Music for empathy, music for understanding

Cynthia Bonnici speaks about the upcoming concert Music Speaks, featuring the talents of her daughter Alessia on the piano, along with a number of other local musicians, and held with the aim of raising awareness about autism

Could you tell us a little bit about Music Speaks? How did the idea for the event first come about, and what motivated you to carry the idea forward?

The idea behind Music Speaks stemmed a couple of years ago as my daughter Alessia was growing her passion towards music and showing significant improvement considering her challenges with autism. Autism is a developmental disorder which is characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests and activities. One can imagine that these traits will pose enormous challenges for the child to communicate their simple needs, and find a place and a purpose in life.

As a young child, Alessia was always full of life and energy. We constantly sought to help her communicate and find a way to channel her energy into something constructive. We tried multiple approaches to help feel fulfilled, which included gymnastics, horse riding, swimming and drawing but she never showed enough inclination that would drive us to persevere.

While Alessia was growing up, we realised that she thoroughly enjoyed music and could keep a beat while listening to songs. She also used to make a random noise and rhythmically place it in between phrases that would totally make sense and give the song an added flavour, so much so that we ended up adding these noises to the song ourselves.

Truth be told, however, our musical journey had a bumpy start. We tried different approaches to teach her music and at first none of them were successful, until we joined Malta School of Music and that’s when it all began. The key ingredient was the teaching method used by her teacher – Rosetta Debattista, a trained pianist, music educator and therapist. She introduced music to Alessia in such a vibrant and dynamic way. Until today, I remain in awe of how she managed to teach her, considering Alessia’s limited understanding of language at the time.

Alessia started to flourish, she seemed to be a natural at picking, reading music and applying her new acquired knowledge into practice by playing the piano. Being assisted by a professional that could understand how an autistic brain works has been crucial as Alessia needs adaptations both for music and for academic work to be absorbed. This shows that given the right approach that caters to an individual’s need, children with neurological difficulties are able to learn and at times even surprise us by being exceptionally good.

So was Alessia always a reference point for the overall direction of Music Speaks?

Yes definitely, Alessia was from the very start what inspired us to organise this concert. Music has helped Alessia’s development in an incredibly positive way. She is happy and herself when she walks into her music room. I admire her determination and perseverance. When practis-ing a difficult new piece she can get frustrated since there’s an incredibly array of instructions that you need to follow and read when you’re playing a musical instrument. So far, somehow, someway she has always managed to overcome these multiple obstacles and this gives us a lot of hope and determination to continue pursuing her dream.

Music has made her become a complete person, it is part of her identity, it is her way of communicating and her medium for potentially sharing some important messages with the world... which is exactly why we are organising this concert.

Through this concert we want to show what veritable inclusion is, and set an example for other entities – be they families, schools, organisations and the communities at large. Inclusion is not just placing a child with other neurotypical kids, but rather giving them the opportunity to shine and feel appreciated and loved, just like every other kid.

On what criteria were the remaining artists chosen, and how do you believe this mix contributes both to the overall musical/aesthetic feel of the concert, as well as the message it is trying to convey?

All of the artists taking part in the concert have contributed in some way in Alessia’s musical growth. Three of the artists are family members, my sister Marcelle Zahra is a pianist and my constant point of reference for musical guidance, and Alessia’s uncles; Borja Gómez-Ferrer is a tenor and Kriz Haze is an alternative solo artist. The other two artists are Alessia’s educators; Jess Rymer who teaches her music and imparts a huge amount of knowledge and understanding, as well as Tricia Dawn Williams, who started giving Alessia piano lessons this summer.

The concert repertoire we’ll be presenting is colourful and varied, and includes genres from classical and contemporary to pop music. The audience will be able to experience a unique outlook on the power of music which we utilise as a means of communication and inclusion.

How do you believe this concert, and perhaps others like it, can contribute towards raising awareness about causes such as autism? What kind of impact can music have in particular when it comes to hopefully instigating positive change?

My sister, Marcelle Zahra who is a pianist, music educator and one of our performers says that music speaks louder than words; she strongly believes that one of the main attributes is that music is a medium through which we can reach goals which can be physical, emotional and cognitive. This concert will hopefully enable us to send a positive message about autism and give society a glimpse into the life of an autistic individual. Doing so will hopefully make people more empathetic and understanding towards the condition.

What do you hope people will get out of this concert, and do you see the initiative moving forward with similar initiatives in the future?

We want to inspire people and urge the public to embrace our differences and promote inclusion by slowly changing negative attitudes and perceptions. Hopefully, we can also be an inspiration to other parents who are struggling with finding a way of helping their children.

We have had incredible feedback from the public on the idea behind the concert already, which shows the need for similar initiatives to take place in the future. So far we have no concrete plans – this was a pilot project which gave positive results.  Hopefully this will be the beginning of a long journey – you never know what the future will bring, but we will remain with our eyes open for any possibilities.

Music Speaks will be taking place on September 19 at De La Salle Palace, Valletta at 17:30. Bookings:  HYPERLINK “”