Farley Mifsud paced the floor at his Vancouver Island home while waiting for the video equipment to be set up, for a special afternoon recording.
“He likes to pace,” said his mom, Katrina.
Once the gear was in place, Farley picked up his guitar, sat down, and played his own version of the iconic Mason Williams instrumental, Classical Gas.
Four minutes later, after an emphatic conclusion to the song, Farley looked up, and smiled.
“Well done, Farley,” understated Katrina.
It was a performance one would expect to hear from a musician with decades of experience; not from a 17-year-old with autism.
Farley is one of more than 200 children and youth in the Comox Valley living with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“I started [playing guitar] seven years ago,” Farley said after his first performance of the day. “When I first started, AC/DC was the band that I enjoyed listening to, so I just wanted to learn songs by them. When I learned stuff of theirs, it was very exciting.”
Exciting, and unusual.
Farley does not read music.
He learns by ear, and with visual aids.
“It’s a combination of listening, and watching someone else playing,” he said. “It’s actually easier for me, than reading music.”
He started by surfing the internet and finding instructional videos on sites such as YouTube.
Now he has a multitude of local mentors helping him out.
“I have three guitar teachers, and they are all very different,” he said. “One of them is into jazz, although he teaches me everything. His name is Jeff [Drummond].”
Alan Jossul and Oscar Robles are also teaching Farley.
And he’s a quick study. He said it took him three months to learn Classical Gas.
“I watched Tommy Emmanuel play Classical Gas, and I slowed down the audio so I could hear what he was doing,” said Farley. “Some parts I wanted to play exactly like he was doing. Some parts I wanted to do it my own way.”
His story is one of inspiration, and a beacon of hope for all families affected by ASD.
“It’s been life-changing, actually,” said Katrina. “As a mother, seeing what music has done for him, in terms of communicating with other people, it’s provided a bridge for him in the community. It’s not just the musicians, either. It’s the people who support music in the Valley – those who come out and watch him, those who have played with him before, it just goes on and on. It’s been amazing for both of us. It has changed my life as well.”
Farley said the sound of music is what draws him to it.
“It’s a very powerful sound,” he said.
That, in itself, makes his story all the more unusual.
Processing sensory information is a common challenge for those with an autism diagnosis. Music, in particular, was an issue for Farley in his younger years; so much so that Katrina, a gifted musician herself, had to put away her own guitar for many years.
“Farley did not like music when he was little,” said Katrina. “He had a lot of sensory challenges, and one of them was noise.”
That created its own challenge for Katrina.
“Music is my passion. I grew up playing guitar and listening to music. When Farley was young, if I put music on in the house, or if I pulled out my guitar and played, he would cover his ears and scream. It was a source of stress.”
That all changed one day, seven years ago, when Katrina’s guitar was out of its case.
“Farley picked it up, and was holding it, and I saw the way he was strumming it, and he was listening very carefully to the sound. I could see it was affecting him, and I was just praying that he would take to it. I could tell by the way he turned his head, to get closer to the sound coming from the guitar, that he liked it. That was a pretty powerful moment for me. Sure enough, he decided he wanted to learn, and that was it. It’s been great ever since.”
Farley has had a lot of help from the Comox Valley arts community in exploring and expanding his love for music.
Drummond introduced Farley to ‘Rock Camp,’ and Katrina said camps like that one, and in more recent years, the Hornby Island Blues Workshop, have been extremely therapeutic.
“There was a connection that was happening with Farley and his teachers,” said Katrina. “Farley has built really good connections with them, not just musically, but as friends. Seeing those connections happen was one thing, but then, when Farley was 15, I took him to Hornby [for the blues workshop] … they believe music creates community. And that’s exactly what happened. It transformed Farley’s life. He said it was the best week of his life.
“The connection that happens with musicians when they work together… it’s unique. The connection that happens between musicians can be quite intense. It’s unspoken. For somebody who has autism, and experiences that kind of connection with another musician, it’s even bigger, because the parts of the brain that light up when that connection happens are key to their development.
“Farley says we have to go back [to Hornby Island Blues Workshop] every year, for the rest of his life now.”
Farley and Katrina often join Jilli Martini on stage at local venues.
“How many moms get to do that with their kids? It’s such a great feeling to perform with him,” said Katrina.
Farley and his mom, Katrina Mifsud, play a duet. Photo by Terry Farrell
The Comox Valley Youth Music Centre (CYMC) chose Farley to be the recipient of its $5,000 Morgan guitar in 2016. (Every year the CYMC loans a Morgan guitar to an aspiring musician. The guitar was originally donated to the group by former Comox Valley resident John Shimeld.) When that loan of the Morgan was due, another professional stepped up to help Farley.
“I loved this guitar so much, I didn’t want to give it away. It was the best guitar I’d ever heard in my whole life,” said Farley. “But I knew I had to give it back, so I decided to save up to by another Morgan.”
“I got lucky – twice. First of all, I got to keep the Morgan guitar for more than a year – almost two years. But then I also got to meet the guy who makes Morgan guitars, David Iannone. I got to meet him, and he told me how he makes these guitars, and then he let me have one for a very good price. I did not expect that. It was unbelievable.”
“Ever since Farley got that first one, he knew he wanted his own, so he started saving every penny he got – birthday money, everything,” said Katrina. “I knew it was going to take a long time to save that kind of money, and I didn’t want him to get discouraged, so I thought it would be a good idea to maybe go [to Vancouver], pick out a guitar and maybe put a deposit down. David was just so wonderful. He gave us a really good deal.”
Farley has started learning the piano as well.
“I started piano because I was trying to learn a piano song on guitar, but then changed my mind and have decided to learn it on the piano,” he said.
“It’s not an easy piece he is learning,” added Katrina. It’s a Rachmaninoff [Concerto No. 2 in C Minor].”
Farley hopes to someday make a living playing music.
“Yeah. That would be great,” he said.
See the full article with videos of Farley playing his Morgan here.