By Jake Grove —— Photography by Ashley Jones
Music is more than a major for performing arts student Christian Walker. It has become a metaphor for the challenges he’s faced — and an artful method for finding his path.
Christian Walker, a sophomore performing arts major, walks into a small office at Clemson’s Brooks Center for the Performing Arts and towers over two large jet-black Steinway pianos that sit in the center of the room. At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Christian purposefully puts down his backpack, sits on the left piano bench and barely says a word as he adjusts his feet to the pedals and his fingers to the keys.
Every Thursday afternoon, Christian comes here to work on different piano pieces with Linda Li-Bleuel, professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts. The two chat very briefly about the week before and how much progress Christian has made on the previously assigned pieces. But the answer to her questions usually comes not in words but in musical notes.
“Do you need your music?” Li-Bleuel asks.
“No, no, no. I think I’ve got it,” is Christian’s quick reply.
And when he says he’s got it, boy does he. Because by the time Li-Bleuel can call up the sheet music for Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu” on her iPad, Christian has hit the opening note hard and commanded the room’s attention. Then it’s on to a flurry of minors and majors, sharps and flats that fly in a blur from one end of the piano to the other. Mistakes are made and “sorry” is blurted out a couple of times before starting over, but with each key that Christian strikes, the confidence in his art and his knowledge of the piece grows.
By the way, he was introduced to this masterpiece by Chopin a little less than a month ago.
Throughout it all — every swooping elbow and bouncing finger — Christian is taking in more and more information. He’s listening for the key and avoiding missteps. He’s absorbing feedback from Li-Bleuel and responding to it in real time. He’s slowing down where needed and speeding up when it feels right, all the while searching for that sweet spot where every bit of practice comes to fruition and his expression, however slight, shows that he does, indeed, “got it.”
Li-Bleuel stops him from time to time and apologizes for “breaking the mood.” She asks him to lift his arm a little more and press the keys a little softer in some places. She has to remind him to keep from speeding up in some sections and keep things loose in others. It’s a part of the process, after all.
A process that, honestly, not many people who knew Christian even a decade before would have thought possible.
His gift for the piano is not the only thing that makes him different from many of his peers: Part of what makes Christian, Christian is that he is neurodivergent. He was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
A MOTHER’S LOVE
The first time Terra Walker, Christian’s mother, heard that her son had autism, the moment felt like a “gut punch.”
“All I could think at the time was that my son was not going to have the life that I wanted for him,” she says. “And I had to grieve in that brief moment, all at once, and then say, ‘Alright, what am I going to do next?’”
Neurodivergent people have brain differences that affect how their brain works. That means they have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don’t have those differences, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Walker has raised Christian as a single mother his entire life. An accomplished and lifelong educator in Atlanta, she ran through all the terrifying and triumphant possibilities of what kind of life her son might have.
But the bad stuff was easier to imagine.
Some of the experts she sought out, she says, suggested that Christian might never go to school, wouldn’t have friends and would eventually be institutionalized. For a young mother trying to simply navigate the diagnosis of autism after more than a year of questions, that kind of doomsday naysaying could have forced her to retreat. Instead, she became a woman of action, research and faith in the belief that she and her son would live their best lives.
“I refused to believe for a second that he wouldn’t have some kind of future,” Walker says. “Now, I didn’t know what that future might be, but I was determined to support him and guide him to gaining his independence.”
Schools were hard to find and even harder to pay for on a teacher’s salary. Christian got good grades and never had behavioral issues, and — but for his size — you might barely know he was in the room with you. He was a quiet kid who observed and reacted with discipline and intentionality. But he also needed extra support from schools and teachers and therapists and counselors.
Walker made it her mission to ensure he had all of that and more. She consistently collaborated with Christian’s school to make sure he was engaged and challenged. She encouraged him when he wanted to join the high school band as a percussionist and cheered him on at sporting events and competitions. She watched him make a leap between 10th and 11th grade in maturity and responsibility, and that was the moment she realized that all the support and advocacy she had provided for 16 years had made college less of a dream and more of a foregone conclusion.
“All of a sudden, I have to start thinking about school and paying for school and letting him go to school,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s what he wanted to do and what he needed to do.”
A talented musician with near-perfect pitch and an affinity for the piano and percussion instruments, Christian was set to audition for multiple schools around the Southeast, including Clemson. Walker went with Christian on tours, researched schools with programs specifically for students with autism, and cross-referenced those with places that she could get to easily from her Atlanta-area home.
It was after his visit to South Carolina’s Upstate that Christian had one thing to say: “I gotta go to Clemson.”
A MEETING OF LIKE MINDS
Li-Bleuel didn’t know for a fact that Christian was neurodivergent when she met him on the tour that convinced him to go to Clemson. But she wondered. As the mother of a college-aged student with a mild form of autism, Li-Bleuel said she noticed a few tell-tale mannerisms, but it wasn’t until Christian’s mother brought up Clemson’s Spectrum Program that it became clear.
“When she mentioned the Spectrum Program and I said, ‘Oh, you know Tom Beeson?’ that’s when things became relaxed,” Li-Bleuel recalls. Beeson serves as coordinator of the Clemson program, which provides individualized services beyond standard accommodations for students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
“I explained how my daughter talked to him as well and that the program was why she applied to Clemson. From there on, we had a kind of connection.”
With any student, neurodivergent or not, connection to a college is key, Li-Bleuel says. They need to feel encouraged, challenged, enthusiastic and comfortable.
Like any student-instructor relationship, it started slowly. Li-Bleuel says she had to draw on her own experience with her daughter to gain Christian’s trust and to find things that would motivate him to do his best and then reach beyond that. And because his best often has such a high bar, there has been plenty of trial and error since he started with her in 2022.
Christian is a classical musician but also a jazz musician. He loves the masterpieces but is just as comfortable playing Michael Jackson’s hits. If it has anything to do with music, he will give it a try. But he also knows if he doesn’t like something.
“The trick has been finding the right repertoire,” Li-Bleuel says. “The first piece I gave him was Gershwin because it’s a mix of jazz and classical. I thought he would love it. But I could tell immediately that it wasn’t his cup of tea. He did very well on one of the Gershwin pieces, but he wasn’t as enthusiastic on the other two pieces from the same set.”
Then, she introduced Christian to Chopin and pieces like the “Toccata” by Khachaturian. It was almost immediate, she recalls. He connects with the style, the tempo and the execution. And that, she explains, is so important to a young musician.
In Christian’s first 2 1/2 semesters at Clemson, he has grown as a musician and a performer. He brings confidence to each performance he tackles, whether it’s for a small jury or a packed house. He plays with knowledge and a willingness to learn. He is ready to try things he believes he won’t like while embracing those genres that make his eyes light up and his fingers dance along the keys. His adaptability is one of many things that Li-Bleuel knows will make his time at Clemson and his career after Clemson a success.
“The thing about Clemson’s music program is that it encourages students to find where they want to be,” Li-Bleuel says. “Christian is doing all these different things individually and as part of the symphony. I’m not sure what he’s going to do, but I know it will be extraordinary.”
IN HIS OWN NOTES
Christian has explored more than he expected since he first visited Clemson’s campus in 2021. Normally reserved and even a bit tentative when it comes to social interactions, he found out pretty quickly that a university setting has a lot to offer someone like him.
One of the first things he did was inquire about joining the percussion section in the Clemson Symphonic Band. Though his academic focus is on the piano, diversifying his musical experiences is key to his enjoyment and long-term goals. He had the opportunity to talk with Mark Spede, director of bands at Clemson, who is a conductor for the Symphonic Band as well as director of the Tiger Band on campus. It was Spede, Christian says, who encouraged him to grow his knowledge and skills to truly understand what he wanted to do with his degree and his talents.
That led Christian to explore the Clemson Orchestra, Clemson’s Jazz Ensemble and even nonmusical clubs like the Catholic Student Association, all things he might not have pursued prior to coming to Clemson.
“Clemson offers so much, and I want to see everything that is out there for me,” Christian says. “I can find inspiration everywhere, and that is nice because it can be hard for me to build on ideas all by myself.”
He says he finds that inspiration through instructors and mentors like Li-Bleuel and Spede but also in music studios where he writes his original music, recreates songs from soundtracks or lays down his own beats to get the creative juices flowing.
But he feels most at home in front of a piano. That much is obvious when you see him close his eyes and seemingly picture thousands upon thousands of notes running through his mind. Music and his mother have been two constants throughout his entire life. His mom says he found music any way he could get it from age 3. Sometimes, that meant making instruments out of anything he could find in the house. But it also meant seeking music out at church services, family gatherings and school functions. If there is an opportunity to play, he will take it. And if there is an opportunity to experience something new in music, he will try it out.
Christian plans to take that passion and work toward sharing it with others. He hopes to become a music educator and bring music to communities that desperately need that inspiration. He would also like to become a composer for video games and movies.
For now, what he knows for certain is that he will continue to get better, hone his craft and not take for granted the talent and passion he has for all music at this moment. He’s growing his connections, building his repertoire and gaining a level of independence that neither he nor his family could have imagined just a decade and a half ago.
“With music, the possibilities are literally endless,” Christian says. “Music is everywhere.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Back in his class with Li-Bleuel, Christian is struggling a bit with a new piece: Liszt’s “Funérailles.” He’s only had the music for a couple of weeks, and he’s correcting himself and getting instruction from his teacher through mimicry, hand motions and verbal cues that are hard to hear over the notes that ebb and flow through the air.
With each piece of advice and every suggestion, however, Christian gets a little better. Frustration happens but is brought back to a centered place with words like “Keep it loose” or “Don’t speed up.” And then, just as suddenly as a previously missed note, the piece starts to flow together. Key by key, note by note, the movement of his hands becomes more fluid, and the entirety of the composition comes more into focus. Christian starts using his entire arm to play and seems more relaxed than when he started.
This music — all music — is, for Christian, like the breath that fills other people’s lungs, invisible but life-sustaining. Each new note is like a new experience; woven together as a song, he’s doing more than mastering his art. It is a chance to learn more about himself and what he’s capable of.