“Come on, Joshua, stop looking down! The girls want to see your face,” teases music teacher Edwin Nathaniel.
Guitarist Joshua Daniel Johnson smiles and shifts his gaze upwards momentarily, giving enough time for the photographer to take some shots.
The 25-year-old is jamming with his all-male quartet, and they’re belting out Chuck Berry’s Go Johnny Go at a studio in the Petaling Jaya-based Music Mart school in Selangor, run by Nathaniel.
In one corner of the room, Sharon Vyner is beaming with pride, seeing how her only child Johnson, is holding his own as band leader of Zimi J.
They are not your ordinary band, as its members have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Ilyas Faisal Wong, 23, Maxx Lim, 18, Wan Zareef Nuqman, 21, and Johnson are busy practising for an upcoming paid gig when suddenly, Johnson hollers frantically, “Stop! Stop!”
Surprised, we all pause, wondering what has triggered this outburst. He puts his hand into his pants pocket to bring out a handkerchief. “My sweat is coming down,” he says in a serious tone, dabbing his forehead.
Relief washes over us, and we smile. “Let’s take it again from this second verse. One, two, three, four!” commands Johnson, and the boys continue rehearsing.
Johnson was diagnosed with ASD at age four and only started speaking in full sentences at nine.
But he was already humming, singing and strumming an air guitar at the age of three.
“No kindergarten or music teacher would accept him because he was extremely hyper.
“A friend of mine owned a kindergarten and I made a pact to work for her for free if she would take Joshua. She agreed.
“I also bought him a guitar at 10 and he learnt it himself. It wasn’t until later that I sent him to Edwin for drum lessons, and was told Joshua was gifted,” shares Vyner, the director of academic studies and training at Vyner Music Centre, a school for children and adults with ASD.
Today, Johnson can play almost any instrument. Music has since become his refuge and he also sings, composes and teaches.
In fact, Johnson won the Best Expression award at the Autistic Talent Gala 2017 in Hong Kong.
“And the mother is tone deaf!” declares Vyner, laughing.
Under Nathaniel’s guidance, Zimi J was formed three years ago, and the boys are slowly carving a name for themselves as a rock-and-roll outfit.
Percussionist Nathaniel, who has a passion for teaching special children, uses rhythm as a therapeutic tool, and believes music is not only about hitting the right notes or perfecting the lyrics.
“It flows right from your heart. Everything that comes from the heart is beautiful.
“All these ‘special’ children ... when they are with music, they are very calm and exhibit a normal spectrum.
“Some don’t like certain sounds and will cover their ears in agony. Others don’t like to be touched, so I sense their reaction first before deciding what approach to use,” says Nathaniel.
For example, Johnson hates Latin American music, especially salsa. He had a meltdown when he was 15, and because this particular genre of music was playing in the background at that time, he associates salsa with that episode.
“He’s very into rock and I’m trying to break him out of that genre,” reveals Nathaniel, who founded the Rise (rhythm, interaction, special, enablers) programme as an alternative method to teach children about focused listening, discipline, patience and teamwork.
He adds, “I always get Joshua to lead the band and only come in to fine tune things. There are also sessions where I give the opportunity for others to lead.
"They have shown tremendous improvement in their self-esteem, confidence and music. I’ve seen them develop from timid young boys to talented musicians.
"Initially these kids would climb all over me until the parents told me to be more authoritative. During drum circle sessions (a group of people playing hand-drums and percussion in a circle), some will even charge at you! But, when you stand your ground, they listen.
"I start teaching them drums first because it is easy to pick up and good for their co-ordination skills. It’s not true that drums or percussion are too loud for them.”
The four members of the band met at a private school where Nathaniel used to teach and have established a close bond since.
All are musically inclined, play more than one instrument and have passed different grades of exams conducted by Rockschool, a leading exam board in rock and pop music in Britain.
When they’re not practising, the boys are in Vyner’s school, teaching other kids with ASD music or learning living skills such as cooking and baking.
Of the lot, Vyner says Ilyas and Wan Zareef have the most patience. She says, “We have kids from four to 26 years of age and the school is set up in a house to acclimatise them to a home setting.
“A new environment forces them out of their comfort zone and stimulates them. For the younger ones, the school offers an early intervention programme, and for the older ones, they learn social interaction and other skills so that we can get job placements for them.
“These children don’t know how to lie and cannot hide their feelings.”
Johnson is pretty eloquent and expresses himself well, though he hardly makes eye contact.
Asked what his favourite genre of music is, he rattles off, “I like heavy metal, album-oriented rock, glam metal – my favourite band is Swedish rock band, Europe.”
He plans to form a new band in 2021, using some of the existing Zimi J members.
Looking at the floor, he says, “I’ll be the lead singer. I can’t hit the high notes yet so I’m going to train for the next two years.
“I used to have stage fright before, but I’m better now. In two years, I’ll be ready. My ambition is to be a guitarist and composer.”
So far, Johnson has written five songs, mostly about love. “It’s true, the theme is about love, but I don’t want people to be sick of my love songs so I might sing other people’s songs.
“If possible, I also want to be an actor on (British soap opera) Coronation Street, but I’m waiting for my mother to take me for an audition,” he says, citing football and badminton as his other loves.
To make things easier, Johnson painstakingly rewrites all music notes using regular letters, so that his band mates know when to cue their instruments in.
He can detect wrong notes and other mistakes at lightning speed.
Ilyas considers himself a “super professional teacher” at Vyner’s school. If a child is naughty, refuses to learn or throws a tantrum, Ilyas gently coaxes him or her.
“I like to be nice and normal to people, so I will tell the child, ‘Please don’t be like that.’
“Then I proceed to teach them the C chord on the piano,” says the diehard fan of Cantopop songs, especially ones sung by his favourite artiste, Jacky Cheung.
Last year, his parents took him to Hong Kong to watch Cheung live in concert. Ilyas was over the moon.
“It was wonderful to meet my idol and I was so inspired. Every Friday night, I train my voice in my room.
“I want to be able to sing like him,” says Ilyas, who aspires to be a music teacher.
We request that he sings us a Cheung number and he obliges. With his deep baritone voice,
Ilyas is lost in his own world as he passionately renders a Cantonese song in almost perfect pitch. We applaud and he smiles shyly. He quickly says, “Thank you, but I still have to work on my voice.”
“You want to be a music teacher?” I ask.
“Precisely!” Ilyas answers (that’s his favourite word). “I want to be a good one.”
Nathaniel, who also teaches music at the Selangor and Federal Territory Association for the Mentally Handicapped (SAMH), sometimes brings his special needs music students to accompany him in drum circle sessions there.
He is currently training Wan Zareef to become a music teacher. We get a “preview” of his leadership and teaching skills at SAMH.
With a stick in one hand, Wan Zareef commands attention. All eyes are on him as he raises the stick.
He strikes the cowbell and the hall erupts with rhythms.
The young man’s pleasant demeanour and soft-spoken way make him a hit with SAMH members.
They look, listen and follow his instructions to a tee. Even the carers and other parents are full of praise for him.
He never gets angry and is always smiling. “I started teaching here last year and enjoy it very much. It’s a lot of fun because they listen to me.
“I eventually want to become a musician (bassist) and open a music school for all kinds of people,” says the eldest of three siblings.
He loves cooking and baking, and lights up when talking about his favourite recipe. “I like making nasi goreng Thai for my family. We don’t have a maid so I do everything myself,” says Wan Zareef.
For the next few days, however, cooking is furthest from his mind. He turns 21 on April 13 and is busy organising a party for 50 guests – single-handedly.
Entertainment will be provided by Zimi J, of course.