This article was first published in the Spring 2022 issue of Plough Quarterly.
Caitrin Keiper: When and how did you fall in love with music?
Adora Wong: I was one when my four-year-old sister started learning the violin. Apparently, I was enchanted right away and insisted I would play too. I started when I was three and have continued learning ever since!
What were some obstacles you faced along the way? Did your understanding of them change with time?
I was kicked out of a youth orchestra when I was ten because I was “demonstrating anti-social behaviors.” Before the first day I’d memorized Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, researched Western orchestral history, and set a goal to one day play The Nutcracker. I showed up to the first two rehearsals prepared to play, but during the break I paced around the room to manage my excitement. No one said anything to me about it, so I was surprised when my parents got that phone call. The punishment for stimming [movements that help an autistic person calm down], as I now understand it, was being demoted to a junior strings program where I was with younger kids who could hardly hold their instruments.
There were a few other instances where social misunderstandings got me in trouble. I was embarrassed then, believing it was my fault. Now I recognize it as being a fault of the system – if a child wants to play an instrument in an orchestra, the focus should be on finding ways for her to be engaged, not about behaviors that are not harming anyone.
What was it like to be diagnosed as autistic after “masking” for many years? How does neurodivergence shape your relationship to music?
I’d known I was “different” since I was a child, so it was a relief when I finally received a diagnosis as an adult. While I am unsure if this connects with autism, I have perfect pitch and auditory-tactile synesthesia, and there is always music running in my mind. Because I’m not a very social person, practicing in isolation for hours at a time doesn’t bother me. I also don’t experience performance anxiety on stage, and although I wish I didn’t have to, I will credit that to years of autistic masking.
What steps can those in the music world take to be more inclusive of other neurodivergent kids?
Many music teachers come strictly from a performance background and have no idea how to interact with children or manage a classroom. This was me as well when I first started teaching, so I know it is possible to change. At the very minimum, teachers need to understand that all behavior is communication, and be more creative in responding.
You learned English as a fourth (!) language in kindergarten, and have often spoken of growing up with a different perspective than the culture around you.
It’s funny because I learned the violin way before I learned English. I started with a Hungarian teacher and musical gestures were our way of understanding each other. Consequently, we found out after more than a year of playing that I couldn’t read music at all and was memorizing everything on the spot! I’ve also seen new immigrant educators teach at a phenomenal level without speaking the same language as the student. This really has me thinking about the way we communicate in music education, and how often “less is more” when it comes to using words to describe musical details.
On the darker side, as an Asian-Canadian violinist, I’ve had plenty of negative experience with prejudiced thinking in the world of classical music. When I was twenty-one, an Asian professor sat me down and we had the “talk” about how difficult it was going to be for me to make an entrance into orchestral playing as an Asian woman. I’ve been called the wrong name countless times, even after playing multiple concerts with the same organization. I’ve had seating arrangements questioned with people wondering if I only made it so far up “to promote diversity.” I’ve had opportunities taken away because I didn’t “look” the part for it.
Tell us about your new teaching effort and the project to provide students with violins.
My inspiration comes from the Venezuelan El Sistema program and the centers we already have here in Canada that work toward making music accessible. Classical music lessons can be expensive, and the initial cost of buying an instrument turns many families away. I want every child, regardless of his or her background, to have access to an instrument and quality instruction. I have designed an affordable group class that is geared toward supporting neurodivergent children, but unfortunately this has been put on hold due to the pandemic. However, I am happy to be able to continue teaching private lessons at a reduced cost for families who may require that option.
My dream is to teach in an ensemble that is both accessible and inclusive. By accessible, I mean that there are no financial barriers to joining: it is not overpriced, there is no requirement for expensive private lessons on the side, and there is an instrument bank that students can borrow from. By inclusive, I mean re-evaluating some of our current expectations for orchestral ensembles, and creating a space that is more sensitive to sensory needs. I really think that making classical music more accessible will help solve the other prejudices too because it invites everyone in.