Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination,
and life to everything – Plato
John Vento and Ron “Moondog” Esser always knew that music had power, but they didn’t know how much until they started Band Together Pittsburgh in 2016. Vento is a father of three, a successful Pittsburgh businessman, and the frontman for the high-energy Nied’s Hotel Band. Ron owns Moondog’s and the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox, and he produced the Pittsburgh Blues Festival for more than 20 years.
“John was playing at Moondog’s, and one of the band members was on the autism spectrum, and as someone who has raised a son, James, for 21 years who is on the spectrum, John and I thought we should do more to bring music to the lives of others with autism,” said Esser. “And Band Together Pittsburgh was born.”
The nonprofit’s mission is to provide innovative programming, experiences, and vocational opportunities to enhance the lives of those on the autism spectrum. BTP uses music to inspire and enrich the lives of those on the autism spectrum, enabling them to integrate with family, friends, and society.
BTP regularly hosts Autism Friendly Open Mic nights at Moondog’s Clubhouse and various other venues throughout the area. Everyone is welcome to come and have fun, regardless of musical experience. BTP provides mics, keyboards, guitars, amps, and percussion instruments for anyone who wants to make music and friends.
And for those who don’t want to take the stage, BTP provides opportunities for those who would like to set up and operate the sound equipment as well as training as professional DJs and securing them gigs at local events. BTP also creates opportunities for musicians to show off their talents at the Pittsburgh Blues & Roots Festival and at their Featured Artists Concerts.
“Autism is not the boogey man that people think it is,” said Esser. “Those on the spectrum don’t judge; they see into your soul. My son works with me every day, and he’s a joy.”
“The miracles have come one after another since we’ve started Band Together Pittsburgh.
A woman in Walmart in tears stopped me to thank me for what the program has done for her son,” said Esser. “Before coming to BTP, she told me, he’d just sit in his room.”
BTP has transformed many other lives for those with autism. “We’ve had a musician go on to study online at the Berkley School, making straight A’s. It has enabled people to earn real money doing something they love. And to see a blind girl on the spectrum take the stage and sing a song, is miraculous,” said Esser.
But more than musical opportunities BTP has provided something most on the autism spectrum lack and that is a social circle.
John Wessel of Avalon has a son Jack, 32, who is on the spectrum. Jack went to Northgate High School where he was popular and well-treated by his classmates, but he lacked one thing-he had no friends just to hang out with.
“His mom, Gretchen, heard about this new program, BTP, and Jack who plays the keyboard went to the Open Mic, and he played a song or two.” said Wessel. “BTP has opened a whole world to Jack.
In addition to playing at the Open Mic nights, he practices with in David Granati’s studio. He also is an artist and author.”
At the Blues Fest, Jack set up a table where he sold his paintings and drawings, and through networking through BTP, Jack was able to author and publish two children’s books, Carol and Zane, and Farmer Plinket’s Pumpkin Farm, both of which are available on Amazon.”
Perhaps more important is that now Jack has friends. “He goes bowling and miniature golfing with people he’s met through BTP,” said Wessel who volunteers with BPT and encourages others to give BPT a try.
Esser also encourages others to give BTP a go. “You don’t even have to play an instrument,” said Esser. “My son works the soundboard. Come and take a chance. We’re here for kids and adults with autism. You never know until you try it,” said Esser.
For more information on BTP or to volunteer or donate, visit the website: bandtogetherpgh.org
By Janice Lane Palko