Echo Shaffer has a smile that lights up a room. And a voice that lights up a stage.
The fifteen year-old, whose middle name is Wren, has kept a song in her heart since before she was born. Her mom, Brenda, sang to Echo and then watched the tables turn as her toddler, with microphone in hand and captivated by the songs of Disney movies, serenaded her mom.
But by the time she was seven years old, Brenda noticed she was doing something more. “As Echo would sing along to Disney music, she would say, ‘There’s a really pretty buzz that’s happening in the song. “My princesses and I are buzzing together.’
That buzz was the harmony.
Echo’s sensitivity to sound made it difficult to tolerate loud noises, including chatter in her elementary school classroom. At times, she would stand up and tell her classmates to be quiet. She also couldn’t stand the sound of a baby crying.
Brenda knew something was wrong.
At first brushed it off as a behavior issue, the family got a second medical opinion and received a diagnosis of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder).
A Mountain to Climb
Like the sound of an echo that bounces back from a mountain, so it does for this teenager. And this is her mountain to climb.
“When there’s a lot noise around me, I can’t focus on just one sound. I hear the pen clicking, the whispering, the person talking – every sound all at the same time. I’m also sensitive to touch.” Echo added, “Having tags on my clothes and even combing my hair hurts. I used to wear my socks inside out so that the seams weren’t touching me.”
Echo was prescribed occupational therapy and listening to classical music through headphones for one half hour before going to school was part of her treatment.
“She handled the day better if she had this music therapy before school. It was amazing what a difference it made. She was better equipped to handle the noise surrounding her in class and better able to tolerate how her clothes felt on her body,” Brenda said.
Coping through Music
At Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School, where Echo will enter her sophomore year, music is still a big part of her coping regime. “I hum a lot. I always have a song in my mind. When I’m studying, I blast some music. In class, I doodle. All of these things help me to focus.”
Her love of music is helping her overcome the diagnosis of SPD.
Since the age of eight, Echo has performed in more than a half dozen productions at California University of PA, Geyer Performing Arts Center, CGlee at the Carnegie, as well as Conn-Area and Geibel Catholic schools.
In her first high school musical production this year, Echo played the role of Sister Mary Stephen in “Sister Act” and was thrilled to have a chance to sing for this signature school event.
Echo credits Mr. Nick Bell, the Geibel Catholic musical director, for being instrumental in her musical pursuits. “He’s my favorite teacher. He really cares about all of the students and is so uplifting.” She added, “Mr. Bell was the first to suggest lessons to bring out the best of my voice.”
Over the past year, Echo has been taking those lessons from Merle Stutzman, a retired musical director in the Connellsville Area School District. “He teaches me theory and how to take care of my voice. He gives me techniques on how to make it easier to sing and to find that line in my voice to make it sound nicer. Mr. Stutzman taught me to belt out a song.”
I Will Do
Those songs cover a wide genre of music, including, Opera. Performing in events like the recently held, “Talent on the Mountain”, in Markleysburg, PA, gives her the opportunity to showcase what she can do. The singer also plays the trombone, ukulele, guitar and piano.
Moving into her sophomore year in high school, Echo already has her sights set on majoring in vocal performance and ultimately performing on Broadway or in musical theater around the world. She’s looking at schools that include Julliard and CMU. And she’s not afraid to share that goal.
“Music is my past, present and future. I can’t imagine doing anything that doesn’t involve music. Mr. Stutzman tells us, ‘Don’t say, I will try. Say, I will do.’”
My Best Friend
If there is one person who is doing everything she can to help Echo reach those goals, it’s her mom. Some days making multiple 40-minute round trip commutes to get Echo to school, lessons and activities, the two spend quality time together in the car. And they talk.
“When I was in sixth grade at Conn-Area Catholic, I told my mom about all the cool things we were learning in the Bible. We became Catholic together and now we’re active in our church at Immaculate Conception. I use my voice to spread His word as a cantor and member of the choir.”
My mom has supported me through all of my endeavors. She is my best friend. She gives all her time to support what I want. I love her so much.”
A Gift from God
With abundant love and faith, Echo radiates joy. And like the echo that bounces back off of the mountain, no obstacle in her path will hold back her beautiful sound.
“I know that my voice is a gift from God. When performing, I just let myself go. I’m nervous before I go on, but once I’m on stage, I’m completely calm.