“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” Henry Van Dyke
I am delighted ACDA has taken the position of encouraging choirs for all; all ages and all abilities. I have a very good reason for being happy because I have an interest in special population choirs, a very special interest. I am the mother of a wonderful, happy son, Russell, who has autism, a developmental disability. In my professional life, most don’t know my situation and when it does come out, it is a shock. My views about those with disabilities and the fine arts are not so revolutionary but are different from what many would expect.
I have seen folks with disabilities give performances that are nuanced and passionate and have moved me beyond what I expected to feel. These were far from perfect but watching people who are not supposed to understand subtext give surprisingly complicated performances inspires me to look deeper at this population.
If we want those with different abilities to become full members of our communities, all avenues have to be open to them, even the artistic ones. But just like everyone else, people with disabilities have their own tastes. Russell’s love for his CD of Luciano Pavarotti singing with Sting and Zucchero (an Italian pop star) may not be your cup of tea but Russ loves it! Sometimes we forget these are people with likes and dislikes and talents and an inner life we may not understand. We get caught up with other things, which may or may not be more important, but we forget. Art and music touch our inner self; reach us on levels deeper and richer than everyday life. Why can’t the arts reach these children and adults at those same levels?
My autistic son is artistic. It sounds funny, I know, but he is. At 12 months of age, he could match pitches, something that is difficult for most children under the age of 6 or 7 years to do. He loves music, of all sorts, and has quite a collection of CDs. He enjoys movies, mostly Disney, but has a sense of what he likes and plays those over and over again. Russ has perfect pitch, as does one of his brothers. Years ago, at a youth symphony concert, Russell was sitting with us as the high school group tuned and tuned…and tuned. He started to hum–his brother, Ben, looked me dead in the eye and said, “he’s humming the pitch they’re trying to tune to, Mom!” He loves to listen to our piano tuner tune our grand–and will hum pitches that should be, before they’re tuned. One tuner told me he hates people with perfect pitch–I told him not to hate Russ, it’s the only thing he can do. You see, Russell is not able to speak and his humming of pitches is the only way he has ever communicated with any sense of purpose or understanding.
Why shouldn’t Russell be artistic and musical? His mother and brothers are musicians, as well as a grandmother, a great-grandmother and an uncle. His grandfather was a nationally known dancer and ballet master. His father is a music lover and played music in our home from the time he was in the womb and beyond. Just because he is disabled doesn’t cancel out his heritage. He is a person, not a disability, and his artistic bent is separate from his autism.
Someone asked me a few years ago if I could tolerate those with less ability singing in my choirs. It was an odd question and this person did not know my background, especially since I think I am a better person, teacher and yes, conductor, because of Russell. I have had to look past certain things and be creative in my solutions and hope I come across as tolerant and supportive rather than too quick to judge. I have had to love unconditionally. It was then I remembered the quote of Henry van Dyke. Everyone should be able to participate in the arts, whatever their level, whatever their interests and I am happy ACDA realizes that. Our world is enriched because of the participation of those with challenges. It would indeed be a very silent wood if they weren’t encouraged.