Rory Shade

Young countertenor and his family overcome life’s hurdles

Campbell River teen who has autism is a straight-A student who plans to be an opera singer

Mana the mutt is no countertenor.

But her musical master is.

“He tries,” says 16-year-old Rory Shade. “When I start singing he runs in, and when I go to the higher octaves he sings along as best he can.

“It’s quite endearing.”

Mana – a Maori word meaning strength – is the family dog at the Shade residence.

Small, shaggy, and jet black with a small patch of brown, it would be easy to miss Mana if wasn’t for her howling accompaniment with Rory.

“He’s part Pomeranian because of his curly tail,” Rory insists.

His mom Violet – a transplanted New Zealander who named the dog – is doubtful.

“Just a little part,” she says.

And then both mother and son laugh when they agree on Mana’s pedigree: Heinz 57.

Mana won’t ever win a blue ribbon, but he’s appropriately named for this family who make use of all their strengths.

Their three children, Rory, Jesse, 12, and Bonnie-Jean, 10, all have forms of autism. They have a high-functioning degree of autism, but they all require special care, a lot of a patience and, most importantly, love.

The family doesn’t have a lot but they have enough to be happy.

The home they live in was floated in on a barge and relocated just off Spit Road on the Campbell River Indian Band Reserve. Father Steve did most of the work himself and added on second storey for the family.

Violet apologizes for the mess, but it’s comfortable and cozy like any family home. Tucked away in the back is the utility room where you find the washing machine, dryer, two freezers and the piano Rory uses for practice.

He plays very well which is surprising, not because of his autistic condition, but because he also has degenerative neurological disorder which makes his hands shake.

“It comes and goes,” Rory says with a shrug.

If he seems indifferent its because he’s overcome so many hurdles already.

Violet says Rory was always a little different. At the age of four,  in Nanaimo, he was a member of their church’s children’s choir – but he wouldn’t sing in public.

The next year though, when he did sing, what came out was a voice few expected to hear.

Testing showed he could reach five octaves and the family was encouraged to start Rory in voice lessons.

So they started him with Callum Poppy who also sang at their church. The next year, when Rory was six, he joined Poppy in presenting Sir John Stainer’s “The Crucifixion.”

By age seven, Rory already knew his career goal: To sing opera professionally.

But there was also something else going on. Rory’s behaviour was different than the other kids; he had trouble making friends; he fidgeted with his hands; wouldn’t make eye contact with others; and fussed over little things like different foods touching on his dinner plate or even the feel of different fabrics on his skin.

But it wasn’t until Rory was in Grade 2 in Campbell River when he was properly diagnosed with autism. Still, it was a struggle.

Violet says there was little help for parents, while others, particularly children, had a hard time understanding Rory’s behaviour. He was teased and bullied almost daily.

“I still remember all the kids who bullied me. They said I had ‘Rory germs’,” he recalls.

But with the help of behavioural specialists, Rory changed, allowing his true spirit to shine.

“The person you see today isn’t the same person you saw in elementary school,” says Violet.

Rory also grew, to over six feet tall and yet his voice remained as sweet and angelic as it was as a child.

“Countertenors are rare,” he explains.

And Rory doesn’t take his talent for granted. He returns recyclables – thanks largely to donations by the congregation at Trinity Presbyterian Church – and has saved the money to attend a summer course at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.

At a course last summer at the conservatory, he met with one of Canada’s leading countertenors, Daniel Taylor, who provided him with sage advice: Don’t just do one thing.

Rory, of course, had already embraced the philosophy. He has a knack for languages – French, German, Italian and Latin; he plays piano – taking lessons from Connie Preston; he’s a straight A student at Carihi Secondary; and he’s a blue belt in karate at the Shito-Ryu Club.

“I’d like to go to university and get a couple degrees,” he says.

On Sunday, Rory Shade will perform a recital along with MaryJo Wood and Barb Cobham at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 145 Simms Rd. The concert starts at 2 p.m. Mana the dog will not be singing.