When pianist Noriko Ogawa moved to the UK, she lodged with the parents of a child with sever autism called Jamie. Watching him grow up and finding out how his autism affected his family inspired her to create a series of concerts especially for the parents and carers of autistic children. We catch up with Ogawa ahead of the first ‘Jamie’s Concerts’ taking place in the UK.
What inspired you to start your ‘Jamie’s Concerts’ series?
When I moved to the UK I lodged with musicians and when their baby boy was born, I noticed something unusual about him. I told the parents that I was really worried he might be autistic; I can still remember the day that I sat them down in the lounge and they said ‘we have every reason to say no,’ but I persuaded them to take him to the doctor. He was diagnosed autistic with a severe learning disability, meaning he is very particular about everything – food, every day routine, everything – and his family has to live around his needs. They are musicians, but if they ever wanted to go to a concert and get a babysitter Jamie would really panic. I wanted to find a way to help him by helping his parents. If Jamie’s mother is very upset or very stressed because he is being very particular, Jamie gets even more difficult. I am not a doctor, I’m not a nurse, I’m not a teacher for someone with special needs, but I am a musician. What I realised is that I can do something – I can play concerts that give people like Jamie’s parents a break and an opportunity to meet other people who care for autistic children.
What form do the concerts take?
I don’t invite the children – this is the point that so many people misunderstand, but it’s the key. Autistic people have sensory problems, and a lot of them have problems with sound (Jamie is one of them) so forcing them to come to a concert would be very upsetting. I devised a series at the level of professional piano recitals designed around the lives of autistic people’s carers. I knew the routine around Jamie’s life – he leaves the house around 8am and returns at 3pm – so I put the concerts on at 11am. People who live with autistic people can be incredibly stressed and I want to give them the opportunity to be away from their children for one or two hours, sit down and listen to proper concerts.
What has the reception been like so far?
I have done 12 Jamie’s Concerts so far. To begin with, people said ‘if you’re not doing anything to directly help autistic people, you’re not helping anyone,’ and I was laughed at. But the people who actually look after these people – the teachers, the carers and the nurses – started to say, ‘what Noriko says is not rubbish’. The first concert went ahead and now Jamie’s Concerts has a very loyal following of people that come year after year.
Have you watched friendships grow between the parents of autistic children?
Absolutely – people can talk about their children and their family members without stigma. It has a lovely friendly feeling. Music induces a lot of emotion and very often I see the audience in tears during the concert and by the end they’re all smiling. The concerts are also attended by the general public so it’s a fantastic opportunity for people to learn about autism. After the concerts we host a little tea party for the mothers to get a chance to network. It’s lovely for them because they get to talk freely and relax. A carer can feel refreshed before getting home before their child returns from school. Apart from that it’s like any other concert and lots of people have returned again and again.
Did you know about autism before you met Jamie?
I had known autistic people before and have always been interested in it. I thought there was something unique about Jamie when he was born – while his parents were out I would call his name and see if he would look at me, because I had some basic knowledge of the signs. When a child is about two or three, especially if they have a bit of learning difficulty, it becomes more obvious that they have autism.
What might be a typical programme in a Jamie’s Concerts include?
The concerts feature my own solo piano performances and at the next one I am planning to play some Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov. At the moment they’re just piano recitals, but in the future I would love to get other musicians involved and play some chamber music. We have a question and answer session in each concert – people ask questions about the music as well as questions related to autism. I hope this is the beginning of a movement and that concerts designed for people like Jamie’s parents will spread wider.
Jamie’s Concerts with Noriko Ogawa take place on Wednesday 22 April at Bridgewater Hall and and 5 May at Milton Court Concert Hall, Guildhall School. Ogawa will perform at St Peter’s Eaton Square on Thursday 9 April to raise awareness about autism. Visit uk.jamiesconcerts.com to find out more