Archive for the ‘Blindness’ category

Definitions

January 22, 2017

First, thanks to everyone who read yesterday, and I know someone did …

I’ve had this site a long time, and a lot has changed in the duration. I started thinking about definitions, who we say we are, what we think is the “core” of who we are.

As I said yesterday, I work in an office now five, sometimes six days a week. I never thought I’d do that. I thought I would always be able to define myself as “concert pianist” or “piano teacher”. Perhaps I still can because I still do those things. But they aren’t what I do for most of my waking hours anymore.

Sometimes this makes me sad. We make choices because we must always do that. Consider: We have the choice, every day, to get out of bed or not. Really! It’s just that most of us, most of the time, just get up without thinking we’re choosing.

So we choose, and maybe a way down the road we think: “Man, I wish I could go back.”

We can’t, not in the way we think we want to. We’ve changed. I’ve changed. At least for the foreseeable future, because of the choices I have made, I will not be flying overseas to play concerts. I won’t be driving cross-country to exhibit dairy goats. I won’t be learning to shoot from a dear friend in Kansas. (Wait, what?!) OK, I better explain that.

Some people, including me, thought this lady was crazy to teach a totally blind person to shoot. Well, she started. She did the most important part, teaching how to handle a gun safely. Her son was the one who actually taught me to shoot. And now that I’ve done it once, I have no desire to do it again. I know I could if I had to. And I know she wasn’t crazy. She just believed so entirely in my capability as a human being that she didn’t even think twice about teaching me what anyone else would have wanted to learn.

She, more than anyone, exemplifies what I’m trying to say. She didn’t see blindness as my defining characteristic, even if it did have an impact on how I did (and do) a lot of things. She remade me as a pianist, stripping away my whole technique and building it over into something better. Do I wish I was playing more piano these days? Definitely! Will I always have such a crazy schedule that I can’t? Probably not.

So: Our lives are like books. There are chapters. They’re all connected because they’re part of the book. In some cases, our book might seem like more of a collection of short stories. But they’re all connected. The “I” is what connects them, unifies them. The same “I” that kept goats is the same “I” that sits at a desk most weekdays in a downtown office building. The same “I” that went down a spiral staircase in a Prague cathedral doubled over in laughter at my brother’s monkey screeches that frightened a gaggle of British tourists is the same “I” who kept a promise to a friend that she would not die alone in a hospital or a nursing home.

That “I” isn’t something that can be put into words. It’s just the outward circumstances that can be enumerated.

My circumstances now are that I fit my music-making and music teaching into the spaces left after the full-time office thing is done. And on that note I’ll close. I’ve got a bunch of students coming in less than two hours to study for upcoming music exams. We’re going to have a contest to see how many different scales they know. It should be a blast. (Wait, what?!) Yeah, I know, scales aren’t “supposed” to be fun. Well, that’s just the stereotype. But that’s a subject for another post.

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Back in the Saddle

June 16, 2014

It’s been a long time …

I’ve lost many things over the past few years, including my way, but I’ve also figured out that the only way to begin again is to take one step at a time. so …

 

I am beginning again today. The newest project for me is a novel, or rather, a series of them. I’ve just finished the whatevereth draft of the first book, and other than being exhausted and not wanting to look at another quotation mark, semicolon, or anything beginning with “Chapter …”, I’m pleased with the progress.

 

So what? Who cares? … Indeed! But over the next few months, be prepared for a wild ride–I never thought I could put so many words one behind the other and still like my story and my characters at “The End”.

 

Join me next time–which I promise won’t be five years from now!–and I’ll let you peek in on “Tomorrow’s Odyssey, Book 1: Daughters of North Point.”

 

Thank you so much for reading.

Last Walk of the Night

March 3, 2009

We were warned about the cold.

I had been listening to Chopin just before midnight last night, still in my clothes because Ecko and Kiefer had to go out once more. Ecko, who will turn 6 at the end of this month, never passes up a chance to go outside. Kiefer, who is now 15, doesn’t always remember why he’s out there, and even if he does, he’d much rather come back indoors and find a warm spot to curl up and go to sleep in.

But it was the last walk of the night. I’d wrapped myself in a scarf, hat, gloves, even long johns–and who is this John whom we now immortalize in thermal underwear?

The night was clear, and where we walked, I could feel no wind, surrounded by the Pine Bush.

It was utterly still, no rush of cars hurrying from importance to urgency along the road, no birdsong or cricket rasp–those wouldn’t return again until morning in another season.

But the trees shifted uneasily. They leaned in, seeming to listen for their own indication that yes, spring would be coming soon. They rubbed their branches together conspiratorially, like old knights in ancient armor, each small movement making a dry, bitter creaking sound that chilled me even more than the night’s temperature.

I was glad to have the light on my walk this morning, and the chickadees. Somehow, even as the trees continued to make their small, sullen movements, the chill had gone out of me, and I walked among them with my two faithful dogs, reassured.

Courtly Dances: Courante

March 2, 2009

Today, we had snow–not much, but enough that my two students who come down out of the Helderburgs to study canceled because of bad road conditions.

So, I took a glass of hot, sweet tea downstairs and set about learning some Bach, particularly the Courante from the fifth English Suite.

It’s a much more lighthearted dance than the preceding Allemande, which gave me fits because of all its chromaticism.

I learned the first half of the Courante and thought very seriously about trying for the whole thing. I read through the left hand part for the second half, even looking to see how many pages it took up in Braille.

But with the struggle for the Allemande fresh in my mind, I thought better of it. My mind conjured up an image of a greedy snake who tries to swallow an entire mouse in one gulp. It’s certainly possible, but, like that snake, I might be rendered mentally immobile for some time and get stuck trying uncomfortably to digest what I’d taken in, all the while making ugly sounds and floundering around in confusion.

No, better to wait, even if only until tomorrow morning.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

March 1, 2009

Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.

Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.

Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.

However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.

As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.

So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.

The program took shape fairly quickly:

Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810

Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28

I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).

But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.

My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.

I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.

Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.

I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.

In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.

Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.

This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.

Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.

But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.

Listening for History

November 13, 2008

A few days ago, I went to a local convenience store to buy ice cream. While I was paying, I noticed that, when the cash register drawer was opened, a little speaker on the machine made the sound of an old-fashioned cash register drawer, with a bell and everything. This struck me as funny and then got me thinking. How many things in life now do we use that artificially produce the sound of their non-electronic predecessors?

The most obvious, perhaps, is the cell phone that rings like an old rotary phone, with a bell instead of a chirping, trilling tone. I shake my head whenever I hear someone’s cell phone emit this sound, because in a way, it totally defeats the purpose–to have an electronic device make the sound of something it’s not. Not to mention that, usually, when this choice is set, the person who chose it has the ring volume so loud that everyone within a quarter-mile vicinity knows they’re getting “an incoming”.

Being a musician, of course I thought about synthesizers that reproduce all the instruments of the orchestra. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this field evolve, so that now, there’s even a keyboard that can be used to play parts with a human orchestra if players of those instruments aren’t available. Some musicians see this as a threat–after all, if a machine can now do what they can for less money and without the possibility of errors or fatigue or the need for health insurance and retirement benefits, pretty soon they’ll be completely irrelevant. Not really, in my opinion. The quality and realism of these synthesizers blows my mind. But there will never be a replacement for live music, played from the heart. No machine can replicate that.

Another overlooked sound, because it’s so obvious, is the doorbell. Lots of them go “ding-dong,” or play “Westminster Chimes”. But most of them have no bells anywhere in them. Instead, they’re wires hooked up to a receiver that has been programmed to play digital versions of those sounds.

Many churches still “chime the hour” and play hymns on a “carillon” at noon and five. When my husband and I lived in our first apartment, there was a church across the street that did this. I loved it because I always knew what time it was without having to look at my watch. But there was no carillon–just a pre-recorded selection that rotated through a series of hymns, and I’d be willing to bet that the clock didn’t have a bell, either.

It’s not just doorbells with no bells, either. We have clocks in our house that tick, even though there’s nothing mechanical inside that says they have to. In college, my father gave me a talking alarm clock that crowed like a rooster. We’re programmed to associate roosters with the crack of dawn, but as more of us move away from a life that includes the real feathery thing, we get our cockadoodle-doo’s from tiny speakers instead.

My brother Mike was a linguist in the Navy, and he came home from one overseas trip with an alarm clock that played the Muslim call to prayer. This clock was even louder than my rooster, and every time I heard it, I couldn’t help but envision teeming streets in some city, speakers atop poles at the corners, the sheer volume of sound from all that humanity overwhelming the senses. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.

I’ve even been to someone’s house where, when you knocked on the door, the sound of a big dog barking greeted you. This person had no dog. But if you just came to the door and didn’t know this, you’d think he did. Until, of course, you paid attention enough to notice that the barking never moved anywhere, like an excited dog running around.

There is concern among blind people about the new hybrid cars. They are very quiet when the gas engine isn’t engaged, and if we can’t hear them coming when we’re crossing streets, it could potentially be pretty dangerous. So there are proposals to have the companies install some sound-making device to alert pedestrians when one of these “quiet cars” is approaching. So we may one day have cars that don’t sound like cars but, like that cash register that started this whole mental excursion, are programmed to play the sound we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing that it’s practically hard-wired into our DNA now.

As our world becomes more and more mechanized, what sounds are we losing? How many kids holding a carton of milk have actually heard a cow moo in the flesh? How many people have listened to the racket made by a chicken laying an egg? (They sound so joyful and yet so desperately sore at the same time–how do they do that!)

We live on a busy road, and the traffic is pretty constant. But surrounded as we are by woods, since the road passes through the Pine Bush Preserve, we still get all the birds, tree-rustlings, wind, insects and other wonderful sounds of nature. Personally, I don’t think I would want to live anywhere I couldn’t hear those things, though being in a city would solve a lot of transportation problems for me as a non-driver.

I use technology every day to compose. I have a musical keyboard hooked up to this computer, and I use software to produce all the sounds of the instruments in my pieces. But I try to make the results as realistic as possible. In a piece for four guitars, for instance, I’ve been known to make each one start a tiny fraction of a second after the other three, so they’re not quite exactly synchronized. The computer is great because it will mathematically correct what’s been recorded, if you want it to, so it is perfectly aligned in rhythm. But human beings, even the most rhythmically gifted among us, aren’t this precise.

My greatest compliment comes when someone hearing something I’ve created wants to know who played all those instruments and gets this incredulous look when they learn they all came out of a little office on the first floor of my house. To me, there’s nothing worse than “canned” music–music that sounds so artificial that it’s like aural Cheez Whiz.

And when I’ve pushed enough buttons and crunched enough numbers to almost drive me crazy, I can go into the next room, sit down at a totally non-electric keyboard, pause to get my bearings, and then immerse myself in the sound of an instrument that has been bringing pleasure and expression to millions for the past three hundred years. The construction has changed as materials have advanced, but the basic structure and sound haven’t changed beyond recognition.

Even if we lose electricity and I can’t use the computer, the piano is always waiting for me.

Teaching Moments

October 30, 2008

“Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”—Swami Vivekananda

What do our words and actions teach others? What do we learn by observing the words and actions of others?

You don’t have to be a “teacher” in order to educate someone. You do it by being who you are, indelibly shaped by your experiences and guided by your beliefs.

There are plenty of obvious examples of this. Parents show their children how to tie shoes, make sandwiches, drive cars and balance checkbooks. They sign kids up for piano lessons, dance or martial arts classes, religious instruction, sports clinics or art camp, and tutoring in preparation for college.

But what are you teaching others simply by going through life? When you have a brief conversation with a fellow passenger on a train, or stand in front of someone in the grocery store checkout line, the opportunities for being observed are countless. Whether it’s to notice the book you’re carrying on that train, or the different vegetables you’ve got in your cart, these can spark curiosity and encourage exploration, expansion of another person’s horizons.

We each hold unique knowledge that only we can pass on. Stories, songs, images, ideas—these are the vehicles for learning that humanity has relied upon for millennia. They will change as our society changes, to fit the needs and desires each generation has with regard to how they communicate and understand. (If you need an illustration of this, just consider the difference between sending messages with pigeons and sending them via e-mail, or hearing a village monk play a flute after a three-day pilgrimage as opposed to choosing from among ten thousand songs by pressing a button on your MP3 player.)

Each time we are presented with new information, we are also presented with a choice. Do we wish to further our knowledge and incorporate new material into our reality, or do we want to remain where we are?

To deny anyone this choice by restricting their exposure to education or limiting their access to it is one of the gravest disservices imaginable. For someone to say, for instance, that you can’t learn to read because you’re a girl or because you’re black or because you’re blind and can’t use print books like everyone else or because you can’t pay to attend a fancy school or because no one else in your family has ever done it before or because your parents work in a particular profession or worship in a certain way … These ideas may seem to make perfect sense to those who hold them, but from the outside looking in, they don’t.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot since today, I will take sixteen boxes of Braille books to the post office and send them to a pastor in a very rural part of Malawi, a country in central Africa that is arguably one of the poorest places on earth. I’ve been sending books to this pastor since 2001. Where he lives, there’s no running water, no electricity. There are no services for people with disabilities, including the blind. In many cases, rather than going to school, they are sent out to beg by their families.

Not content with this outcome and knowing that, like every other human being, the blind and disabled have dignity, are respectable, and, most importantly, can learn and want to learn. So, he has gone from village to village and organized true grassroots groups of these people, teaching them to garden, to cook. Women who are blind have learned to cook. The Braille books have been passed from one person to another to another. Now, instead of one person reading them and discarding them, they may get read by twenty people, maybe more. Each person who touches the pages gains knowledge they didn’t have before and sees into a part of the world they never could have imagined before.

Once that’s done, I’ll go back to my “regular” job of teaching piano. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are five or seventy-five. All I need in order to teach you is your desire to learn. It is a great privilege to watch students of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, discovering an expressive art form. Teaching, for me, is about passing on the things I think are precious–art, knowledge, belief in the innate power of the human spirit to rise above challenging circumstances–that inspires me to teach. These gifts shouldn’t die with me. I have a responsibility to pass them to others, whether they are in generations younger than me or those who began life before I did.

Even writing is a form of teaching, and I’ve learned more, I think, from the various blogs I’ve visited than I have from any other aspect of the Internet. Perhaps this hasn’t been “pure” knowledge, as in verifiable facts. But the sheer volume of possibilities to catch a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is unparalleled anywhere on earth.

You can only give people the chance to choose. You can’t force them to follow your logic. For every person who chooses to change, there is one who refuses and remains in their current situation. To judge one as “better” than the other is easy, especially if we believe strongly in the advantages of one way over the other.

Today, I’ll be helped by many people. The woman who drives me to the post office has grandchildren of her own. What will I learn from her as we talk, laugh, carry boxes, maybe share a cup of tea? What will I absorb during my piano lessons, and who am I to say the “wisdom” of a 7-year-old is more or less valuable than that of a 12-year-old or an adult? That’s a judgment I refuse to make.

Judgment is, in its own way, a lack of education. If we can’t accept the endless array of humanity around us without a basic level of universal respect regardless of differing viewpoints, then what does that teach others about us? More importantly, what does that teach us about ourselves?