On Saturday, April 14, Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could will present a relaxed performance in the David Rubenstein Atrium to help kick off the Big Umbrella Festival, the world's first month-long festival dedicated to arts programs for children on the autism spectrum and their families. In advance of the show, Rymer shared his thoughts on making connections through music.


Eileen Willis: How did you first get involved in creating performances for children on the autism spectrum?

Brady Rymer: In 1998, my friend Monica Osgood started Celebrate the Children School, a school in Denville, New Jersey, for children on the autism spectrum. She invited me out to sing and we all had a blast! Since then I've returned a few times a year to rock out with the kids. We even created an album together in 2011 called Love Me For Who I Am. I've always loved the energy at the school; so open, honest, appreciative, friendly, and joyful! Over the years, it's been an inspiring place to play music and share a rockin' experience together.

EW: What does it mean to create a sensory-friendly performance? How do you tailor or customize your shows to achieve that?

BR: In many ways, our sensory-friendly shows are very similar to our non-sensory friendly shows—full of energy, interaction, sing-alongs, dancing—an attempt to make a connection through music. I've found that the kids really want to rock! And since we're a rock 'n' roll band for kids we don't really want to change that all too much.

Most of the difference comes from the song material. We incorporate songs that we've written specifically for the special needs community. Songs that empower and relate to this audience so they can identify and feel included. Songs they can raise their fists to and say, "Yes! That's me they're singing about!"

Technically, the sensory-friendly performances are softer in volume, with less lights and lots of room for kids to move around and go where they need to go. But we definitely don't turn down the excitement. Another thing we try to do is get the kids familiar with the music. It's great when they know the tunes and have something familiar to focus on. You know, when you see The Rolling Stones, you want them to play the hits so you can rock along!

EW: What have you learned about the role of performing arts in terms of engaging with this specific audience?

BR: It's vital! It's a tool the kids use to express themselves, to tell the world what they feel and who they are. I've also noticed that our concerts have become a cool social event for everyone. They can have fun, move and sing with their friends and family, play around, high-five, dance together, interact, and basically be themselves and feel good about who they are. My hope is that the audience leaves inspired, renewed, happy, and tired from dancing!

EW: Is there something the performing arts field could learn from initiatives like the Big Umbrella Festival?

BR: Build it and they will come. There's a hunger for exciting sensory-friendly art. Spend time at schools and with the special needs community. The kids and community are very inspiring. They see the world in a unique way and have a different set of challenges, but in the end it comes down to wanting the same things: love, respect, acceptance, good art, excitement, to be heard, seen, acknowledged, and appreciated.

EW: What do you hope the impact of the festival could be?

BR: More acceptance and awareness, not only for the communities but also the artists and the work they're doing to portray and reflect the world of a person living with autism. Telling these stories is so important now.

I've seen how joyful the kids and families are at our sensory-friendly performances. It's imperative to have this time to socialize, connect, bond, have fun, bust a move, hear a story, find wonderment, be amazed, and all in a safe environment where the stress is gone. That's very inspirational for all involved.

We're so happy to be invited under the big umbrella!


Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.