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Alum finds his voice through musical gift

There’s a rhythm to Brian Pihl’s life that has nothing to do with feeding sheets and pillowcases into a presser, folding them into thirds and placing them on a wire rack in a hotel laundry room.

It’s a rhythm that he easily finds as he’s searching for a song, whether it’s from Les Miserables, the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen. Singing comes as naturally to the 2004 grad as the lines from the lead in The Music Man, which he learned for summer theater and hasn’t forgotten since.

Pihl considered being a special education teacher. Being on the autism spectrum, he knew something about the challenges of learning through a different lens. But he realized teaching wasn’t for him so he pursued a degree in general studies. And he graduated on time, which was as important to him as anything else he’s done in his 33 years.

Brian Pihl sings with another actor

Brian Pihl sings with Monica Johnson during a dress rehearsal last week for “Holiday Spectacular” in Bloomington.

“It meant a lot to me,” he said, adding he’s a lifetime member of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Along the way, he sang in the University Choir and now performs with local theater and musical groups, working his way through the seasons, from the Sound of Illinois Barbershop Chorus to the Holiday Spectacular, where he’s been directed by Lori Adams, head of acting for the School of Theatre and Dance, for the past 12 years.

“I love Brian Pihl, love him,” she said. “He doesn’t have any idea the effect he has on people. You’re drawn to him and then he starts to sing and it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ He has this gift of music and voice and personality. All are a gift to the world.”

Occasionally, he’ll start singing in the laundry room of the Marriott in Uptown Normal, where he’s worked since it opened five years ago. And yes, he sings in the shower, and the car. “Singing releases a lot of tension and emotions for me, things I can’t put into words,” he said.

Ann Caldwell, director of Disability Concerns at Illinois State, has never forgotten the student who still recognizes her when she runs into him at the Jewel Osco, where he’s worked part-time for 16 years. Disability Concerns offers the Academic and Campus-Community Empowerment program (ACE), which provides social opportunities for student with disabilities, something Pihl didn’t have time to get involved in since he was so focused on academics.

“It’s for anybody who hasn’t had a chance to make friends,” Caldwell said. “Sometimes students are so busy getting into their classes and managing their disability that they don’t have time for that.”

She’s not a bit surprised that Pihl’s been active for 10 years as a volunteer for the Peri Normal Social Group at Illinois Wesleyan University, which provides social and recreational activities for those on the autism spectrum. And recently he worked on a voter registration campaign for Marcfirst, which serves those with developmental disabilities.

Pihl still follows the Redbirds as a basketball season ticket holder with his parents, Pat Pihl ’73 and Ken Pihl ’71. His life is just the way he wants it so he has no plans to make any changes.

“I like the predictability of the work I do,” he said. “You’re called to do something in life, and I think I’ve been called to the right places.”

Kate Arthur can be reached at