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BEING AN AUTISTIC FIDDLE PLAYER – by David Nicholson

BEING AN AUTISTIC FIDDLE PLAYER – by David Nicholson

📷 Photo by Tom Oakes

As an autistic fiddle player and musician it is a real pleasure to be able to write a blog to mark World Autism Awareness Week 2022.

Music, like my family’s smallholding and my passion for the countryside, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My passion for the fiddle started when I heard a fiddle player play at the Uist and Benbecula Accordion and Fiddle club when I was up in Uist for a holiday in the autumn of 2000. That inspired me to take up the fiddle and that was one of the best decisions that I have made in my life.

Since I was identified as autistic in second year of secondary school my fiddle has played a huge role in helping me to develop as an individual. I remember being a very reserved and shy young man unsure how to communicate, how to socialise and how to make friends. That was challenging. My fiddle playing, in my younger years, helped me to communicate my emotions and to express myself. Something which is still important to this day. Never underestimate the power of music to represent how someone feels. I also have come to appreciate the power of music and my fiddle playing to calm me down if I am feeling very anxious or stressed. Time on my own to play some tunes helps me to de-stress and to refocus. That proved important whilst at school and in the years afterwards. It has become part of my so-called coping strategies if I find things overwhelming.

As I have grown up over the years, music has enabled me to develop my social skills and to make friends with some wonderful musicians who I cannot thank enough for their encouragement and support. From my time at Sgoil Chiuil Na Gaidhealtachd in Plockton to going to sessions, to performing with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra and starting a band, the friends I have made have been superb. That has lessened the social isolation that I felt in my younger years. Social isolation was not fun and it certainly placed a lot of doubts into my mind, made me anxious and made me question who I was and what my potential was.
The friends that I have made and the groups I am in have made me feel part of a community, in the same way that I feel about being part of the rural community. It has helped me feel I belong to something and that means a huge amount. It means that I have a network I can turn to if I need some support which is important.

In terms of my fiddle playing I am fiercely passionate about it and to developing my style of fiddle playing. A style of playing which can be best described as being of the West Highland/Capebreton style. Coming from a piping family, I take huge inspiration from the piping tradition, the music of the Highlands and Islands and the fiddle tradition of Nova Scotia. I take huge inspiration from fiddle players such as the late Buddy MacMaster, Angus Grant Senior, Dawn and Margie Beaton, the late Iain Powrie and pipers including the late Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, Rona Lightfoot, Angus MacColl amongst others. Being autistic means that I have an intense focus on what I love in life. In terms of music that means I am sharply focused on preserving the tradition and the music I love. To play tunes, especially pipe tunes, in the way that they were meant to be played by the composer. I am quite rigid in that sense and I’m in many ways a musical traditionalist but I feel passionately about staying true to myself and how I was brought up to play and value music. I think authenticity is absolutely important.

Looking ahead I look forward to continuing to perform with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra but to also taking forward my musical plans. In February 2020 I did my inaugural recital at the Piping Centre in Glasgow and in September 2021 the “David Nicholson band” took to the stage for some gigs at the Under Canvas Festival in Inverness. The gigs in Inverness were particularly poignant. It demonstrated to me that autism is not a barrier to me taking to the stage with my music. For an individual who was too frightened to speak in class when I was younger, getting on stage and speaking to an audience and playing is the most emotional and powerful feeling I have experienced. Music helps to carry me through and undoubtedly helps to calm any nerves that I have.I look forward to developing the band in the months ahead, to getting out gigging, to hopefully visit Capebreton, to plan a possible debut album and also work hard to bring more autism and disability awareness to the traditional music world. As a person and as a musician I take full responsibility for who I am. I do not like to be patronised. I am in a position now to recognise the adjustments that may be required if I get anxious, overwhelmed or for me to simply perform. When it comes to music this means:

1. Space to myself for 5-10 minutes to refocus, play some music or simply listen to some music. This could be required if a rehearsal is making me feel overwhelmed.

2. My condition makes it harder to learn tunes by ear. I am a very good sight reader and tend to perform, where necessary, with music. This used to make me think that I was a lesser musician, a weaker fiddle player. A fear about this almost made me give up my music in 2014/15. I am so glad that I did not. I recognise that playing by ear is important in the traditional music world but there should be an appreciation that there will be others who struggle with this, who prefer to use music and if that is the case that it does not make them lesser traditional musicians.

Before I conclude I want to say this. There is still much to do to make the Scottish Traditional Music community as accessible and inclusive for everyone. I am determined to do what I can to ensure that autistic musicians and those with other disabilities can get the chance to take their music as far as they want to and to perform their music in venues in Scotland and beyond. It is important for the community (and by community I mean musicians, organisations, concert organisers etc) to reach out and work with disabled musicians so that things such as workshops, teaching, concerts and performing can be accessible to all. We need to see more understanding and better flexibility in ensuring that the needs of disabled musicians are met. We need to see more awareness of autism, of other neurodiverse conditions and wider disabilities as well within the traditional music world. There is so much talent out there, talent that deserves to be showcased to the wider public. We all have a duty to ensure that that talent does get out there and gets the recognition that it deserves. Disabledd musicians deserve to have their voices heard and to have their talents recognised. No ifs and no buts about that.

I want to say some thanks to some people who have been incredibly supportive of my music over the years. A big thanks to my parents and family, , to Dougie Pincock and Sgoil Chiuil Na Gaidhealtachd, to Marie Fielding, to Wendy Weatherby, to Tom Oakes, to colleagues and friends in the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, to Fiona Dalgetty and everyone at Feis Rois for their marvellous support and to everyone else- friends, organisations and so on who have all helped me on my musical journey. Thank you so much.

I finish by saying this. I do not and never will regret being autistic. I am proud to be who I am. Proud to be an autistic musician. Proud to be different.

📷 Photo by Alistair Cassidy