April 27, 2023

26. Symphony of a Mind

26. Symphony of a Mind

"If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." Today I had the privilege to meet one person with autism. Stuart Ross Carlson is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder but he is defined by his extraordinary musical ability.  He is a concert violinist and composer. I tried to understand the contradiction between the very earthly challenges that Stuart and his family face every day and the apparent ethereal effortlessness with which he communicates through his violin - I couldn’t.  

Personal comment:

To say that meeting Stuart and his father Jack was thought-provoking would be an understatement of monumental proportions. Jack summed up the challenges that face so many families in a similar situation beautifully: “Stuart has been an amazing gift for us and sometimes the gifts that you get have a little extra wrapping that you need to get through to get to the gift.”  Meeting Stuart and Jack was heartwarming and uplifting in equal measure. To both of you - thank you for entrusting me with Stuart’s first podcast appearance.

To learn more about Stuart, take a look here:

We spoke for over two hours and my only regret was having to leave out even a small amount of it.  To compensate, I have mentioned below some of those areas worthy of noting here:

Portrait of a Landscape: SEASONS: Available on Spotify (verified artist), iTunes, Apple Music, YouTube Music, YouTube, and many more.   The music we featured in today’s episode were from Portrait of a Landscape: Home on the Range; Life Dance and finally a quite extraordinary arrangement of Amazing Grace, performed with the Topeka Symphony Orchestra.

New Projects:  Stuart is currently finishing recording for his arrangement of “The Last Rose of Summer” and his original instrumental composition “Currents.”  There is a planned release of late-May 2023.  These songs are scheduled to appear as part of the KTWU PBS “Portrait of a Landscape” series. (Again, all will be available through all mainstream players.)

Mott Children's Hospital: Stuart was born at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor Michigan, U.S. He spent 100 days in the neo-natal intensive care unit, having been born at 26 weeks, weighing 1 pound and 13 ounces.  Stuart was a surviving twin and credits the doctors and nurses there with saving his life. As such he is keen to continuously support the hospital. https://www.mottchildren.org/

By the way, Stuart is also a ham radio enthusiast and runs a Part 15 radio station where he hosts a weekly, three-hour radio show

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Thanks for listening!

Last week's episode
[Episode 25] - Confessions of a Voice Actor - Today’s guest spends a lot of time in his garden. But he cultivates voices rather than plants. Tim is a voice actor and his garden is where the real magic happens - in his voice booth. It’s his own personal oasis, except instead of palm trees and coconuts, he has microphones and soundproofing foam.  Find out about the life of a voice actor as well as meeting a few of Tim’s friends; Liam Neeson, King Charles III, David Attenborough, Sean Connery and Nelson Mandela. His impersonations will make you green with envy.

Next week's episode


[00:00:00] Jack Carlson: There is a famous saying that says, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." It is a massively wide spectrum of behavior and learning capabilities and interests and obsessions and [00:00:20] it's fascinating, quite frankly. And it's been wonderful. He has enriched our lives a million fold.

 [00:00:40] [00:01:00]

Early days

[00:01:10] Stuart Carlson: I remember playing a piano right before we moved to our current house... when I [00:01:20] was three years old. I remember standing close to the keys of the piano for hours on end, just playing different notes.

[00:01:30] Steve: This is Stuart Carlson, and in a minute you'll hear Stuart's father Jack. Stuart was enthralled by the piano at a very young age. [00:01:40] As he got a little bit older, his focus in music led him to a different instrument.

Stuart Ross Carlson portrait

[00:01:46] Stuart Carlson: I first picked up a violin at the age of 10 and a half, and being fascinated with how the notes were produced [00:02:00] and the fact that it could be played bowed and plucked. I decided to pick it up as an instrument.

[00:02:08] Steve: Jack, my experiences of listening to 10 year olds playing the violin still haunts me to this day. Did you ever experience that or [00:02:20] did Stuart bypass the cat-wailing stage?

[00:02:24] Jack Carlson: He rarely played out of tune. And when he hit a wrong note, he would immediately fix it. In fact, he had to figure out how to practice going past a bad note because it would take him forever [00:02:40] to learn a song because he would want perfection, right? And make the sound be pretty.

[00:02:47] Steve: Although Stuart and his parents didn't know it at the time, this early fascination with the violin would take them on an extraordinary journey; a journey which is still going on [00:03:00] today. But to really understand that journey, we need to rewind to the moment when Stuart was born.


[00:03:07] Stuart Carlson: I was born in March of [00:03:20] 1996 at Mott Children's Hospital... at 26 weeks. In fact, I weighed one pound and 13 ounces.. and I survived emergency surgery... but unfortunately my twin brother Spencer did not.

[00:03:37] Jack Carlson: This just [00:03:40] is bringing up tough memories. I will tell you that we were incredibly fortunate because we actually had a child go home with us. There were many people who left without their children. They passed.

[00:03:55] Stuart Carlson: I remember hearing that I. [00:04:00] on a ventilator to help me breathe until I was, I wanna say 45 days old. And I've had... a lot of challenges because of that, and the doctors and nurses [00:04:20] there literally saved my life.

[00:04:21] Steve: Well, Stuart did make it home eventually, about a hundred days later in fact. Now roll forwards a few years. Around the same time that Stuart was [00:04:40] discovering the joys of that piano, age three, he was also diagnosed with autism.


[00:04:46] Jack Carlson: The CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention here in the US, defines autism as, or autism spectrum disorder, that is the proper name for [00:05:00] it... is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction and restrictive, restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests. People with [00:05:20] ASD may also have different ways of learning, moving or paying attention. That's their definition and it is our experience.

[00:05:30] Stuart Carlson: I have had, especially in my youth... intense passions [00:05:40] or interests with various things like doors and watches and weather stations... and radio station jingles and other things like that, which sort of progressed throughout my life.

Violin practice

[00:05:57] Steve: So Stuart, I used [00:06:00] to play the piano, hated practice, and as soon as my Mum's back was turned, I'd sneak off and do something else. Is that what you did?

Stuart Ross Carlson violin practice

[00:06:09] Stuart Carlson: Definitely not. At first, I wanna say I was practicing for 30 minutes a day and I gradually, [00:06:20] over the next four or five years... as my skills developed... so did my... practice time each day.

[00:06:30] Steve: So how much do you practice each day now?

[00:06:33] Stuart Carlson: I would say that I practice between and four hours each day.

[00:06:39] Steve: [00:06:40] Wow. Is that fun?

[00:06:42] Stuart Carlson: It definitely is, and I really enjoy the opportunity to play different pieces and... exercises to... broaden my [00:07:00] horizons, I guess, on my on various pieces and techniques, if that makes sense.

[00:07:10] Steve: Stuart is now 27 years old, and despite the significant challenges in his life, or perhaps because of them, he's now an accomplished [00:07:20] musician and composer. He plays with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra in Michigan. He plays solo. He plays in other ensembles. He's played in front of the great cellist Yo Yo Ma, gained the interest of my favorite violinist, Itzhak Perlman, performed with his pianist, Rohan DeSilva, and is on a [00:07:40] continuously rising trajectory. Oh, and by the way, he also has four degrees.

Mentor - UK

[00:07:46] Stuart Carlson: in a few months I will be going over to... England, to the London area, to be with my [00:08:00] UK teacher, Rodney Friend and his wife Cynthia and I'm definitely looking forward to it. He was once the concert master for the New York Philharmonic... in addition to the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. He's had an amazing solo career [00:08:20] over the decades, and I'm absolutely honored and privileged to be able to be working with him.

First performance

[00:08:28] Steve: Of course, all this practice is with one aim - to perform. And Stuart's desire to perform started at a very early age.

[00:08:38] Jack Carlson:   He was four[00:08:40]  and every child got four minutes right up on stage. Well, his four minutes were done and he screamed like a banshee when we pulled him off the stage. I am not kidding, it was hilarious. The gentleman who was running the [00:09:00] impromptu concert was kind enough to let him play Twinkle Twinkle one more time and then pulled him off again and he was still not happy. So he's always loved to perform. That's for sure.

[00:09:15] Steve: [00:09:20] So Stuart, tell me what it's like playing with a full symphony orchestra.

[00:09:31] Stuart Carlson: I've never had more excitement rush through me in my life than when I played the last [00:09:40] movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4... with the Ann Arbor Symphony. And I remember trying to keep my energy under control at that point. And... at the same time though, with control letting [00:10:00] it out simultaneously, which was a little bit of a challenge for me at the time.

Stuart Ross Carlson plays with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra

Perfect pitch

[00:10:06] Steve: That sounds absolutely amazing. Now, tell me about perfect pitch.

[00:10:14] Stuart Carlson: Perfect pitch is the ability to decipher a note [00:10:20] without any reference whatsoever. And... that's what I have. In fact, depending on the register, I can likely tell you the frequency within a couple of hertz, which I've heard it said that no one is [00:10:40] able to do that before.

[00:10:42] Steve: And how does that help you as a musician? What advantage is it giving you?

[00:10:46] Stuart Carlson: It definitely helps me play in tune and... It also helps me navigate a piece harmonically and [00:11:00] also... memorize melodies... more quickly.

[00:11:04] Steve: I had to put Stuart's perfect pitch to the test. It sounded almost impossible. So we started with a wine glass.

 (Sound 1)

[00:11:19] Stuart Carlson: That is E [00:11:20] flat-5 with an overtone of G-6.

[00:11:22] Steve: Let's call that beginner's luck. Here's another one. What about with the frequencies as well? This time, Here we go.

 (Sound 2)

[00:11:37] Stuart Carlson: That is G-5 and B [00:11:40] flat-6. The frequencies of those are 795 hertz and 1900 hertz.

[00:11:49] Steve: It's almost instant. That's crazy. I'm not gonna argue by the way.

[00:11:55] Jack Carlson: I have learned never to argue with him [00:12:00] on this subject.

[00:12:01] Steve: Okay. I need to up the ante. Okay? Ready for this?

[00:12:08] Stuart Carlson: Okay.

 (Sound 3)

[00:12:14] Stuart Carlson: D-5, C sharp-5 and C-5. And the frequencies are [00:12:20] 587, 555 and 525 hertz.

[00:12:24] Steve: That is extraordinary. Let's make life a little bit more difficult. Are you ready for this one?

[00:12:31] Stuart Carlson: Ready?

 (Sound 4)

[00:12:33] Stuart Carlson: [00:12:40] That goes up, it's a sweep up from 80 hertz to 175 hertz, which would be E flat-2 up to F-3.

[00:12:49] Steve: Brilliant. Okay, last one.

[00:12:52] Jack Carlson: Steve the cow thing was outstanding.

[00:12:58] Steve: You wait for this one. [00:13:00] Stuart, you said to me earlier that you could tell me what key my toilet flushes in. You ready?

[00:13:07] Stuart Carlson: I'm ready.

 (Sound 5)

[00:13:08] Stuart Carlson: That is E [00:13:20] flat-4 with an overtone of A-5, and the frequencies are 320 hertz and 890 hertz.

[00:13:35] Jack Carlson: Oh my Lord.

[00:13:37] Steve: That [00:13:40] was a lot of fun and absolutely extraordinary. Now, as I mentioned earlier, as well as playing, Stuart is a composer.


[00:13:49] Stuart Carlson: I have been composing for 15 years now. I started on my 12th birthday.

[00:13:58] Jack Carlson: And Stuart, what inspired [00:14:00] you to write your first playable piece? Do you remember? When... your grandpa passed away.

[00:14:09] Stuart Carlson: remember that. That was... the last movement of [00:14:20] the first piece I ever composed, which was more playable, and that was inspired by blues and early rock as I remember... That was what my grandpa loved to hear. [00:14:40] It was just after he passed.

[00:14:42] Jack Carlson: They played it at the service. Everybody started bawling. It was really incredible.

[00:14:49] Stuart Carlson: I like to think of music as my first language. When I was younger, talking I guess in a... way [00:15:00] seemed to be a little bit harder than... speaking music, if that makes sense.

Portrait of a Landscape

[00:15:05] Steve: [00:15:20] Now, Stuart. I first heard you by listening to a piece of work called Portrait of a Landscape. Tell me about that.

[00:15:35] Stuart Carlson: ...That project was commissioned by [00:15:40] KTWU, which is a PBS station in Topeka, Kansas... in May of 2021. And... the general manager of the station asked me if I could...compose some pieces [00:16:00] for a four-part television series called Portrait of a Landscape, and the first episode premiered in Kansas on November 30th. That's called Prairie Winter and hopefully the series will go [00:16:20] national in early 2024.

[00:16:21] Steve: The musical pieces on Portrait of a Landscape are either compositions or arrangements by Stuart with, of course, the lead violin played by him as well. [00:16:40] All the music you can hear accompanying us today is from Portrait of a Landscape, which you can also listen to on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and so on. Of [00:17:00] course, Stuart's extraordinary ability and success don't mean that the challenges of autism have been left behind.


[00:17:08] Jack Carlson: He's working with a therapist at the moment. She's a communications specialist and he's working on things that you and I take for granted. So things [00:17:20] like everyday living. You know, "How do I have small talk at a party?" "How do I do an interview like this?" I mean, he has to work really hard at communicating with others.

[00:17:36] Stuart Carlson: I [00:17:40] think, to go off of what my dad said about small talk at parties, that is incredibly challenging for me to... answer questions like that on the spot, compared to other people.

[00:17:58] Jack Carlson: He and his brother[00:18:00] get along amazingly, and his younger brother has really embraced Stuart, and we've all worked hard to meet Stuart in the middle, as I know Stewart has worked really hard to meet us where we are. So, it's like [00:18:20] two cultures sharing information and getting to know each other.  It has been amazing.

[00:18:26] Steve: And what about plans for the future, Stuart?

[00:18:30] Stuart Carlson: My ultimate career goal is to arrange and compose music for television and... [00:18:40] commercials and film and video games... and also to perform with live ensembles... such as the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. And... I'm hoping to be able to... get my [00:19:00] music in front of as many... professionals and... listeners as I can.

[00:19:06] Steve: And what would you say to anyone growing up specifically with autism at the moment, who's finding life quite challenging?

[00:19:16] Stuart Carlson: I would give [00:19:20] people with autism advice to never give up and to pursue your dreams... and as best you can not let others who don't know your challenges[00:19:40] weigh you down and think of your autism as a gift to others.

[00:19:48] Steve: Beautifully put. Beautifully put.

[00:19:51] Stuart Carlson: Thank you.

[00:19:52] Jack Carlson:  And Steve, if I could add, Stuart has been an amazing gift for us and [00:20:00] sometimes the gifts that you get have a little extra wrapping that you need to get through to get to the gift, that's our situation here. It is hard. It is a lifetime struggle, but with that struggle comes great [00:20:20] reward. At least in our situation. There's always somebody who has it worse than you do. But I know for a fact that everyone wants to be heard,[00:20:40]  they want to be understood and they want to be loved.


[00:21:07] Steve: So, Stuart has aspirations to be a violinist and composer on a world stage. He wants to be an inspiration for autistic people everywhere. As far as I can [00:21:20] see at the moment, he's succeeding on all counts. As for understanding the contradiction between the very earthly challenges that Stuart and his family face every day and the apparent ethereal effortlessness with which he communicates through his violin, [00:21:40] I can't. I'll just leave that to Stuart.


[00:21:58] Stuart Carlson: I would [00:22:00] typically try to be as relaxed as I can, and on occasion I would... think about the piece in my head. I played with an orchestra a few years back and I remember[00:22:20] watching a movie with that piece as the soundtrack, and right before I played and I heard the orchestra start out the piece, I had scenes from that movie in my head.

[00:22:36] Stuart Carlson: [00:22:40]  I try to...[00:23:00]  think about certain advice that Rodney Friend actually taught me about turning nervousness into positive energy to be able to perform well.

[00:23:14] Stuart Carlson: I always tend to let breathing guide me through [00:23:20] phrasing in my violin playing.

[00:23:25] Stuart Carlson: And[00:23:40]  simultaneously I'm trying to take deep calming breaths to... sort of focus myself on the aspect of performing. I guess I don't wanna have too much [00:24:00] rushing energy through me, if that makes sense.

[00:24:02] Stuart Carlson: [00:24:20]  I am thinking about trying to make the most beautiful music come out of my instrument I can.

[00:24:32] Jack Carlson:  He's not playing a violin. He is singing through that violin.

[00:24:38] Stuart Carlson: (Just before he picks up his violin to play the first note) [00:24:40]

[00:24:47] Jack Carlson: Stuart, can I ask you a question?

[00:24:49] Jack Carlson: This is the question that I'm interested in. You go away, your face looks like you are somewhere else. Can you [00:25:00] describe what's going through your head? Like, do you hear anything?  Where are you?

[00:25:07] Stuart Carlson: [00:25:20] While I can sometimes see what's around me, most of the time I'm thinking about all the great... melodies and harmonies that are surrounding my playing.

[00:25:39] Jack Carlson: (FINALE) (Stevie final piece) [00:25:40] So literally it's Stuart's heart or his voice that's coming through the violin.

[00:25:48] Stuart Carlson:  I'm always really [00:26:00] happy to be a part of making great music.

 [00:26:20] [00:26:40]