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Alum makes music with others on Autism spectrum, serves as role model

Justin Capozzoli

Written by: Nathan Leakway '24

Justin Capozzoli ‘16 can’t remember a time when music wasn’t an integral part of his life. He memorized songs from the radio or from record albums—songs like “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” by Michael Jackson and “The Kiss” by Faith Hill—before he was even aware of the industry and the musicians that produced them. “I didn't know the artists’ names or titles at the time. It’s hard to pinpoint what initially excited me about music. My interest seems to have always existed.”

As a young music fan, Capozzoli largely gravitated toward female pop vocalists—artists like Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink. “Age eight seems to be the crucial year in determining music to be a life focus,” he says. “That’s when I discovered Avril Lavigne and started writing my own songs. Since then, I could always see myself in the role of solo artist accompanied by whoever was up to the job.” He first stepped on stage in front of a live audience at age nine, when he performed in a talent show hosted by his elementary school.

Capozzoli was born in Poland and spent the first 11 months of his life in an orphanage there. Just before his first birthday, he was adopted by a family from the North Hills suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, where he still lives. He credits the environment he grew up in with helping him “develop resilience, confidence, discipline, and a realistic sense of self.”

That sense of self became a lot clearer at age 17, when Capozzoli was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. “My diagnosis was late…halfway through my senior year of high school,” he says. “It was a great relief because it explained my preferences and behavioral patterns.” From a young age, he possessed the ability to maintain “an unnaturally intense focus” that is often exhibited by individuals with Asperger’s. For Capozzoli, that intensity was and is directed toward music.

While his family has remained supportive of his pursuit of music throughout his life—"I couldn’t have asked for better parents,” he says—when Capozzoli initially told them that he dreamed of being a pop performer, his parents suggested he formulate a back-up plan.

His parents’ advice led Capozzoli to see music, something he had been pursuing merely as a hobby, in a new light. “I was already enjoying doing the tech side of music for my own ends,” he says. “That path gave me a wider range of applicable jobs.”

Capozzoli applied to two schools, including York College, but ultimately felt ill-equipped to make the decision. “My parents both [went to] trade schools, and I’m their eldest child, so anything college-related was new to all three of us.” He also believed he lacked local musical role models who could offer him a realistic path forward. “Long story short,” he says, “I went in blind, was passive, didn’t advocate for myself.”

Still, Capozzoli looks back on his time at York College fondly. “Most of what I remember are snapshots, like traveling across campus via bicycle regardless of the weather,” or “consistently shocking the baristas by ordering a frozen coffee…when the outside temperature was single digits.” His most significant memories, however, are “not particular events, rather feelings and sensory inputs; the unique scent of the pear trees in bloom, the peace of mind that your primary needs would always be met, and the dignity that you were living with a higher purpose.”

Capozzoli graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Music (with a focus in Music Industry and Recording Technology) and returned to the Pittsburgh area. In late 2017, his mother was driving down PA State Route 8 when she saw a sign advertising Band Together Pittsburgh (BTP) with the tagline, “Creating music with people on the autism spectrum.” Capozzoli and his family reached out and, after a few introductions, were invited to one of BTP’s monthly open mic events in January 2018. 

Band Together Pittsburgh is a nonprofit collective that hosts events throughout Allegheny County. The group’s mission, according to its website, is to “use music as an instrument for change” and to provide “innovative programming, experiences, and vocational opportunities to enhance the lives of those on the autism spectrum.”

Capozzoli kept returning month after month to perform at the open mic events and to enjoy the performances as an audience member. Still, he knew he wanted to become more involved. The technical knowledge he amassed as a student at York College came in handy. “I am BTP’s sound tech for almost every event we host,” he says. “I also head our ‘Learn How to DJ’ program, where participants experience on-the-job training in how to DJ.”

Eventually, Capozzoli was asked to become a member of BTP’s Board of Directors, a position he “graciously accepted.” The board comprises local musicians, venue owners, and individuals whose lives have been touched by autism in some way. These are unpaid positions. “We do what we do because we like what we do, and we like what we see coming from it,” says Capozzoli.

The group annually organizes the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival, which serves as BTP’s major fundraiser and offers members an opportunity to perform in front of a large audience. Last year, BTP became the chief organizer of “A Very Yinzer Christmas,” a “feel-good rocking holiday concert” that features artists like Joe Grushecky, Norman Nardini, and The Skyliners.

It’s clear that being plugged into the local music community in Pittsburgh has been rewarding for Capozzoli, offering him a chance to be the local role model that he believes was missing from his life when he was younger. And his experience with Band Together Pittsburgh has further cemented what he always believed was true: that local music culture is important and shouldn’t be overlooked. “There is a diamond mine of talent on the local level,” he says.

He encourages those who are hoping to create a life centered around music to reach out to these people in order to get started. “If you have the gear and the environment, feel free to ask if they’d hire you to record them. Your asking may be what convinces them to record, and both of you get something to add to your portfolios,” he says. “You’re in an extremely social field. Who you know and word-of-mouth recommendations carry weight. Hands-on experience is invaluable.”