On the early evening of October 19, 2017, my son Conrad was able to attend his first concert in the Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts. Being a retired member of the symphony, it was like a warm homecoming for me, but it was a special and touching moment for our family. Conrad was born with Autism Spectrum Disorder and has trouble communicating without the help of an iPad. He has always loved music and can listen for hours to the same piece over and over. Whenever he is in a very agitated state, he requests some cello time from his dad.
I was a member of the Kansas City Symphony for 20 seasons. While I was there, I served as the ICSOM delegate, as a board member, and as member of the Hall Committee. One of the major reasons for my early retirement was Conrad’s diagnosis and a desire to spend more time implementing home therapies. During my tenure, I was able to take a leave year to try these therapies with him, only to realize that he needed me more than what I was giving him.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a condition that affects 1 in 68 children in the world. Behavior from this condition can range from a gentle piano to a raging forte and often both in the quick measure of time. Because of this, families feel helpless to take their children out in a social setting. There are many stories that circulate in the Autism community about the harshness they can face when bringing their kids out in public. This is what makes concerts such as what we experienced so unique.
There are many articles about how music affects the autistic mind and the benefits of exposing children at an early age to it. Many orchestras have had incredible success with concerts that cater to their autistic communities. The Kennedy Center’s program is an inspiration in its innovation and implementation. When the Kansas City Symphony approached me in May of 2017 to explore the possibility of a concert, the Kennedy Center’s model was on both our minds.
Emma Kail, the General Manager of the Kansas City Symphony, as well as Rebecca Martin (Director of Artistic Operations), Stephanie Brimhall (Education Manager) and Jason Seber (Associate Conductor) met with a group of educators and therapists at the offices of the symphony and spoke of a concert that would welcome this community to the Helzberg Concert Hall. It was an incredibly productive meeting that had many wonderful ideas proposed by both sides. My only thought was: how could Conrad come to this concert and have a really great time? By going with what I knew, I felt we could use him as template to cater to the other kids like him. So I proposed a few ideas. First, the hall needed a little more illumination so he could experience the entire hall. Second, he needed a visual component. Third, loud and sudden noises startle him easily. We discussed programming as well. (I proposed Nuages from Debussy’s Nocturnes—one of his favorite pieces.)
The week before the concert, Emma called me to tell me that they were about to start rehearsing for this concert and asked if I’d like to say a few words to my former colleagues, which I was more than happy to do. I could see that everybody in the orchestra was excited to start work on this concert. A news crew from a local TV station came and interviewed me after the rehearsal.
On October 19, Conrad, his brother, mother, grandparents, and babysitter came for the first time to the Kauffman Center. It was an emotional moment for all of us. We were greeted by the news crew and the orchestra staff in the lobby. There were designated quiet areas in case someone needed one. When we sat for the concert, I realized that every one of my suggestions had come to fruition. The Kansas City Symphony was playing a special concert for Conrad—and 500 or so other kids and family members. The maiden concert was incredible and had an impact on every family that attended.
I’d like to thank everybody who worked incredibly hard to make this dream concert a reality. It meant so much to see Conrad enjoying himself at the crown jewel of our city and watching my friends and colleagues play beautifully. Conrad is already looking forward to the next one.
Note: The Author is a former member of the Kansas City Symphony.