Music and Health: Xenia Concerts opens the concert hall to those on the autism spectrum

Xenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality. As such it is a fitting and welcoming name to use for concerts that open the world of music up to families who are raising a child on the autism spectrum.

For Sarah Nematallah and her colleagues in the Cecilia String Quartet, the Xenia Concerts have become a moving and magical part of their musical careers. And even though the quartet is breaking up after almost 14 years, the Xenia Concerts will continue. One of these gatherings will be held at Dominion-Chalmers United Church on Saturday, where the quartet will play a program of Mendelssohn.

In fact the Xenia Concerts concept is a going and growing concern, Nematallah says. She has been named the artistic and executive director of Xenia Concerts which is now a registered charity with a board of directors and big dreams.

“Throughout the career of the Cecilia String Quartet, we’ve always been played in big concert halls but we have equally enjoyed performing in non-standard venues,” Nematallah says..

“We have played in schools, prisons, homeless shelters and rehab centres. … the list goes on.

“One summer we were in California and we met a pianist colleague of ours whose son is on the autism spectrum. He put together an ad hoc concert that was friendly to children on the spectrum. Many children and families affected by autism love classical music. But the traditions that surround typical concert halls can be restrictive. You can’t move around. Can’t make noise, you have to sit in these tight chairs. For people on the spectrum this can be a big deal. It can mean they can’t see a concert period,” she said.

“So we played this concert and it was a wonderful experience. The audience was so appreciative. Then we started talking to people from the autism community and we heard again and again that what is missing for these families is things they can do together … things they can enjoy as entertainment.”

The quartet heard stories of people being asked to leave events because their son or daughter was getting too enthusiastic about the music.

“With our attitude toward the arts, it just seemed like something needed to be done,” Nematallah said. “So we spent a year of research and designed a series that would be friendly to these families.”

That meant taking a myriad of things into account from the programming itself, all the way down to making sure there were enough paper towels in the washroom. She says that air-driers aren’t friendly for autistic childrens.

“We premiered the series in Toronto in 2014. It’s been going for four years now. The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. We started doing them regularly and now Xenia has developed into its own organization.”

This season there are 13 to 15 concerts in Ontario in places such as Toronto, Ottawa and Markham.

The scope of the concerts has broadened, she added.

“The real base for the series is concerts for kids on the autism spectrum. It will always been an offering of the organization. However since become a registered charity we have broadened our mission to address more arts access issues. Anyone who feels there is a barrier to them attending a concert, Xenia will step in.”

The artists who play in these concerts are professional players of high calibre, she says including, for example, the Gryphon Trio, an ensemble well-known to Ottawa audiences. The artistic director of Chamberfest is part of the trio and also a former teacher of Nematallah’s.

The performers are “artists who appreciate this type of audience and who believe music and art are good for people and that everyone should have an opportunity to see it and hear it and enjoy it.”

It’s clear, she says, that people enjoy these concerts, but it the music therapeutic in any measurable way?

“The more concerts we do, the more our board of directors says we need real research to show if it is helps.” But the research is hard to do and there isn’t much around.

“There is a bit of real research suggesting a connection but I think a lot of it is people who have these experiences intuitively know. They have faith it is true. It’s why Xenia is here. The feedback coming to us is saying this has changed my day, my week, my month. I’m happier. This is something that is good for me and my family.”

One reason classical music works in this context is that it is not amplified.

“Sound sensitivity is a big issue for people on the spectrum. Then there is anecdotal evidence of a surprising number of people on the spectrum who are musical prodigies.

“Beyond that, I think classical music is really timeless and it speaks to children as well as adults. That’s something we wanted to achieve with this series that both could be entertained and enjoy to experience with world class performances. It’s a family event on so many levels.”

Is some classical more amenable than others?

“One of the things I really enjoy about this project is I took it from the beginning it was a programming challenge for myself. One of the most important things for our organization is we want art of the highest quality.

“There is nothing wrong with the traditional form of performance, but after you’ve been in the business for a few years you want to try something else.

“For example we did a program of Schubert last season. We played all of the movements of Death and the Maiden which is amazing timeless quartet which everyone loves. We did shorten it a bit. But we interspersed the movements with short light pieces by Schubert. By the end of the concert everyone had listened to a lot of Schubert.”

Nematallah says they have even programmed modern Canadian music in the series.

“We are challenging ourselves. For me it’s been fun. We’ve played Bartok, we’ve played modern music that is not melodic. One time we played a modern piece that was very rhythmic and that included foot stamping and the kids loved it.”

They are careful about playing longer pieces. Most of the music will run from three to seven minutes. And the performers are careful about extremes of loud and soft playing.

The concerts are an hour long with stretch breaks in them. These mini-intermissions help “refresh their ears in the audience. We find that works.”

Nematallah is always getting suggestions from each audience.

“In our research, we worked with a psychologist from Sick Kids in Toronto. We played her some music and got her feedback on what would work. and what wouldn’t. So we came in with a foundation of knowledge.

But they are still learning too, that’s why Nematallah says all suggestions are most welcome.

In the concerts, the performers speak about the music and there are also visual aids to complement the music.

And audience members are completely free to listen in any way that they want. A lot of the children will bring headphones to muffle the sound somewhat.

“We have one regular who comes to every show in Toronto and I know he is very sound sensitive but the last few times he hasn’t brought his headphones and he’ll come and sit at the front. If it gets a little loud puts his hands over his ears.

“He’s learned and adapted. He loves music so much, it’s not going to stop him from sitting in the front row.”

Occasionally a child will run onto the performing area and rifle through some music.

“We are comfortable with anything. They sit on the floor because sometimes the chairs are too confining. And we always have a dancing area.”

The Xenia Concerts have been held in Ottawa for some time now and Nematallah says they see the same faces here too.

“We have regulars everywhere we go. People enjoy it and come back. We look forward to seeing them. They have become friends. One of the moms told us a story. There was a poster for the Cecilias and her child who is on the spectrum noticed and told her it was the girls from the concert. That’s awesome.

“When you see people so happy and enjoying the music so much, isn’t that why we play music?”

When Xenia started there were just three concerts in downtown Toronto.

“Now we are doing four there with four more in Ottawa. We also do two in a hospital in Toronto. And a theatre in Markham has reached out to us. We are in the early stages of talking with a presenter in Calgary who want to start bringing Xenia to that region in little tours. We are also starting to attract other organizations whose clients feel barriers to enjoying live music.”

This is all good but somewhat overwhelming. Now Nematallah is working on growing the roster of musicians who can perform in Xenia shows.

Why is she doing this?

“I think its a great project.When I get the feedback from the parents, the things they say to me, how can you not do it? I think if you are doing it right, it fulfills the artistic imperative.

After the Cecilia String Quartet announced its break up, it was a sad time, she says.

“It’s been an incredible experience. The girls are like my sisters, but sometimes you just can’t stop change. You want people to grow.”

It’s not like they will be that far away as some of the members of Cecilia will continue to do Xenia concerts in the future.

Xenia: Beyond Words — The Music of Mendelssohn
With the Cecilia String Quartet
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Jan. 20 at 11 a.m.
Free: Interested parties should register online at

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.