If you use a trailer as a sketch up for a documentary then you can use a blog as a sketch up for your trailer. This blog is my pre trailer sketch, the gathering of ideas and intuitions, the separation of hunches from false starts and good ideas from bad. At a very general level the trailer must show students at the keyboard, explaining their day, explaining music, the process of teaching, the atmosphere and feeling of the school as well as the program. But how to structure all of that requires a little research. Googling how to make a trailer recommends the following strategy. The documentary must answer the following questions:
1. Who was involved or affected?
2. What happened?
3. Where did it happen?
4. When did it happen?
5. Why did this happen? What were the root causes?
The story of what was learned will be the story of two young boys, Jadon and Peyton learning various pieces; the Blues, some Bach, some Rachmaninoff; not to mention the scales, drills, and exercises required to keep their hands in shape to play the pieces at all. Both boys are on the autism spectrum, each has some feature of a communications delay in some form. Both script heavily from movies and they both exhibit an ability to quote from movies at the appropriate time. Jadon has a sense of mischief and fun, Peyton has an extraordinary sense of irony if not outright sarcasm. Most noticeable of all, each enjoys very, very strong support from their parents and families.
There is a rock n roll element to this enterprise. Both students are strong personalities, each sharing the mercurial magic of a Robert Plant and a Jimi Hendrix. You have to see these kids to know what I am talking about.
The documentary tells the story that began in April of 2012 when Jadon first signed up for classes. Jadon suffers from severe allergies which serve to compound his autism. Peyton signed on a year later. He had always sat down to play the piano at home and finally his parents decided it was time to do something about his clear interest in music.
The location is the Williams Community School in Austin Texas, one of now many special needs schools across America doing remarkable work and research with special needs kids. Both Jadon and Peyton attend Williams. Williams relaunched under the Williams name after the previous school went under. A group of concerned parents got together to get the school going again. The story of strong parental action is a powerful theme in this documentary. The parents, as much as the teachers, shape the personality of the school. As if it were a testament to their success, right now Williams is looking to move to bigger premises not far from the current location.
The how is how I met Ann Hart, president of the Autism Society of Greater Austin. The ASGA was the first organization I reached out to when my family and I arrived in Austin from Long Island in June 2011. Ann Hart soon recommended me to Suzanne Byrne, program director at the Williams School. I was invited to teach some students at the school. I assume it was a test phase to see what I could do and here we all are eighteen months later now making a documentary about the experience.
What might be missing is what took place on Long Island. There I was running a conventional private piano studio. One day a mother brought her twelve year old daughter to me for piano lessons. Monique was high functioning yet extremely emotionally complex. Her mother explained how Monique had had four different piano teachers over four years and yet could still only play ‘I Love Barbie’. After a year studying with me, Monique completed a Chopin Waltz. It was then I realized that Monique had been dismissed as unreachable and unteachable by her previous teachers and that she, along with many in the special needs community was being held back in life by ignorance, bigotry and superstitious notions about autism. Word began to spread and the autism community began knocking on my door looking for lessons for their kiddos. There was clearly a demand that was not being met.
However, the move to Austin and then taking on students at the Williams school was another matter entirely. Here the documentary is jumping into a success story and is missing the difficult transition to teaching students with a communications delay. The documentary cannot show how I had to start from scratch all over again, how everything that worked on Long Island was simply not going to work at Williams.
Most of all, the documentary will miss the tension and anxiety all special needs students experience when embarking on a new venture. The therapists will provide some perspectives on the early days of the program; how they took some good ideas that I call the Black Keys exercises and gave them shape and how the students benefited from the therapists input and experience. Suzanne Byrne and Lauren Dooley are both very experienced practitioners of ABA and OT. Suzanne Byrne immediately recognized the ABA methods in the teaching technique and knew how to take that framework and build out the program in the context of ABA.
Without the input of the Williams School, this program would not be what it is today. The program took shape at Williams. Methods and exercises evolved over time more as a series of problem solving techniques as the students developed in ability and confidence. The transition from exercises to playing nursery rhymes was not easy. It took a long time for both boys to stop playing with just the index finger. Venturing out to playing with all five fingers was as much about confidence development as it was about the skill development. And suddenly one day they were not playing nursery rhymes anymore but real pieces: George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Led Zepplin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, little snippets from Rachmaninoff’s G sharp minor prelude. One parent has said “I just want hear him play Lynard Skynard’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.
By the end of the documentary, I hope this wish will come true.
At a more practical level budgets have to be prepared, advice taken, experts consulted and investors found to fund the final documentary. The script is nowhere near completion at this stage. So far the project has moved forward in the form of notes to self, emails to friends and colleagues and lots of chats with people who know more about the process than I do.
The fruits of the notes, chats and advice taking has melded into a practical advice charter that looks like this:
• Determine who your audience is and how you will reach them.
• Get a good camera crew with documentary experience.
• Get a good editor.
• Get a good director.
• Use trailer to raise money.
• Prepare a detailed presentation for investors.
• Be careful not to shoot too much material.
• Make a script to structure the documentary.
• Develop a shot line for each shoot day.
• Get signed releases from all parties.
• Get errors and omissions insurance.
• Get production insurance.
• Finally budget: There is a minimum acceptable budget for production that needs to be watched. This depends on many things; audience, intended venue, distribution, and of course length of finished documentary.
Final note to self: Autism is a story of vulnerability and ferocious defiance. Balancing the demands of each quality is what makes a school successful and the therapists at Williams have struck the balance in unique ways. The documentary brings all the elements together; the belief that special needs kids can learn to play piano, the special program designed to make that happen, the amazing specialists and therapists surrounding the dynamic families supporting their kiddos. Here is a story about two amazing boys for whom, music is now an indispensable part of their lives.