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Organist with autism speaks through his music

Saturday, February 11, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:54 p.m. CST, Monday, February 20, 2012

ST. LOUIS — David Kuhns has trouble finding words; he hesitates as he speaks. His attention span is short, his gaze drifts and he tends to wander away from the conversations of others after a few minutes.

Put him on an organ bench, though, and Kuhns, 38, is completely focused and at home. His tongue may have problems with words, but his hands are adept on a keyboard. Kuhns has autism, and music is how he best expresses himself.

Settling in at the organ Tuesday afternoon, he announced, "This is by Massenet. It was written for violin. Not all violin music works on the organ, but this does," and he launched into a note-perfect reading of the Meditation from "Thais."

Autism, a developmental disorder affecting the part of the brain that deals with communication and social abilities, appears in the first three years of life and afflicts more boys than girls.People with autism tend to focus on a narrow band of interests and to have problems in social situations.

In 1973, when Kuhns was born, few people had heard of autism.

"I was suspecting there was something wrong, I guess, by the time he was 2, but I didn't know it was autism," said his mother, Phyllis Kuhns, 77. "He started out talking at the usual age, saying 'mama' and 'dada,' and then he stopped.

"He would be very animated, and then he'd get this faraway look on his face, like he wasn't all there, like he was somewhere else mentally," she added. With no diagnosis, he was shifted around to different schools in the Special School District. "I think he was about 8 when they finally decided (autism) might be it."

Kuhns always responded to music, though. He would imitate the sounds on records, and, his mother said, "His timing was perfect." She owned and played an electric organ and thought that David might do well with it, too.

That he did. At 10, when his legs were long enough to reach the pedals, he began studying with a teacher who came to the house. A decade later, he was ready for more challenges. Phyllis Kuhns was put in touch with William S. "Pat" Partridge, music director at Christ Church Cathedral. Partridge agreed to give him a trial lesson, then to teach him for six months, "and we'll see how it goes." That was 18 years ago.

"In the beginning," Partridge said, "I was really dubious. Then I realized he had a deep, innate musical talent and that he really loved it. David has always practiced diligently. He has never come to a lesson in all these years without being prepared."

In years past, he often practiced eight hours a day on a classical-style Rogers organ in the family's living room.

Musical phrasing comes easily to him; he feels the rise and fall of the notes.

"I realized that anything that we talked about, he remembered," Partridge said. "When he came back the next week, it would all be there. He absorbed everything really quickly; he has an amazing sense of pitch and metronome markings."

Kuhns, who drives a Ford Focus with license plates that read "R-GANIST," played a big, cheerful number called "Celebration" by Lani Smith and then wandered back into the nave to chat.

Kuhns and his mother are active at their church, St. Lucas United Church of Christ, in south St. Louis County.

"My mother told me I should play for God," he said.

In 1994, he got a part-time job playing voluntaries, hymns and service music at the Saturday evening service.

St. Lucas music director Lana Richard called him "very responsible, a sweet, gentle young man. David's an asset here."

Because people with autism need routine and certainty, Kuhns sticks to solo work — choirs and soloists are notoriously unpredictable.

"Once he starts, you can't stop him," Richard observed. "Things have to be just a certain way with him."

Kuhns taught himself to read, is a gifted calligrapher and did well with a computer data entry class (he placed first in a statewide competition), but it's the organ that holds his interest. Asked what makes it so special, he considered, and replied, "It could be a combination of sounds." His favorite stops? "It could be trumpet or flutes." How does it feel to play? "Uplifting. Rejuvenated. Relaxing."

He plans his church music four weeks out; his favorite composers are Bach, Beethoven and Handel. Although he attends a contemporary service at St. Lucas and serves as an usher, he restricts his playing to the classical side. Partridge currently has him working on modern English pieces by William Matthias and Kenneth Leighton.

Once he determined that the interview was over, Kuhns returned to the organ bench. "I'm going to play something special," he announced, and began an arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which began with the plaintive notes of taps. The sound built and swelled and filled the church.

"David has his limitations," Partridge said. "But his limitations are not musical."


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