Music defines him

 In News, Partners Magazine
Autism used to shape Ian Engelsman’s interactions with others; now music is this drummer’s guiding force while he’s at Clark.

First came the pots and pans. A 3-year-old Ian Engelsman would pull them out of the kitchen cupboard, bang and clang them for about half an hour several times a day. A couple years later, he turned to Ovaltine cans and paper plates that he wrapped in aluminum foil. He was also good at drumming on the back of the car seat to the rock music his father cranked up while driving.

“They were the only ways I could calm down,” said Engelsman, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was three. Finally, it all made sense to his parents, Claudia and David: their toddler’s angry outbursts and running all around; the incessant rocking back and forth, one of many self-stimulating behaviors, called stimming, in people with autism. From age 1 to 5, Engelsman didn’t make eye contact or speak, and once he got a little older, it was only about 20 words.

Ian Engelsman has played drums since he was a child.

Ian Engelsman as a child when his passion for drums began. Photo by the Engelsman family

Now he’s finishing up his associate degree in music at Clark College, with plans to apply to four-year universities around the country, majoring in music.

As a percussionist, a variety of drums—snare, bass, tom-tom and timpani—join cymbals, bells, marimba and xylophone in the hands of Engelsman, who now plays in Clark’s orchestra, concert band and jazz band. Like other music majors at Clark, he is also in the Concert Choir and attends classes in music theory, ear training and music appreciation and history.

Doug Harris, Clark’s director of bands, said, “When I first met Ian, all I saw was a really eager student. He’s very energetic, hungry and a pleasure to work with. He wants to be really good, and that gives him a leg up. He genuinely enjoys working hard and understands the grind it takes to get to certain levels. And he has a lot of innate musicality and understands a lot about music.”

Professor Don Appert, director of the orchestra, sees Engelsman as “a musician who is a percussionist. There’s a real distinction, a whole greater depth that goes with that than most people realize. He’s got a musician’s ear, intellect and heart.”

Music also gives back to Engelsman: “Practicing or playing along to music, you can just really let yourself go and get all that negative energy out of you. You just want to let it out. You want to say something. And you don’t even need to be autistic,” he explained.

The first instrument he ever touched, at age 3, was the djembe, a drum from West Africa that a man played at a therapy center for children with special needs, which Engelsman went to regularly. Later, when he started drumming on Ovaltine cans, “we could see that he had rhythm and was musically inclined,” said his mother, who has always enjoyed playing guitar. She and her husband bought their 6-year-old a Fisher-Price drum set, to which he attached his homemade percussion instruments and performed before an audience of teddy bears. When he was 9 years old, Engelsman received a Ludwig drum set for Christmas.

His mother implored his elementary school to let him into its regular music classes, after which he joined the band. She searched for private drum lessons, only to be told no because of his autism. Not so with Musical Beginnings, now called Vancouver Music Academy, whose teachers were impressed that Engelsman could listen to a beat and immediately play it. A new young man began to emerge, one with focus and greater confidence, and who talked more easily. A few months in, Engelsman gave his first solo recital there, having already won first place in his elementary school’s talent show.

Drumming or swimming

By now, he also had been swimming for a year. “Like music, it was something I liked to do, and it calmed me down,” he said. He took it seriously right away, and at age 12 began training with the Clark County Special Olympics Washington and won three gold medals. “I thought, ‘Wow. I can do that?’ It proved to me I could.”

Ian Engelsman is a Clark student.

Ian Engelsman is part of Clark College’s Concert Band. Photo by Jenny Shadley. Illustration by Wei Zhuang

Engelsman’s parents gave him a choice: swimming or music. They made it clear: Either one would require his total concentration and dedication if he wanted to excel at it, and that no matter what, if he was disciplined and worked hard, he’d be great.

“I don’t regret rejecting swimming, and I’d feel the same if I’d rejected music. But who’d want to get rid of music in their life? That was the ultimate sign for me,” said Engelsman.

He’s already achieved success with awards from Musical Beginnings, and other musical and academic accolades while he was in middle and high school, adding up to about 50.

By age 13, he was strumming along on his mother’s electric and acoustic guitars to Pink Floyd, Judas Priest and other 70s bands that blasted from the family stereo.

“I only listened to the stuff my mom and dad listened to; I was never exposed to the music of the day, like Justin Bieber or Adele,” said Engelsman, who now owns eight guitars he uses to play different genres of music—everything from Bach to Megadeth.

As a teen, he studied percussion at Hammersmith Rock Institute in Vancouver, where he now sometimes helps direct house-band rehearsals and plays percussion during recording sessions of the owner’s compositions.

Choosing Clark

When Engelsman started his senior year in high school, his mother began looking into universities, but quickly realized he wasn’t emotionally ready for them. “I felt that Clark would help Ian, not only with music, but also as a whole person. The campus environment is not too protected and it’s not too vulnerable. Clark was ready for him, and very welcoming,” she said. She’s also proud that he’s the recipient of the Jessie Ann Leonard Music Scholarship.

“I remember my first day here. I saw a couple of people from my high school and thought, ‘Gosh, I’m not going to be by myself, now. This is going to be amazing’,” said Ian Engelsman. For starters, the orchestra and concert band needed another percussionist.

“I was having the time of my life, at the same time getting even more focused with my music and building connections.” And his professors? “Many of them have a great sense of humor. They manage to focus on their craft and keep the professionalism here, and also provide enthusiasm.”

What stands out most for Engelsman at Clark is “the level of commitment, from myself and my friends. Regardless of what instrument you play or if you’re in the choir, we’re really focused on our set goals.”

Whether it’s playing jazz greats like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, or orchestra and concert-band composers from classical to modern, interacting with other students and having a good working relationship in an ensemble have “helped me grow as a musician and a person,” Engelsman said.

“Playing with other people keeps me ‘awake.’ You’re in the back or along the side and you’re hearing everybody, and you’re very alert to what’s going on around you and what’s going to happen at this moment or that moment. It’s not just about you; you’re not just supporting yourself, but also everyone else.”

Engelsman had the opportunity to support his peers when he participated in the annual Clark College Jazz Festival, one of the largest in Southwest Washington. The three-day, January competitive event attracts jazz ensembles from more than 60 of the region’s middle and high schools. This was Engelsman’s second time taking part in this festival.

Clark has inspired Engelsman to always move forward and find new ways to challenge himself. The college has “opened up a lot of opportunities for Ian; a springboard to where he is today. This is his last year and he’s absorbing every facet of the music program. He’s doing everything he can to not only progress with himself, but also with others, his peers,” said his father.

Music defines him

As he looks back on his life so far, Engelsman sees how far he has come. “I don’t think I’d be anywhere without music, or my parents. I’ve shown them that music has really helped me with my autism, which I still have to this day. I’m happy that I’ve managed to conquer that challenge, and do what I can to improve it and understand it on the spectrum. My music defines me now, not my autism.”

After he graduates from Clark, Engelsman said he wants space to make a wise decision about the near future. And practice.

“I’ll have a good amount of time to do that, five to six hours a day. And I want to keep learning—anything that’s thrown at my direction—to build up my music vocabulary. It’s endless. You could write a song that lasts 15 minutes or a second or a year.” Someday he’d like to perform and record professionally.

Whatever he does, “as long as I’m happy with it, and it keeps me motivated, disciplined and confident, I know that through thick and thin, I can still make it. I just have to have faith in myself and know that I’m worth it.”

Story by Claire Sykes, a Portland, Ore., writer whose articles appear in Philanthropy, Ruralite, Communication Arts, Chamber Music Magazine and many alumni publications including Western Washington University’s Window and Washington State Magazine. Visit

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Showing 2 comments
  • Karla Wenzel

    Congratulations my boy. You show us that nothing is impossible. Proud of you. I love you.

  • Ericka Wenzel

    Gracias Fundación Clark College por este hermoso artículo. Felicidades a Ian que siempre ha trabajado para ser cada vez mejor y felicidades a sus papás qu siempre lo han impulsado hacia adelante…Lo mejor está por venir 😊

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Volunteer John Allen helps a Clark student with a math problem.George Oberg, a Clark alumnus, playing a string instrument.