Audi Ellis recently started high school in Incheon, South Korea. The 15-year-old moved to the city from Chicago with her family in June 2021 when her dad accepted a position as vice president of a pharmaceutical company. A competitive figure skater, cellist, actor, and now a Berklee Online certificate student, Audi is adjusting all of her passions to her new home, and connecting with Berklee’s worldwide music community helps bridge some gaps.
“It’s hard living in a foreign country,” says Audi. “You feel like an outcast especially due to the language barrier. However, studying with Berklee Online gave me something to be a part of. I was able to connect to other musicians as well as learn a bunch . . . finding my people through Berklee made a massive impact on my life.”
Audi approaches her passion for the arts as fearlessly as moving 6,000 miles across the world. As a visually impaired creative, Audi is accustomed to navigating new environments and not compromising on her art, even though it hasn’t been easy.
“Whether it’s with music or anything, I’ve been through some hard parts with it, but I’ve grown,” says Audi. “I think it’s something that’s defined who I am. And I use it as a way to empower myself and empower other people.”
Audi has Nystagmus, which causes her eyes to move rapidly, and Cone Rod Dystrophy, which causes vision loss over time.
“They basically affect my vision in multiple different ways with clarity,” Audi says. “I lack depth perception, which means that grasping distance is really hard. So something may look closer to me than it does to somebody with regular vision.”
This is something that concerned Audi’s mom when she first expressed interest in figure skating. However, through trial and error, and some bruises along the way, Audi learned how to calibrate in a way that allowed her to thrive in the sport.
“It took a lot of jumping at the walls to figure everything out,” says Audi. “A lot of practice and figuring out the rink and figuring out the dimensions of the rink so that I would know when to jump, whether I was jumping later or earlier, depending on where the wall was.”
Even though Audi can make light of her persistence in the sport, it was difficult to advocate for her needs and to convince her coaches to let her compete. Audi had to hit more metaphoric walls playing cello in her school orchestra. Audi’s mom would enlarge and print out all of her sheet music, and her middle school peers were not kind about it.
“I remember I always got teased for it, growing up,” says Audi. “At one point, I said I wasn’t going to use enlarged music and I just suffered through with tiny music that I could not see at all. It was terrible, but I suffered because I didn’t want to be the kid that was different.”
Fortunately Audi and her family connected with a violinist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Alison Dalton, who also happens to be visually impaired. She recommended a device to Audi that displays digitally enlarged sheet music that can flip to the next staff with a pedal. Audi describes the device as a lightweight tablet that is about the size of a Macbook desktop computer and can rest on a music stand.
“I remember when I got it for the first time I could see staccato markings and things I’ve always been told about,” says Audi. “I was like, oh my gosh, they actually exist! I can see them. Wow! I’ve gone through a lot of hard times when I was like, ‘this isn’t worth it.’ But I kept pushing through because I had my family and people who were supporting me.”
Audi is getting that same support for her acting endeavors, taking part in her school musical The Secret Garden, and running her TikTok account, which includes lip-syncs of her favorite TV drama monologues from Grey’s Anatomy, and shows from her home city like One Chicago.
“I fell in love with acting because I thought it was such a cool art form to be able to have somebody create this idea and to take what’s on a piece of paper and bring it to life,” says Audi. “I found that incredibly fascinating.”
As a sophomore in high school, Audi still has time to figure out what she wants to do as a career. Audi says she’ll likely want to come back to the US for college, and wants to double major in acting and cello performance. Audi is getting a head start by earning her General Music Studies certificate with Berklee Online.
“I’m glad I get to show that it’s available for all ages of people who want to pursue it,” says Audi. “If you’re a high school student out there and you see this, go for it! It may seem terrifying and overwhelming, and like, oh my gosh, how can I do this? But you’ll figure it out. If you’re committed and you want to do it, you will make time for it.”