Our second community profile is Cecily Shaw. Cecily is a classical singer who graduated with a Masters degree in Music from the University of Waikato, where she studied the experiences of neurodivergent musicians. She is a music teacher in Hamilton, and plans to study in the UK next year.
Cecily answered a few questions for us:
Tell us a bit about yourself – in terms of your performance work, but also the work you do with young people.
I trained at Waikato University in classical singing, under the tutelage of Glenese Blake, and supervision of Stephanie Acraman and Dr Rachael Griffiths-Hughes. I sing a variety of opera, oratorio, art song, and music theatre/cabaret. I also write original comedy songs, and last year I released my first album of these. I’m currently working with Gina Sanders, preparing to travel to the UK next year for further opera studies. Hamilton has given me lots of great performance opportunities – especially through St Peter’s Cathedral’s cantata group, and Hamilton Civic Choir. I spend about 8 years at uni, and ended up doing my Master’s thesis on neurodiversity in the music industry, which was a fascinating topic.
When I’m not performing, I’m teaching singing – most of my students are at Cambridge Middle School, but I also have some private students – both children and adults. I also work with the children and young people at St Peter’s Cathedral, and I conduct the Waikato Warblers (a choir for Waikato Hospital staff), alongside pianist Josh Dawson. Everything has moved online since NZ went into “Red”, so I do a lot of recording and video conferencing at the moment.
How long have you been performing classical music for?
I’ve been exposed to classical music all my life – my Mum is an organist, plus retired secondary music teacher and choir director, so I grew up listening to all the music she made. And my Dad plays the ukulele and writes songs, which I picked up as well. I started formal singing lessons when I was about 10, and just kept going.
When did you realise you were autistic?
I was diagnosed pretty early – my Playcentre teacher first noticed my autistic traits when I was about 4. I was officially diagnosed at the age of 6, after a pretty rocky start to school. I was really lucky to be diagnosed so early, because it meant I could get the support I needed early on. It was unusual in 1999 for kids to be diagnosed that early, because not a lot was known about autism yet. A lot of autistic people my age go undiagnosed until adulthood. The same thing may well have happened to me if my behavioural issues hadn’t been so extreme and obvious. I have a lot of bad memories from my first 3 years of school, but I’m super grateful for the help I received.
How did the diagnosis change your life?
It’s hard to say, because I was so young – but I noticed a shift when I changed schools. My first school had never had an autistic student before I was diagnosed – so they had no idea how to deal with me. I was always getting in trouble, and not understanding why, so I believed that I was just a “naughty kid”.
But at my second school, teachers and teacher-aides suddenly started being really nice to me and telling me I was good. My behaviour improved so much after that – I believed I was a “good kid”, so I started acting like a “good kid”. My second school had a lot more experience with neurodiverse kids, so I felt much safer and happier there.
How do you think your neurodivergence is an advantage in your life?
I think it makes me extra determined. I’ve always had to work a bit harder than my peers on most things, which can be really frustrating – but it has also given me a strong work ethic.
It gives me a very creative mind – I find most creative things really easy and enjoyable. Having a strong imagination, and making things (writing songs and poems, designing things, doing crafts, and even coming up with new recipes) is what gives me energy.
I also think my neurodivergence has made me open-minded. I always try and listen to the “underdog” and stick up for people who are misunderstood. It comes from being misunderstood myself, and not wanting anyone else to feel that way.
What message do you have for other autistic people who are inspired by your work?
If you have a dream or a goal that you want to achieve, go for it! You might need to do some things differently, and you might need to do some things later than the majority – but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You absolutely CAN do it, in the way that’s right your you.
Even if your goal seems daunting, just keep taking those baby steps outside your comfort zone, and celebrating those small victories. Even if it’s something as tiny as “I got to class on time today”, or “I performed in front of people today”.
It might sound silly… but personally, I was surprised how far I got, when I just kept taking these tiny steps.
It is Autism Awareness month, so what message do you think it is important for people to know about the autistic community?
I’d say “let people refer to themselves how they are most comfortable.”
I’ve noticed a lot of people misunderstanding why a lot of autistic people use labels or refer to themselves as “disabled”. I’ve had people tell me “you’re not disabled! Don’t say that about yourself!”, or “you’re actually very normal!”
I know people usually have good intentions when they say these things… but it can be pretty invalidating. Many of us use labels (such as autism, ADHD, etc), because they help us understand ourselves, and our needs. They’re not insults, or stigmas.
Personally, I sometimes will refer to my condition as “a disability”, because I experience genuine limitations (e.g. I’m having great difficulty learning to drive, and I have some fatigue issues). When people say, “you’re normal – don’t label yourself”, it invalidates the years of struggles that I’ve come through.But it’s up to each individual person how they would like to refer to themselves. The most important thing is to listen and respect them.
More about Cecily: Banish The Mezzo is Cecily’s fundraiser for next year’s studies in the UK. She’s offering perks for sponsors on Patreon, including virtual singing lessons, and exclusive video content. You can find the content here: Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/socratena
Here are inks to Cecily’s work:
Album on Bandcamp: https://socratena.bandcamp.com/
Original song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F1aU3AP6mo&t=22s
Classical piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0kXeUMPCT4