I have been writing about my life with autism since 2005. Every story has been shared with the goal of helping families learn from my experiences, which eased my own pain of reliving these experiences on paper. The Audition is very different. After years of hard work building skills to accommodate my life with autism and dyslexia, I encountered a situation where everything I had learned failed to support me.I am sharing this story today in hopes that it will help families, and the organizations they rely upon for guidance, focus on the long term path of aging with autism, and the need to support people diagnosed with forms of autism like Asperger’s, now known as Autism Spectrum Disorder type 1. While no research has been done to measure if any adults diagnosed with Asperger’s lost supports when the disorder was recategorized as ASD type 1, many of us have felt isolated from the autism community we once advocated for. Many families in the ASD community feel that people with Asperger’s siphon much needed funding away from autistic people who need more day to day supports. Unable to navigate the social stress, many of us formerly known as Aspie’s have fallen to silence. By sharing The Audition, I do hope we can recognize the that work to support people with Asperger’s throughout our lives has fallen into a desperate state of disrepair leaving many of us to do what we had to do before our late life diagnosis – figure it out for ourselves and hope we can afford the failures. I hope to reawaken this dialogue and explore the world of Asperger’s after age 40.
Now on to The Audition
Just over 24 hours had passed since my fever broke, but I wasn’t about to give up on an audition for which I had been preparing for over a month. Of the 26 potential orchestral excerpts, I knew only two of them which I had played as second violin, not first violin. Of the 8 Violin Concertos, I had officially only learned 2 of them. So nearly the entire list was new information. Learned, as in studied them with guidance from a mentor, or spent more than the 30 minutes I ocationally have to give to myself for practice. Despite this challenge, I printed off everything and one by one, taught myself all of the music. My sight-reading is hugely disrupted by my dyslexia, but thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to excerpts and rely on my ear to learn them, even memorizing some of them. It’s a classic scenario – a student wants an opportunity, so they practice day and night to impress people they’ve never seen with a glimpse of their talent in hopes it is enough to make them stick out above the rest.
There are waves of emotions that follow submitting for an audition, both positive and negative. I was totally unaware of the emotions bubbling in the depths of my mind. I really thought I had this under control. My last audition was in 1995 when I competed in the GMEA State Competition. Things were a bit different then – auditions were not blind or anonymous so there were biases I had to fight. I didn’t think much about it then, this is the beauty of hindsight, but I knew exactly what to do. I knew by the looks on the faces of the judges which ones were listening to my ability to play and which ones were evaluating what outfit I chose to wear. As a female violinist, it had been brought to my attention by other male musicians that my movement while I played could be distracting, even though it was a crowd pleaser. It was an unfair system, but I knew what to do. Rules were well defined and expectations were set by the teacher. I knew exactly what to practice and how to disguise my Suzuki training – yes, there was a point in my musical career where saying I was raised on the Suzuki method was a negative. Everything from the fingerings I used on scales, to the clothing I wore, were to support the image that I looked as talented as I played. A well-behaved, disciplined young violinist. It was a terribly biased and unfair system, but I learned that these unspoken realities could be the difference of being accepted or denied for a position.
I hated the idea that in order for me to win, someone had to lose. I was never comfortable with the competitive aspect of the arts. Despite my resistance, I accepted it as part of the resume building experience, but that changed for me in 1995. I had written a piece called Tarentella Russo. Unable to read music well, as I relied mostly on my ear, I used a composition program on my Macintosh SE to compose the piece. It was exhilarating composing something new that I wanted to play in my own style. I wrote an A and B theme with a cadenza. Excited about my new adventure, I brought to piece to my teacher. Ms. Stefanie, my violin teacher, was so proud of my achievement, she suggested the piece be entered into a competition. At first I was supportive of the entry, but as we got closer to the submission I was haunted by scenes of the last competition I had done on violin in 1993. After winning the state title in performance, I was horrified by the thought of all of the kids crying about losing. I felt like I took something away from them. I went to my computer and rewrote the cadenza, coping one from a violin concerto I had heard on the radio. I had hoped I would lose if they saw a copy. Ms. Stefanie was too smart for that. She recognized what I had done and she inspired me to write a new cadenza. As my emotions rumbled under the surface, she redirected me to what really mattered, and helped me to realize it was ok to be recognized for hard work. Tarantella Russo won the Georgia state title in 1995. It would be 27 years before I would audition for anything. Life as a single parent of 2 kids, meant my life was now focused on their wellbeing and growth.
In 2006, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and dyslexia, opening up a toolbox of supports that not only helped me cope as an individual, but expanded my teaching abilities to be fully inclusive of students with disabilities. Teaching gave me the most flexibility, but it also allowed me to be the nurturer I was most comfortable being. That also meant that I spent 27 years playing the same pieces over and over with my students as they grew. My technique started to slip and my mind wasn’t pushed to experience new performance challenges. I continued to compose, making arrangements mostly for school groups and for my solo violin performances at autism conferences.
Feelings of inadequacy have plagued me this past year as I approach my 30th year teaching music. I don’t know what has stirred these feelings, but they are growing in intensity, sometimes obscuring my view of happiness. At first I tried to join some community orchestras so I could build a sense of belonging, but Covid restrictions limited me to a few online meetings. Even my own Leaside Youth Symphony Orchestra project, a disability inclusive orchestra I have a deep passion for, has been put on hold because I haven’t been able to raise the funds to get us rolling. I have been feeling like my career is frozen in time. Back in April of 2022, as the world returned to travel and vacation rentals, my online enrollment began to evaporate. I was overwhelmed with feelings of abandonment and worried I was no longer able to provide the level of instruction parents expected at the low prices they wanted. Unsure if I was going to keep my school open, I noticed the TSO had posted an audition for Associate Concertmaster. I filled out the application, paid the $100 audition fee, downloaded the music from IMSLP, and started to practice.
The week before the audition I was feeling confident I could could play well, even though I was nowhere near the proficiency I had at the height of my performance career. I was convinced I wouldn’t get the seat, but I wanted to at least show myself I could still play at high levels. I figured that at the very least, I would meet the community of musicians in my new home of Toronto, a city where I really don’t know anyone, and maybe even get added to the substitute player list.
The day of the audition… Fighting off a terrible head cold, I made myself attend the audition wearing a n95 facemask. I was directed into the waiting area where a paper on the wall listed the 5 excerpts that would be played in stage one of the audition. Autism reared its head as I started to panic over the unexpected change. I had no idea they would pick those excerpts as I had convinced myself we would start with the Concerto. As I started to cope with that, I realised I had printed off two of the wrong pieces – dyslexia can be a challenge, and I had misread some of the symphony numbers and movement numbers. In the case of the Mahler, I had come prepared to skip that piece since the sheet music was a printed in a handwritten style which I simply could not read. The Mahler was on the list. I started singing the song in my head. I have an excellent ear and I knew I could just play what I remember. But where was I supposed to start? Not at the beginning, but where?
By the time I hit the warm-up room, I had a whistle in my ears, I was pacing the room, and started to panic. I tried breathing techniques that had worked for me over the years, but nothing would calm my mind. The music notes started to dance off the page, vibrating and obscruing me from getting enough to find the audio file in my mind’s ear. I knew a breakdown was inevitable. They called me early to the stage. Apparently of the 50 applicants, only 12 of us were actually auditioning. I made up my mind on the way to the stage that I was going to thank the judges for the opportunity and just go home. I didn’t want to just leave and seem disrespectful of the judges time.
As I stood at the stage door, I could feel the air of the auditorium brush against my forehead, and see the stage lights glimmering off the deck. But the room looked empty. “Is anyone in there,” I asked the man holding the door. “Yes, they are behind a screen though.” He replied “Oh, the auditions are blind? I’m not feeling too well and I would just like to thank them for the opportunity and then leave.” I said “You’re not allowed to speak in blind auditions.” he said. The man continued to talk but my mind turned his words into muddle. My body froze. I couldn’t walk onto the deck. Time stood still and encased my feet in an energetic lock. “You don’t have to go in.” The man said. I’m not sure what I said next. My body took over and all I could do was flee.
I spent a month preparing for an audition and I didn’t play one single note.
I spent the next few hours wandering downtown Toronto trying to process what went wrong. Was it the head cold? Was it because I was out of practice? Was it stress from past negative experiences or had it just been too long? Answers would be difficult to come by at least until I was able to process my breakdown. As long as my body was in charge, my mind was just a passenger.
On the way back to the subway, I stumbled upon field day at the Varsity field on Bloor. Hundreds of kids, appearing to be middle school aged, filled the stadium as they competed in field day events. The energy was infectious as kids cheered uninhibitedly for their classmates. I felt a calm settle into my body, and then a smile. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be in the performance world anymore, and the universe was taking a moment to place that idea in my path. My happiest moments over the past 29 years have been the excitement of my students when they reach their goals. So why wasn’t that enough? Why was I subjecting myself to this audition process that I know I hate so much? I sat there for at least an hour watching field day. I thought about what might be missing from my teaching career, and my relationship with music.
What about these feeligns of inadequacy? Maybe taking on this audition was more about financial stability and recognition, both things I felt I wasn’t getting. But why? Are my expectations out of sync with my efforts? Teaching is a challenging profession, and Covid layered on new challenges that teachers all over the globe rose to meet. Now that Covid restrictions are being lifted, we teachers are hearing only the negatives – how kids were diminished by on-line learning, and how they have fallen behind. My on-line school has suffered a last minute mass exodus and record numbers of no-shows, leaving me unpaid and unable to take any type of sabbatical. Is that my fault? Or am I being to hard on myself to have answers in a post-pandemic economy?
Sabaticcal. That word resonated loudly in my skull over the follow weeks as I processed what had happened. Perhaps I have been so focused on being available for every possible schedule, in multiple time zones, across multiple continents, that I haven’t taken any time to visit the three R’s of a career educator – Re-evaluate, Re-educate, and Re-juvinate.
As for autism. I have developed tools to navigate autism as an adult in a supportive role, but not in a competitive role. My world is being turned upside down setting me on a path I never planned to be on, and that is exciting. I’m getting to build my own school and create accessibility options for students with disabilities. But when I need tools to cope with my autism on this exciting new path, who do I turn to? Where do I go? Support groups filled with 20-somethings just starting out on independent life? Therapists? What does a 45-year-old autistic adult do when they need support running a business and making life altering decisions where the precedent is sent only by neurotypical people?
I have much to figure out as I step into the next phase of my life, but it is certainly clear that advocacy for people with disabilities in the arts and in the entrepreneurial world are still mostly non-existent.
I have planned my week long sabittical in August where I will ponder these questions, develop my next steps, and will hopefully spend time editing my next book, Learning To Fall. While I know my path is now leading me to break new ground, it would be nice to finally be at a place in my life where I don’t have to carry a proverbial hammer. Maybe I don’t mind that so much either, if I can just remember to add that 4th R to Re-evaluate, Re-educate, and Re-juvinate – Request support.