‘Music is the language he uses’: Meet Joshua German, an award-winning pianist with autism

Ms Parvinderjeet Kaur
The moment he hears a song he enjoys on YouTube or television, Mr Joshua German is at the piano, replicating it perfectly from memory.

SINGAPORE — Speak to 24-year-old Joshua German and most will find him a man of few words.

His eloquence is reserved for the piano, for when he expresses himself through Beethoven and Ben E King. When his fingers start dancing on the ebony and ivory, it seems as though the chain of songs that emerge will never end — from the Theme from New York, New York to Rhapsody in Blue.

The moment he hears a song he enjoys on YouTube or television, Mr German is at the piano, replicating it perfectly from memory. Within a few hours of experimentation, the Singaporean can play the whole piece by heart.

His musical affinity is surprising given his circumstances, said his grandmother, Mdm Carol Ong.

Mr German, a keen jazz and classical pianist, is diagnosed with autism, a condition that makes it difficult for him to communicate with others, among other symptoms. It also impairs his motor skills, causing his hands and fingers to be stiff.

“He’s very poor with his words. He does not form them easily and he can’t read very well,” Mdm Ong said.

“Many people remember songs by thinking of the lyrics. He remembers songs through the tunes. Music is the language he uses.”

But he has overcome these challenges to win one of the 2019 Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (UBS Promise), which celebrated talented or skilled people with various disabilities.

The awards are returning this year, and nominations are open until March 31.

“I felt happy and proud,” Mr German said as he recalled receiving the award, which he was nominated for by Very Special Arts Singapore, a local charity organisation that gives opportunities to people with disabilities to be involved in the arts.

Mdm Ong, who is also his primary caregiver, said: “It has made him more confident in himself, and more people are asking him to play for them now.”

So far, he has clinched invites to perform at various events and private functions, including at Uniqlo’s Orchard Central flagship store and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Chinatown.

Mr German is rarely paid for these events but he and Mdm Ong do not mind.

“I want to let him enjoy what he loves, and he loves his music,” his grandmother said.

He played with toy pianos at the age of five but it was only when he was 15 that he started piano lessons.

In December last year, Mr German successfully auditioned for and received his one-year busking licence. While he has yet to use it, Mdm Ong plans to take him to Paya Lebar Square for his first attempt at a street performance.

“I have to see how he manages and if he behaves himself appropriately. Can he discipline himself? Can he take care of his own money?” she said.

Mdm Ong hopes that busking can be a source of income for her grandson and pave the way for paid gigs at cafes and weddings.

Most recently, Mr German has tried his hand at writing his own songs. His first composition is titled “Queendom”.

Mr German’s condition makes it particularly challenging for him to find a regular job.

“He wants to work. I told him that busking is a career he can pursue,” Mdm Ong said.