Industry Profile: Jazz Hands For Autism


In 1972, the Autism Society launched the first annual National Autistic Children’s Week, which became Autism Acceptance Month (AAM). April is now National Autism Awareness Month and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. But for Jazz Hands For Autism founder Ifunanya Nweke and her dedicated team of advisors, staff, instructors and coaches, every day brings a new opportunity to serve a community of talented musicians and musically inclined people from all over the world. all ages who happen to be on the spectrum. .

Founded in 2014 by Nweke –– a behavioral interventionist and musician herself –– Jazz Hands For Autism is a unique non-profit post-secondary music education and professional training program dedicated to teaching and training these musicians often underestimated whose talents are too often hidden or overlooked. Driven by a passion that has its roots in a childhood home where she always stood up for and stood up for her younger brother (who is neurodivergent), Nweke’s goal was to create a platform for people with autism who love music and the stage to express themselves and explore their talents.

Over the years, she has continued to fulfill this mission with the help of a growing number of mentors who have either acted as behavioral interventionists or have the ability to coach people on the autism spectrum. Although its mission is ever-changing, under the vision and leadership of Ifunanya Nweke, JHFA has evolved into a talent advocacy group and educational program that provides musician-focused job readiness training, performance and a job search for musicians with autism. Education is essential not only for the world at large that needs to better understand autism, but also internally. Nweke’s passion for learning now extends to his dynamic web docu-series titled 3 Minutes with Ifuwhere she interviews music industry influencers and experts from mainstream autism organizations in an effort to advance the importance of neurodiversity.

To date, Jazz Hands For Autism has provided support and performance opportunities to over 200 people with autism and their families (with 30 enrolled at any one time) through their two main programs, the Jazz Concert Series Hands (JHCS) and the multifaceted Jazz Hands Musicians Academy (JHMA) program. The concert series is a twice-yearly festival where selected musicians on the autism spectrum of all ages, genders and skill levels come on stage to share their gifts in front of a supportive and diverse audience. These events promote socialization and confidence building, while providing an opportunity and a safe space to explore the possibility of a career in music.

“JHFA breaks the veil of underrepresentation of the neurodivergent music community by reaching out to local music communities such as local gigs, music festivals and studios to create an environment of inclusivity and diversity within the music community. music industry,” says Esbeth Heredia. , the organization’s placement coordinator. »

The Musicians’ Academy is a comprehensive 3-stage professional and integrated employment program that provides individualized social, professional and musical training designed to encourage musicians across the spectrum (18+) to succeed in music-related jobs . Its three main functions are professional training (music theory, music software, instrument/stage training, digital branding, etc.), professional development (resume/cv/portfolio creation, job search, development vocational and job adjustment training) and skills and interest-based job placement. JHMA students and graduates work and are paid for performances, collaborative projects, teaching studio work, original compositions, and more. In addition to the academy for ages 18 and up, the organization has a Jazz Hands Junior Academy (JHJA), a newly launched program that offers private music lessons for school-aged children and teens ages 8-17. years. There are over 40 different courses offered.

Despite its name, Jazz Hands For Autism isn’t just for jazz musicians. It is a musical theater term that refers to a dramatic gesture signifying the end of a production. In the basic jazz hands position, the hands are open with the palms facing forward and the fingers spread apart. Nweke says, “It represents the idea of ​​triumph, something conquered. In the field of autism, handclaps with jazz hands reflect their and our enthusiasm as we overcome the stigma that creates barriers to creativity and expression for individuals on the autism spectrum. .

One of the most exciting new outgrowths of Jazz Hands For Autism is the commercial release of three albums by JHFA-affiliated musicians/artists, each in a different genre – all recorded, engineered and/or promoted by the organization. Apricot Turquoise by singer-songwriter Sam L. Williams is the first full-length project from this ’60s aficionado, and is an ode to the music and instrumentation of that era, with a modern twist. by Sean McRae runner is an artist-produced multi-genre neo-soul jazz album featuring saxophonist Rickey Washington (father of famed jazz artist Kamasi Washington), music teacher George Earth and others. Shayne Holzman’s first complete recording under the name Hungry darling (also the album title) is a reimagined update of her 2019 EP. Offering an expansion of her indie rock repertoire, she expands her instrumentation by adding piano and guitar into the mix while creating a melting pot fascinating with buzzing guitars, pounding drums, melodic touches and his powerful voice.

“These albums are a cumulative expression of everything we do at Jazz Hands For Autism,” says Nweke. “These are the deliverables of a program that not only provides training for musicians learning to sing, play instruments, compose and understand music theory, but also how to record with Pro Tools and Logic, do digital marketing, create an EPK and adapt to studio, work and concert environments.

Folarin Ajileye, Outreach Coordinator, adds, “Our JHFA musicians are setting the new standard for diversity, acceptance, and what it means to be talented in the music industry. We are committed to not only promoting the concept of neurodiversity in order to open more doors, but we are bringing a new perspective from musicians who would originally remain unknown.

The concept of Jazz Hands For Autism took root just months after Nweke graduated from UCLA with an undergraduate degree. She was working with a colleague to complete her behavior intervention training when she met a young student named Ruben. Ruben, who was the only autistic person in his group, walked into his music class, spontaneously sat down at the piano and started singing a song. His classmates flocked to the remaining instruments and a jam session broke out. Nweke quickly realized that there needed to be more musicians on the autism spectrum, with their potential to be leaders yet to be revealed. She and a few like-minded associates organized the first Jazz Hands concert a few months later – and the creation of a now thriving non-profit organization took shape with a literal set of like-minded souls.

“Ruben had a naturally beautiful voice and a velvety tone,” she says. “He knew the chords to play and was a serious natural talent. He was a leader in this setting, in stark contrast to his other classes where he sat to the side, managing his “difficult behaviors”. That day made me realize that when we empower people with autism to be who they naturally are, they can not only communicate, but also build and lead a community around them. I see the people we work with not only as people with autism, but also as talented and budding artists who need their creativity and skills to be supported, nurtured and championed. I view autism not as a limiting or determinant of ability, but rather as an indicator of where the individual needs additional support and scaffolding. I also believe it’s incumbent upon us as a society, and specifically as an industry (the music industry), to find ways to create opportunities for neurodivergent creatives who are on the spectrum of autism. »

Contact Jazz Hands for Autism, 424-298-8702

[email protected]


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