Mitchell Law, ’25, is always making music, whether it’s on his upright bass, the piano, his computer, or the Mando-Bouzouki—an instrument of his own invention that is a cross between a mandolin and a bouzouki. In high school, he was the first chair bass player in both his school orchestra and the highly-selective Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. He took to Logic—a state-of-the-art music recording program—intuitively and has a constantly-growing computer database of his own compositions. As a Music Industry major at Villa Maria College, he is learning to create, mix, and master digital recordings, score films, and add other sophisticated technical know-how to his already impressive musical resume. By all accounts, Mitchell is a gifted musician with an untiring drive to grow his repertoire and skill set. What makes his accomplishments all the more impressive is that Mitchell also has autism spectrum disorder with severe hearing and vision impairment. He wears hearing aids and uses a combination of speech and American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, and relies on an interpreter to assist him in the classroom and other settings. Mitchell’s trajectory in music has been different from that of his classmates and peers, but thanks to specialized support from innovative programs—notably, Rock Autism and the Villa Maria Achieve Program for Students with Learning Differences—he continues to overcome barriers to stay at the head of his class.
The Opening Measures
As a very young child, Mitchell struggled to communicate his thoughts and emotions. He was largely nonverbal and though his parents helped him to build a vocabulary, pairing simple ASL signs with their corresponding spoken words, Mitchell often felt overwhelmed by the effort to be understood. His parents and teachers noticed his positive reactions to musical toys, but guessed that he was responding to the visual stimulus of their colorful flashing lights. No one had any idea that music was the “language” that would one day unlock Mitchell’s potential. Then in fourth grade, Mitchell was offered the chance to learn an instrument. His longtime interpreter recommended that Mitchell try the upright bass, suspecting that its size and volume might be a satisfying outlet for his biggest emotions. That hunch was a homerun. Because of the deep resonance of the bass, Mitchell could feel the music as he played it, allowing him to rely on touch to enhance his sense of hearing. His school and private teachers discovered that Mitchell had perfect pitch and could not only reproduce melodies but also loved to invent his own. Mitchell soon moved to the front of his orchestral section, and started experimenting with other instruments. Through music, Mitchell discovered, he could express his thoughts and emotions with sophistication and complexity. As his musical skill advanced, his verbal communication abilities flourished, too. Mitchell’s ability to interact with others grew by leaps and bounds, and he attributes that growth to music. “I like to say that music saved my life,” he says.
Finding the Beat
By the time he reached middle school, Mitchell had begun to explore digital music. A local DJ and music producer introduced him to the SUBPAC, a wearable physical audio system that channels musical vibrations directly into the body. Professional recording artists and performers wear SUBPACs to allow a deeper connection with the full range of musical frequencies, but for Mitchell it also served an adaptive purpose—his SUBPAC let him “hear” digital music files more fully than his hearing aids could have. Knowing Mitchell’s passion for music, an English teacher suggested that he check out Rock Autism, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that offers workshops in music, film, and multimedia arts to young people on the autism spectrum. Rock Autism’s founder, Max Muscato, had witnessed the transformative power of music on his brother, Sonny, who has autism and is also a talented drummer. A musician, himself, Muscato drew on his connections in Buffalo’s scene to assemble a multi-talented team of professionals to create workshops for students between the ages of 14-26 who have autism. Not only do Rock Autism workshops teach practical, marketable skills, they also offer young people a learning environment where they can connect with other people with autism diagnoses, building community as they build real-world capabilities. In 2019, Mitchell participated in Rock Autism’s Garageband and iMovie workshop, learning the fundamentals of music and film production. He wore his SUBPAC and thrived in the class, loving both what he was learning and the fact that he was creating alongside peers with autism. Rock Autism’s Vice President, Alea Conte, recalls, “Mitchell’s creativity was on another level—probably because he was so excited to be there! Because he was around others with autism, like himself, he felt like he was home.” In summer of 2021, Rock Autism forged a partnership with Villa Maria College. Villa opened their music and filmmaking labs to Rock Autism’s workshops and began to extend Rock Autism programs to participants in Villa’s Achieve Program for Students with Learning Differences. The collaboration makes sense: Rock Autism has access to Villa’s impressive array of music, recording, and film technology; and Villa gains an opportunity to build a relationship with Rock Autism participants who might be experiencing a college campus for the first time. Mitchell was one of those participants. He attended Rock Autism’s Music and Film Camp in 2021 at Villa, learning how to operate a camera, take photos and video, and edit content that would accompany the music he created during camp. He also interned on Rock Autism’s TV pilot, Setlist, gaining hands-on experience in film. Of Mitchell’s potential, Muscato says, “He’s an exceptionally gifted kid. The fact that he’s able to communicate through music is proof that not only is music the universal language but that Mitchell has no limits and can conquer any obstacle in his path.” Mitchell plans to continue participating in Rock Autism workshops and will have a chance to showcase his original composition “Mitchell’s Mind” as part of Rock Autism’s annual music festival in October 2022.
Developing the Next Stanza
When he was a senior in high school, Mitchell wasn’t seriously considering attending college. Because of his unique combination of diagnoses, he and his parents were not optimistic that they would find a place where he would be able to pursue his passions and become an active, independent member of a college community. But when he received a brochure in the mail about Villa Maria’s Achieve Program for Students with Learning Differences, he and his mother had a feeling that maybe this was something to consider. Along with Mitchell’s longtime interpreter, they attended an open house. According to Mitchell, “I knew from the start that this college was for me. It was love at first sight.” Villa’s size, academic offerings, internship possibilities, and specialized programming for students like Mitchell seemed like the perfect fit. All colleges and universities are bound by regulations that require them to provide necessary accommodations for students with disabilities. A student who had an individualized education plan (IEP) in high school is still eligible to receive supports in college—like extended testing time, note-taking support, and other means of accessing curricular demands. Villa’s Achieve program goes beyond the requirements to ensure that students have access to tutoring, thoughtfully-designed study spaces, and mentoring that can pave the road to a successful college experience. Program Director Laura Pietak says, “The Achieve program doesn’t change the curriculum or ease the admissions requirements for students: Our students are here on their own academic merits and they complete the same coursework required of all Villa Maria students. The difference is in the personal support that we offer—over and above what is required by law—to help ensure that each individual student has what they need to thrive.”
For Mitchell, the Achieve program has been a foundational component of the Villa experience. Since his Music Industry major is a highly specialized area of study, Laura and her staff connected Mitchell with an Achieve tutor who is a graduate of the program and who is currently work in music production. His familiarity with the techniques and technology Mitchell is learning in class are an asset Mitchell would not have had at another college. According to Associate Professor and Chair of the Villa Maria College Department of Music Anthony Casuccio, Mitchell’s contributions to the Music Industry program have already been significant. He says, “Mitchell is a remarkable musician, but he’s also very humble and his positivity just radiates. He always puts his best effort in, and that helps to raise the bar for all of the students in his classes. When his peers see this student who is overcoming some real obstacles working at such an impressive level, it inspires them to put in their very best effort, too. We’ve had some extraordinary musicians come through the Villa Music Department, and Mitchell is right up there with the best.” As he enters his sophomore year at Villa, Mitchell is excited about his Music Industry classes. He’ll be taking Intro to Recording, which will let him get back into his favorite place on campus, the recording studio. He says, “It’s like heaven! I love the feeling—I could be there all day.” He also looks forward to getting back into the swing of collegiate life, socializing with friends in down-time between classes, performing with a variety of campus music ensembles, and taking advantage of Achieve Program events.
To any student who is considering Villa, and specifically the Achieve Program, Mitchell says, “Go for it. I have zero regrets about this college.”