‘Music Helps Me Engage’

Composer and trumpeter Kurton Harrison III plays the "Rising Stars Series with Sean Dobbins" in the Kerrytown concert House.Photo by Jeff Dunn

By Leslie D. Green

Songs are not minor in trumpeter’s life

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Diagnosed at age 5 with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Kurton Harrison III keeps defying expectations.

Rather than talk, Harrison pointed, pushed and developed his own sounds to communicate. He didn’t make eye contact and was so sensitive to some sounds and touch that he would physically respond in a negative way. Even warm water provoked a burning sensation for Harrison.

As a result, his doctor said Harrison would probably have to live in a group home.

The devastating outlook made his mother, LaJuana Harrison, cry. It also compelled her to act. She knew her son was capable of so much more.

“I would say, ‘We have to train him to do what we need him to do,'” Ms. Harrison said. “I would look in his eyes and say, ‘I know he’s in there.'”

To help him associate words with his world, LaJuana Harrison used Post-It notes to write down the names of every item in their house. She stuck them where her son would see them. Then she, her husband, and her mother dedicated nearly a year to instructing him to speak.

“If he wanted it, he had to touch it and say it before we would do it,” Ms. Harrison said.

Once Kurton Harrison started speaking, they made him spell the words before they would respond. Eventually, he started to string words together, though not always in the right order.

One day, shortly after they arrived at a family friend’s home, 6-year-old Kurton pulled himself up to the friend’s piano and started playing “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys. He had just heard the song on the car’s radio during the drive.

While Harrison’s mom was freaking out about her son bothering someone else’s property, her friend told her to stop and listen.

“He barely spoke, but he was playing this song,” LaJuana Harrison said. “I went out and bought a $700 keyboard and got fussed at. But it paid off in the long run. He played everything he heard.”

Then her son asked for a trumpet.

Pleased with his progress, his parents rented him a trumpet and enrolled him in the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences. Still, Harrison’s grades were poor and he would only talk if the subject was about music. He got into fights with bullies.

His mother told him the trumpet and keyboard were going to go if he didn’t stop fighting and improve his grades. Then, when he reached 7th grade, they encountered another issue.

“The music teacher said they could no longer work with him because his skills were too great,” Ms. Harrison said. “They wanted him to go to MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D).”

Operated by Michigan State University, CMS-D, an independent affiliate of Michigan State University, provides more than 60 music classes and music therapy for students of all ages, skills and incomes.

His mother enrolled him in CMS-D’s Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp. When she picked him up, she found a different kid.

“Kurton was so friendly there,” Ms. Harrison said. “He would walk into CMS with his trumpet, knowing he could play anything he wanted there, even the snare drums. Now you have a kid who can sit in a circle with these other kids and talk about music. Now he can talk about what he saw on TV because the music opened the door for him.”

Kurton Harrison said that he didn’t feel as if he had an opportunity to talk with people before AMP Camp. “Music helps me engage,” Kurton said.

“Before I participated in the camp, people picked on me and teased me because I am different from everybody else,” Kurton said. “Meeting more people that are engaged with what I want to do made me able to have a conversation. They are open to each other. Networking with other musicians is easier than talking with classmates who aren’t in your industry.”

Most teachers were willing to just pass Harrison to the next grade or class without challenging him because of his diagnosis, his mother said. However, his grades increased from Cs and Ds to As and Bs, landing him in the National Honor Society because of his participation in CMS-D.

CMS-D also helped get Harrison in the Detroit School of the Arts high school and in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, which are all within walking distance of each other. As a result of these musical connections, Kurton would perform his own composition at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Doctors once didn’t think it possible, but Kurton Harrison received his high school diploma in June. What’s more, rather than living in a group home, he will be living in a college dorm this fall.

Harrison was awarded a full ride – a $73,000 a year scholarship — to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to play trumpet as his primary instrument. He also plays piano, bass guitar, and most horns. Plus, he composes jazz, classical, orchestral, big band, and modern music.

“I can’t say where he would have been if it hadn’t been for that MSU program,” Ms. Harrison said. “I don’t think he would have grown like this without the music. Put an instrument in their hands and their minds will wake up.”

About Autism

• Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that usually appears before age 3

• Autism affects 1 in 59 children

• Autism effects the normal development of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function

• More than half of children diagnosed with autism are classified as having an intellectual disability or borderline intellectual disability

• 40% of children with autism do not speak

• 25%-30% of children with autism have some words at 12-18 months of age but lose them

• No two people with autism are alike

• Children with autism can progress but early intervention is key

Source: National Autism Association


This story was originally published on fordfund.org. The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

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