Autistic musician finds outlet through Miami University Marching Band

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of digital content

Marco Iannelli was diagnosed with autism when he was just 2 years old. He didn’t learn about his condition until he was around 11.

Although they were vital in teaching him how to live with his disability, Marco’s parents never treated him differently. They wanted to raise him like any other child.

In the Iannelli family, that meant valuing education, playing music and eventually, becoming a member of the Miami University Marching Band.

A senior piano major, Marco has been able to find an outlet through music, playing the tuba and eventually becoming a drum major for the marching band.

“I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for music,” Marco said. “Autism is part of who I am, and I try to learn more about it every day.”

The Michael J. Cifuentes Memorial Endowment Fund has helped students such as Marco by supporting the greatest needs of the Marching Band.

Michael Cifuentes ’02, a dedicated tuba player at Miami, was working toward a master’s degree when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005 while serving his country. During his undergraduate years at Miami, he was a Tau Beta Sigma member, assisted with the women’s basketball team and was a resident adviser to Acacia fraternity’s Miami chapter. After graduation, he was a popular substitute teacher with students in the Talawanda School District in Oxford.

Contributions to the Michael Cifuentes Fund can be made at any time or as part of #MoveInMiami, the university’s annual day of giving traditionally held each year during move-in day. This year’s #MoveInMiami is Aug. 19 with a goal of 2,025 gifts in 20 hours and 25 minutes in honor of the Class of 2025.

“Marco truly embodies the spirit of the MUMB,” said Band Director Brooke Johnson. “He takes such great pride in everything he does and is constantly striving to be better, learn more and work harder.”

The passion for music is in his genes. Marco’s parents, David Iannelli ’91, M.M. ’02 and Victoria (Riggs) Iannelli ’92, M. Ed. ’11 were members of Miami’s marching band. So was Marco’s sister, Robin ’20.

And while they were all talented in their own way, Marco was unique in that he learned about how to live with a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.

“I’ve had some bumps and bruises along the way, like all life stories do,” he said. “I’ve just been discovering new things about myself. What makes my life particularly unique is I’ve been able to participate in a bunch of different opportunities that have helped me as a person – like the Miami Marching Band and all the experiences at Miami.”

According to autismawarenesscentre.com: “Autism is a lifelong, nonprogressive neurological disorder typically appearing before the age of three years. The word ‘autism’ means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction.”

In Marco’s case, he has overcome struggles with communication and misinterpreting situations and feelings. As he’s grown older, he’s learned how to communicate and understand situations better.

“Before, I would panic if I didn’t know exactly what I had to do,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to be calmer and just go through things one at a time.”

Music has been a big factor, too. Marco was only 4 years old when his parents learned that he had perfect pitch, which means he can recognize notes just by hearing them. They introduced him to piano at age 6. His father served as Marco’s band director from grades 7-12, and his mother, a former music teacher, is part of a saxophone quartet featuring other Miami alumni. His sister was Marco’s bandmate during his first year at Miami. The Iannellis have talked about opening their own jazz club.

For now, Marco is preparing for his final year at Miami by performing with the Madison Scouts in Wisconsin, a premier youth performing arts organization on the modern drum and bugle corps scene. He hopes to be a freelance musician and a designer for marching arts.

“This school has absolutely changed my life – it’s changed my family’s life,” Marco said. “Getting to live in this town and getting to know all of these people is a fantastic way to really help me figure out who I’m going to be in the world.”


#MoveInMiami is a fun, fast-paced fundraising event on move-in day to welcome the incoming first-year class to Oxford. On Aug. 19, 2021, follow us throughout the day with live and pre-recorded content around campus and Uptown. Our goal is to raise 2,025 gifts in 20 hours and 25 minutes in honor of the Class of 2025 – no gift is too small! Learn about the projects you can support and donate now at MoveInMiami.org. Because sometimes the smallest act makes the biggest impact.