Charles Joseph Smith sat at the piano in Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University and began to play. It was the first time he’d played there in many years, but he did so with such comfort and ease that it would be reasonable to think otherwise.
A Chicago native, Smith knew from an early age he wanted to be a musician. With an uncanny ability for memory retention, memorizing music was a natural skill he wanted to nurture.
“I have to do [what I call] the Henner method,” Smith said, in reference to actress Marilu Henner, know for a rare super-memory condition called hyperthymesia. Smith focuses intently on his long-term memory when playing.
As a young man growing up with autism in the early 1990s, Smith did not know which school would be right for him and whether his condition would be supported.
“I didn’t even know if they had an autism program here [at Roosevelt]; they did not yet,” Smith said. “I had to adjust to my strengths and my challenges.”
Determined to work hard, after his acceptance into the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) — then the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University — Smith practiced nearly non-stop.
“I did all of the practicing that I could,” Smith said. “I decided I would not let it overwhelm me.”
Smith received plenty of help from his instructors, who showed him new techniques to improve his natural musical talents.
“[The professor’s] focus was on relaxing the wrists, the arms. I think it was taken from the Alexander technique,” said Smith, referring to the method developed by Australian actor F.M. Alexander that works to improve the movement, balance and coordination in performers. “I didn’t even know about that, I was just a guy who liked to play [piano].”
According to Smith, Roosevelt faculty and his fellow students were supportive of his personal goals.
“You can’t fight autism alone, you need somebody who’s going to advocate for you from the start of your first semester all the way to graduation,” Smith said. “The type of social justice related to autism needs is labeling issues and knowing how to label them correctly so they do not get put down and are more appreciated.”
Smith earned his Bachelor of Music in Piano from Roosevelt in 1994 and went on to earn a Master of Music and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano from the University of Illinois.
He has released more than 500 compositions throughout his career, most recently reinterpretations of pieces by Chopin and Liszt, as well as an arrangement of Christmas carols on CD in 2011.
In addition to playing music, Smith enjoys contemporary and avant-garde dance.
Though many consider autism an insurmountable disability, Smith is proof that isn’t the case.
“You cannot cure autism and sometimes people need to accept that they have it,” Smith said. “They can’t change it, but they can fight back.”
Smith has upcoming performances in the Chicago area at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 15 at 3 p.m.; Christ Church of Highland Park on April 23 at 2 p.m.; Life Builders Inc. on April 30 at 3 p.m.; and at the Second Presbyterian Church, May 13 at 3 p.m. as part of the Autism Speaks Walk Event near Soldier Field.