Terrified at the Philharmonic

In August, when we were vacationing in Austria and Germany, we took Martin to the Vienna Philharmonic. The Philharmonic was playing at the Salzburg Festival. We made a (loooong) day trip from Munich, where we were staying. The Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel was conducting a program of Richard Strauss and René Staar, and Staar was even in attendance. Adrian, who is crazy about Dudamel, got himself into concert mood by looping Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” endlessly in our vacation rental car. The Philharmonic adventure was the splurge of our vacation, a really big deal for us, and it meant the world to Adrian that he could bring Martin along.

We prepped Martin for days. In Martin’s presence I would say casually, “Hey, Daddy [Adrian], when we go to the symphony, can we talk during the music?” Adrian would answer, “Oh, no. Definitely not. During the music we have to be quiet.” Or Adrian would remark, “Hey, Mommy, did you know it is fine to clap at the symphony, but only when everyone else is clapping?” I would return, “I do know that! When Mr. Dudamel comes on stage, I will clap and then be completely quiet until the end of the music, when everyone claps.”

The morning of the performance, I helped Martin dress in a shirt, tie, and sweater vest packed especially for the occasion, and off we sped to Salzburg.

To be honest, I was terrified. We couldn’t have been the only ones who considered the day a splurge (the Salzburg Festival is expensive!), and judging from the number of fuddy-duddies in attendance, a Martin outburst would have made our family very unpopular in the Great Festival Hall. To boot, the performance was being recorded. I assume the sound engineers can edit out something like an autistic six-year-old blurting, “Can a viola play in a reggae band?” I mean, if you buy a live taping, you don’t hear the audience’s coughing or candy wrappers. Then again, we were seated in the second orchestra row, nearly under the tiny microphones suspended from the ceiling. Each time the music fell soft or paused, I tensed. Martin is not good at silence.

Thank goodness we were near the side aisle. In case of emergency, I was poised to scoop Martin into my arms, make for the exit, and keep his mouth covered until we reached the safety of the ladies’ restroom. I would grab my purse on the run, so that I could use my iPhone to keep him busy until the final applause. That was my fallback plan.

I didn’t need it. Martin did swell. Sure, he had trouble sitting still. He sat in his seat, then flopped to the side, then climbed onto Adrian’s lap, fussed, transferred to my lap, stood and bounced, ended the first half reclined with his feet on Adrian and head against my arm. During intermission we snapped photos and discussed the performance so far. Martin said, “When Mr. Dudamel came on the stage, I clapped!”

Minutes after Dudamel’s baton rose on the second half came Martin’s lone outburst. Throughout the concert, when Martin seemed like he might chatter, I’d been covering his mouth lightly with my palm. At once, he blurted, not too loud: “Mommy, if I talk, put your hand over my mouth!” (Which I did.) That was it. That was the worst.

I did not enjoy the concert as much as I would have if Martin had not been present. At no point did I close my eyes and relax into the music. Martin being next to me, on top of me, on top of Adrian, was Damocles’s sword; under those circumstances, how could I find Zarathustra’s wisdom in music? Nevertheless, I’m glad we brought Martin. What an experience! How joyous was I when, as we exited our seats, a older woman some rows behind us spotted Martin and said, “Oh my! Is the little boy still here? He was so quiet, I assumed maybe he’d left at intermission.”

No way! The concert was magnificent, and Martin deserved to hear it live.

The day we saw the Philharmonic was rainy. Martin got a new umbrella!

The day we saw the Philharmonic was rainy. Martin got a new umbrella!


I’ve written before about a phenomenon I call “slow-motion childhood”: When your kid struggles for what typically developing kids acquire naturally, you notice micro-steps. Maybe you even get more moments for celebration.

I picked Martin up at school this afternoon. I do that on Tuesdays, so that he, assisted by a special-education teacher, can participate in “Kids’ Klub” at our church. (Yes. Spelling “club” with a K just about kills me. But that’s what they call it.) From the backseat, Martin started talking about the satellite-radio music. He fixates on music: “Mommy, do you hear a bass guitar?” “Mommy, are they playing live?” “Mommy, is there clapping in this song?” Lately he’s taken to memorizing which song I like best from every singer or band we hear. “Mommy, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ is a good song, but it’s not your favorite song by Elton John. You’re favorite song by Elton John is ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.”

In sum, Martin talks about the music. From his booster seat, he can lean to the side and read the name of the artist and song, every artist and song, on my SUV’s radio screen. There are times when Martin’s reading skills are not as pleasing as you might think.

Martin’s spoken language is pretty solid these days; he can combine words and concepts, and figure out ways to express layered thoughts. “Mommy, were those two songs both by the BeeGees?” “Mommy, George Harrison used to be in the group The Beatles. This is a solo song from after when he was with the group The Beatles.” Still, and even apart from the perseveration, there can be an awkwardness, and a rote pattern, to Martin’s speech. He recycles phrases. New expressions arise rarely.

This afternoon, our first conversation, while on a familiar topic, had a speech breakthrough.

 “Mommy, this song is by the group called Heart. I don’t like the song.”

“I don’t like this song very much, either. I’m not a big Heart fan.”

“You don’t like this song?”


“So change it.”

There it was. Did you catch it?

Martin used the word “so” as a coordinating conjunction, in a manner in which the precedent construction—my not liking the song—was unstated and implied. What Martin was saying was, “Because you don’t like this song, you should change the station.” What rolled off his tongue was the casual, idiomatic, and perfect, “So change it.”

So … do you even need to ask?

I changed the station.

Special Guest Author: My Law-School Roommate on Jammin’ With Martin

Last weekend my law-school roommate, who lives in New Jersey, brought her daughter, Mieko, over to play with Martin. Mieko is five months older than Martin, and the most wonderfully bossy little girl, and one day she’s going to marry Martin. I’m quite confident of this; I’ve been planning the wedding since Martin was born.

(“‘The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union . . . .'” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.)

Those far-off nuptials, however, are not the topic du jour. Instead, the day after I dropped my erstwhile roommate and her daughter off at the New Jersey ferry, I received a message through Facebook, which I reprint here, unedited other than the pseudonyms:

It was great seeing you, Adrian, and Martin yesterday.

I wanted to tell you something in the car and didn’t get a chance to. I remember you told me a while ago that Martin could not participate in a kiddie gym class because he was not able to follow what the other kids were doing and would go off and do his own thing. Well, yesterday, I noticed that that was not an issue for Martin anymore. Remember when we were having our jam session? I was on acoustic guitar, Mieko was on electric guitar, you were on tambourine, and Martin was on harmonica. He was definitely aware that we were all playing music together. Not only was he aware that we were having a jam session, but he also noticed a certain someone (Adrian) who was off doing his own thing and was not participating in the group activity! He then proceeded to pull over Adrian to the piano so that everyone was participating together!

What was impressive was that we weren’t all doing the same activity, like everyone hopping on one foot or everyone clapping hands. All of us were each doing something different with different instruments, and yet Martin recognized it as a coordinated activity where each person, doing something different, was together working toward the same goal of creating music. So playing the piano was acceptable to him, but looking at the computer screen was not. I am no expert on child development, but doesn’t that require an awareness of others at a level that three-year-olds don’t always have?

Anyway, the jam session was very fun and very cool!

I take issue with only one part of this message: With twin seven-year-old sons at home, plus Mieko, my roommate by now is an expert on child development. And that makes what she wrote all the better.

A boy and his cat. Martin and George, tuckered out from a hard day of playing with friends.