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APS Students Enjoy the Magic of Albuquerque's First “Symphony for Autism”
Unprecedented concert crafted to delight a group of very special students
Do you remember how special attending your first symphonic concert was? The crash of the cymbals? The honk of the trombone? Or the fanfare from the trumpets?
For more than 175 Albuquerque Public Schools students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Wednesday's “Symphony for Autism” as performed by the New Mexico Philharmonic at UNM’s Popejoy Hall, might have been just that special.
The “Symphony for Autism” began as an inspired idea from Anthony Trujillo for his 10-year-old daughter Sophia. “As a parent with a child with Autism, I understand how challenging public settings and performances like this can be,” said Trujillo in his opening remarks at the concert today. “My daughter has been to concerts before, but I always worry about how she will act, and how others around her will react to her. Loud noises like this can be challenging. And I worry."
So Anthony Trujillo created a venue for students with Autism to enjoy the magic of a symphony orchestra in an environment that would be comfortable for them. After months of meticulous planning, research and preparation, today’s event went off without a hitch.
Students, teachers, family members and resource therapists piled into buses at their individual schools and came to UNM campus, where marked escorts were waiting to chaperone them inside Popejoy Hall. Each school had an assigned color, and the aisles in the concert hall were marked with matching signs. At the front of the concert stage, two large clocks were displayed to illustrate how much time had gone by and how much time was remaining (a visual practice common in ASD classrooms).
The students filed into their seats while the New Mexico Philharmonic warmed their instruments. The concert hall was brightly lit to help aide comfort and familiarity for the students. The staff was friendly and patient, and everyone was ready to ensure that the first “Symphony for Autism” would be a great success.
Dr. Anne Tafoya, the APS Executive Director of Special Education, helped usher students and chaperones to their seats. Dr. Anne Tafoya chose to enjoy the concert from the front row so that she could see all of the students and their joyous reactions up close and personal.
Once all of the students were seated, Dr. Tafoya and Anthony Trujillo walked on stage to welcome their very special guests to this unprecedented concert, many of who had never been to such an affair before!
The concert begins.
A cheerful and pleasant emcee takes the stage and introduces the Concert Master, the lead Violinist with the New Mexico Philharmonic.
She asks everyone to please stand for the National Anthem. Then she does something completely unexpected– she asks the audience to sing along! What an unexpected delight!
The students love it! They sing loud and they sing well!
Once the national anthem has finished, the emcee kindly asks the students to take their seats again. BUT WAIT!
“Don’t get too comfortable, we’re going to have you stand and sing again,” the emcee tells the students.
The emcee explains that the orchestra will play the New Mexico state song, ‘O Fair New Mexico,’ once so that the students may hear the song, and then a second time, where the students are encouraged to sing along. The students loved the interactive participation. They sang with great pride as the band played along, “O, fair New Mexico, we love, we love you so!” They shouted as loud as they could.
Next, the orchestra played a John Phillips Souza piece! The students snapped, they stomped, they shouted, they clapped, they cheered, and yes, they even tangoed!
Finally, it was time to introduce the symphony, “Peter and the Wolf.” But this symphony was special. It wasn’t just a musical affair, it was a visual affair as well. The APS Autism Research Team had prepared for month’s for this concert and an added spectacle was a dance troupe, Festival Ballet Albuquerque, performed along with the concert. The emcee carefully introduced and welcomed each dancer, or character, and identified which instrument in the orchestra was which character.
'The dancing blue bird' was depicted by the flute; 'the fluffy yellow duck' was the oboe; 'the cat' was the clarinet; 'the old grandfather' was noted by the bassoon; 'the mean gray wolf' was the horn; 'the two hunters' were the drums; and finally, 'Peter' was known by the strings!
The emcee was patient and articulate in explaining each important character role to the students.
And then the symphony began. The lights were meticulously dimmed to make for a more pleasant experience for those on the autism spectrum.
The students watched and listened with delight. Some students stood and cheered the symphony along, while others enjoyed the symphony through protective headphones or glasses. One student had a rattle that he shook to the beat throughout the entire concert, as happy as could be.
Smiles, awe, wonder and magic encapsulated the audience and concert hall.
The adults in the audience were patient and kind, but also relieved to enjoy the concert themselves. For many parents, attending a concert like the New Mexico Philharmonic with a child with autism is a stressful feat. Today’s concert was anything but.
As the story came to an end, the students were engaged as they yelled to the hunters and the wolf, “NO! Don’t eat the duck!” Others laughed with great pleasure as the story ended on a happy note.
The actors and the musicians took their bow and received a standing ovation, and with that, this magical moment was over.
The students beamed with joy, and were ushered into the lobby--- BUT WAIT!
The “Symphony for Autism” wasn’t quite over! The students were met in the lobby with a “musical petting zoo.” They could touch and play the various instruments they had seen on stage. Trumpets, harps, and xylophones, oh my!
The New Mexico Philharmonic staff and volunteers made themselves available to help the students and lend a hand as necessary.
Jesse, a fourth grader from Pajarito Elementary School, said “it was GREAT,” right before trying out a trumpet by himself.
Jesse’s mom, one of the chaperone’s for today’s concert told us she was relieved and impressed about how well all of the students did, “I actually think they handled themselves better than some of the adults I have seen at concerts before,” she said with laughter.
Class by class, colored-sign by colored-sign, the students and classes filed out of the concert hall back to their buses.
Brynn Marchiando, Associate Principal Trumpet in the New Mexico Philharmonic, and an APS Eldorado high school graduate gushed, “performing for young and engaged students has always been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a professional musician. But today’s concert, and the preparation that it took to make today possible, might have been one of the most special musical experiences I have had here in the philharmonic. I feel honored and blessed to have participated.”
Special consideration had been taken for sensory sensitivity, making today's event an extreme success for all involved.
Putting on this concert was no easy task given the special needs of the students. Trujillo’s foundation, Holman’s Technology for Autism, worked with the APS Special Education Department and the APS Education Foundation in coordinating the performance, which involved everything from arranging transportation to making sure nurses and special education professionals were on hand, and preparing the artists who would be performing for their unique and special audience.
Trujillo said he appreciated Dr. Anne Tafoya and her team at APS for all their hard work. “They have been fantastic in providing detailed planning and training,” he said. “This event would not have been possible without their help and cooperation.”
He also thanked Marian Tanau and the New Mexico Philharmonic for agreeing to add this performance to their busy calendar.
Because this is the first time such a concert has been held, organizers decided to keep the audience more intimate, focusing on elementary school students. However, Trujillo said he hopes the concert will become an annual event that more students can attend.