns. Of course at the time I hadn’t worked the pattern bit out,  just that it made me feel good and I didn’t have to concentrate on anything else. Who was going to tell a five year old to stop practising?

The piano gave me more of the same – though there was more angst in the early days as I adjusted to using my hands together. I quickly found that my hands just learnt the patterns without me needing to tell them what to do. They read the clever code and interpreted it almost by default and that code became embedded in me. I sometimes find pieces now where the code got confused as a teenager and the chords I learnt were wrong – I find it almost impossible to relearn the correct code. I can hear my brain saying, ‘It’s wrong but this is how it goes.’ They annoy me but the familiarity of just being able to sit and play my old loves surpasses the glitching and I skim over them.

Playing music from my childhood and young adulthood allows me to stop trying to exist in an adult world that I struggle with and allows my whole system to reconnect to simpler days. The visceral feedback of engaging with music as a player is so important to me, but I think I find it more obvious when I play the piano rather than the double bass (which became my profession for a number of years).  The piano takes its cues from my hands and allows my body to follow; engaging the muscles in my hands and my wrists somehow lets my breathing regulate, my senses to sharpen and my head to quieten. When I play music the world disappears for a bit.

In the past eighteen months, I’ve found singing can do this for me too. The fascinating bit about this for me is that most of the songs I have learnt have initially been by ear, without the coded dots to help. I have of course gone back and found the notes to refer to (I am autistic and obsessive after all!) and I realise they help with my eidetic learning of things, but nonetheless, I have found a new way of learning music as an adult.

I don’t sing much when my family are around (that still feels too spotlighty) but singing in a choir, or to the sea where I live, has given my body a way of almost meditating. I find sustenance in repeating little snippets of songs or the more chant based songs – akin I suppose to learning the piano pieces as a child – the act of repetition has become very important to my music making. With singing I have found a freedom too and allowed all of me to engage in music-making not just my hands. That freedom gives me moments of escape from my own brain.

Music exists for me as another dimension; a place where no one is going to question who or what I am, a place where I don’t have to question who I am. I become the music and it fills me up.

Alex Dunkley is a late diagnosed autistic musician, workshop leader and celebrant who can be found out @alexdunkley11 on insta or @alex_dunkley11 on twitter but most likely to be found walking the coast path in Cornwall, often hunting for seaglass or singing into the wind.

Published by florence neville (she/her)

PhD student

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