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On Stage, His Music Speaks


When he is on stage, his music speaks.

Stuart Carlson, a recent University of Michigan graduate who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 3, sometimes takes a moment or two before answering a question. He considers his options carefully; flowing conversation is sometimes beyond grasp. But when he takes the stage, violin in his hand and passion in his soul, the music pours, leaving mere conversation in its wake. In honor of his 22nd birthday, he staged a special fundraising recital to benefit C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Music filled The Ark in Ann Arbor; mentors and fellow musicians played both classical and bluegrass.

It is here, on stage, where Stuart Carlson communicates best. “I play with my heart, I tell stories from my heart, I enjoy every moment that I am on stage,” Carlson said. 

The Dexter High School graduate has performed in Italy and around the U.S., and he has attended academies in the Czech Republic and England, garnering an array of awards and respect in the music community. He was one of five musicians selected to perform at the Kennedy Center by the Very Special Artists (VSA) in 2016, and he followed that by winning the 2017 University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance Concerto Competition. Before that, in 2013 at the age of 17, he was chosen to perform at the Kennedy Center as part of Arts Advocacy Day. His audience included senators, many members of Congress, and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“He complimented my music,” said Carlson. “I was honored.”

An array of local musicians joined Carlson at the March 2018 recital, many of whom have played a part in forming his music through teaching and mentoring: Stephen Shipps, Anthony Elliot, Brad Phillips, Amy I-Lin Cheng, Jacob Warren, and Grant Flick. Miss Michigan Heather Kendrick was the emcee.

All proceeds went to Mott, where Carlson – a surviving twin who was 1 pound, 13 ounces at birth – spent the first 100 days of his life in an incubator. 

It is difficult for Stuart’s parents, Jack and Susan Carlson – who also have another son, Justin, 20 – to imagine how far Stuart has come since his early struggles on the autism spectrum. There are still day-to-day challenges, such as difficulty connecting with others through conversation, and a severe problem with directions. He uses a GPS to get around U-M’s campus and everywhere else he goes.

“When he was in elementary school, we weren’t sure he would ever know what a Christmas gift was,” Jack Carlson said. “Getting him to focus on anything was next to impossible.”

But there always was the music.

“Before he could walk, he was pulling himself up to the piano and he would stay there for hours,” Susan Carlson said. “But his focus was such an issue that we weren’t sure how everything would work out.”

That focus has honed itself in moments over the years, as Stuart “seems to make jumps, where things just click for him,” said Jack Carlson. “Those are the moments that have revealed a lot.”

Some of those moments came when Stuart went to Oz’s Music in Ann Arbor when he was 3 for open mic night. He loved the stage so much that he would cry when his time to perform was over. He would go home and play the piano for three to four hours at a time,

“Music is my first language,” said Stuart Carlson, and then with a little smile: “I have perfect pitch. I can tell you in what key your toilet flushes.”

Music may be his first and constant passion, but there are others – some brought on or accentuated by his autism. There is his concentration on doors, and why people would go “out” through an “in” door. “I just have to take a deep breath,” he said. He loves radio jingles, watches, voice recorders, and ham radios.

Carlson is grateful that he heard classical music in his incubator at Mott. He says that even today he can vaguely remember notes from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik being played to him as a newborn. He is also grateful that he heard a fifth-grade orchestra in Dexter when he was 9. It was then that he fell in love with the violin.

“Once I picked it up, it was what I wanted,” he said.

– By Jeff Barr, Reprinted with permission.