Do I Have a Special Talent? -Music College

I am musical. Whilst I am not an autistic savant by any means (the statistics are 1 in 10 to 1 in 200) I do have a natural talent for music. I know this to be true because I started playing the cello at 11 and by 16 had taken grade 8 and achieved a good distinction. I’d also taken 3 recorder exams and achieved distinction in those too and I did this with very little work and almost no practice. This meant that I was a candidate for music college so auditioned for 3 and got unconditional offers from all 3 plus the offer of a scholarship to study the recorders (I use as a plural because there are more than 1) from one conservatoire. 

I didn’t practice. 

It all came rather easily much to the surprise of those working with me. I was in the kitchen of a member of a famous musical family and was learning my scales on the morning of my grade 8 exam. She was surprised because it was assumed, naturally, that I should have already learned them. It wasn’t a surprise to me because I had absolutely no idea what a scale was or how really to play them. Due to me being ‘quite good’ at the cello and recorder it was also assumed that the theory of music was easy too which it really wasn’t. I’d scraped through my grade 5 theory exam, failed my first attempt at grade 6 and just passed my grade 7. I’d found the theoretical side of music consistently tough to get my head around which often confused my teachers. 

Since getting my diagnosis I’ve realised that my talent for music was not a passion but just an accidental talent that I was born with. I didn’t know that at the time though because I’d been pigeonholed into being musical and so, therefore, hadn’t really had the chance to try or be anything else. 

I knew something wasn’t quite right when I sat at the first orchestra rehearsal and turned to my desk partner to ask, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ she looked confused and said, ‘No, this is what I’ve come here to do.’ I didn’t feel the same as she did and over the next couple of years, I struggled with everything about music college and living in London. The college I went to didn’t have a hall of residence so students were dotted all over London and this meant travelling to see friends. I found the sensory experience of the underground very difficult because they were noisy, had artificial lighting and were packed with people. I found being in the wrong place studying the wrong thing very hard to navigate and living in an awful flat above a launderette that had mice tipped me over because I’m someone who likes to feel comfortable in her surroundings. 

During this time, and I don’t say this to many people, I drank too much. I went to parties and got drunk, I left rehearsals and got drunk, and I got drunk for no reason with friends at home. I made bad decisions, formed unhealthy relationships and looking back I showed in every possible way that I wasn’t coping with my life at that time. I remember feeling free when I was drunk and that I had the confidence I didn’t have when sober. But it’s hard to know that this wasn’t right when it’s the fashion that students at university are haphazard and often drunk. I thought that maybe this was the life I should be living so it took time to see that I needed to change.

I completed 1 year of my performance degree at music college and hated it. I came home and didn’t want to go back. The second year I commuted from home which was a big task travelling back late at night with a cello. This meant that I drank less so there were positives, but it also gave me time on a train to think about where I was with my life and where I was headed. I’d formed a positive relationship (that lasted 5 years) with a chap at this point and so I was more able to see things in perspective. 

After I’d completed the second year I talked to my course director about leaving. She was very understanding and said that they knew I was struggling (didn’t offer any help though?) and wanted me to stay. I was past the point of being able to do this and knew it was time to leave to go to teacher training college to train to be a teacher; something I’d always wanted to be. 

After saying goodbye to various friends on that last day at music college I stood outside the main door looking at the brass plaque. I stood for a while and then eventually took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and walked away. I never looked back, and I have never regretted my decision. 

My father had difficulties in accepting my decision to leave and he’s mentioned this constantly over the, nearly, 30 years since. At the time he quoted that old phrase of, ‘Those who can do, those who can’t teach.’ For me this was quite insulting as I’d had many fabulous teachers but also some who, while being excellent musicians, just couldn’t explain how they did what they did or help me to do what I needed. A teacher has talents of their own as an explainer and I knew I had this much more than the compulsion to be a musician.

Part of autism is often that the autistic person has a special interest. Music has been an interest and one that I’ve followed throughout my life but playing the cello was never a special interest. I have spent hours sewing, forgetting to eat, made a huge mess, watched YouTube videos to learn how to do something quite technical in order to produce something that had caught the attention of my brain. I’ve spent days listening to books or reading about teaching and learning support in order to help a pupil access their learning more easily. I never did this with the cello; it simply wasn’t ever a special interest of mine. 

Since leaving teacher training college, where I played the cello as part of my specialist subject learning, I have never played it to such a high standard again and I’ve never reached the heights of my music college days in terms of ability. It’s just not what I’m interested in. I have been at a point in my life for a while where I could afford lessons with an excellent teacher, and I still have my beautiful cello upstairs in our bedroom ready to play but I don’t because that part of my life is over, and I don’t miss it for a second. 

Strangely, I’ve found a passion for learning the piano (and, even more strangely, theory which I taught myself and have passed grade 8). I say strangely because it’s an instrument I struggled with during my active musician days, and I assumed I just wasn’t ever going to be any good at it. I’ve since found out that whilst I have a talent for cello and recorders, I don’t have this talent for playing the piano so for me my talent isn’t a blanket talent in that I’m good at playing all instruments. I work at the piano and can practice for hours in a week when I’m working on a piece. I’ve found that my coordination is an issue with my piano playing and once learned a piece does not stay in my brain and I will have to practice again to get it right. I also don’t have a memory for performing without music. This was very odd and something I couldn’t do with either cello or the recorder. I can’t just sit down at an instrument and play it like many of my musician friends could. I also couldn’t sing and play my cello again, as other friends could. These are just more examples of how my brain works differently. 

I’m not a savant and most autistic people are not. I do have a talent that I do attribute to being autistic and this is something that has enabled me to have many different experiences and meet a wider variety of people. I love teaching music so in a way all I’ve learned hasn’t been wasted but I was never going to be a cellist because I can’t network in the way that you need to in order to make contacts to get work and I never spent the hours in a practice room that you need to in order to become the best musician you can be. Music is a wonderful addition to my life but is definitely not a main focus. 

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