Jaap Van Zweden, New York Philharmonic Conductor, Used Music To Reach His Autistic Son

Mike CappollaGetty Images

Jaap Van Zweden is one of the finest conductors in the world. Raised by a poor family in Amsterdam (his mother was a hairdresser and his father a piano teacher), Van Zweden showed a love for the violin from an early age. By eight he was performing, and as a teenager, he won a national competition and a full scholarship to Juilliard. At only 19 years old, the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited him to return home and assume the prestigious role of first violinist. He remained the finest violinist in Amsterdam for twenty years.

It was none other than Leonard Bernstein who got Van Zweden into conducting. Bernstein allowed Van Zweden to conduct during a rehearsal of Mahler’s First Symphony so that Bernstein could sit in the hall and listen to it. Van Zweden was not a natural, but Bernstein saw potential and encouraged Van Zweden to take up the baton. So Van Zweden did. It became an obsession. And one of the finest violinists in the world worked his way up from the bottom to become one of the finest conductors in the world. Van Zweden is now the conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

Van Zweden’s love of music and bulldog attitude would serve him well with the birth of his son Benjamin, who was diagnosed with autism so severe that Van Zweden was told Benjamin should be institutionalized, according to CBS News. When he was little, Benjamin was not communicative. As a child, Benjamin was lost in an endless cycle of repetition– opening and closing a gate or rocking back and forth in a chair for hours. Then, one day the family’s love for music provided the breakthrough they needed to bring Benjamin out of his isolation.

“We would always sing him children’s songs,” Van Zweden said, “and by accident we forgot one word and he got all excited. And we thought ‘Oh, maybe he is understanding actually what we are saying.'” To draw Benjamin out further, the Van Zwedens began leaving more words out of songs. When Benjamin protested, they would tell him that they would only sing the song correctly if Benjamin would say the missing words.

Today, Benjamin speaks Dutch and is teaching himself to speak English.

Benjamin’s breakthrough led the Van Zwedens to wonder if other autistic children would benefit from learning how to speak with music, and thus began a twenty-year journey of social activism. In 1997, they started the Papageno Foundation, which offers arts and music therapy projects for children and young adults with autism. Today, the foundation operates the Papageno House, which is a residential facility that boards young adults with autism and offers them music and art projects and even has a functioning restaurant where residents can work on their culinary skills.

“What we actually wanted was not a house– which was a gated house,” Van Zweden says, “but we wanted to have a house for special children but in the middle of society, so they feel part of society.”