#InternationalGuideDogDay

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

  • Working For Love (Guide Dog Training Part 1)” was the first essay I ever wrote about York, in June of 2014. Little did I know how often York would inspire me to literary action.
  • Quartet Beyond Measure” details how my barbershop quartet came together and adapted to our furry fifth member.
  • Of Dogs and Dragons” examines the beautiful and rewarding inter-species partnership in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — and makes the case that her fantasy world of talking dragons and epic battles reflects our powerful real-world collaboration with service animals.
  • Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World“: I wrote this piece last April and it was published in The Hopper, an eco-literary journal from Green Writers Press in Vermont. To this day, “Working Resonance” is one of my favorite essays, a piece I am incredibly proud of. I reread it often because I believe it has a larger message than I even understood at the time. It expresses so much of what I want to achieve in the world.
  • How My Life Changed With a Guide Dog” started out as an open letter to the generous donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was picked up by a Jacksonville newspaper — further evidence that sincere gratitude cannot be contained.

I hope you enjoy these pieces and take a moment to thank your furry companions, even if they are not working dogs. If you want more wordsmithing about my adventures with York, just click the “guide dog” entry in the tag cloud on the right.

Happy International Guide Dog Day to all!

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October Interview: Spark, Startle, Enlighten!

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, age 53, is an  associate professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University (in Bowling Green, Ohio).  She teaches technical linguistics courses for people who wish to teach English to speakers of other languages.  She says it’s a marvelous job: “I sort of love it.”

She has a scattering of background hobbies such as bread baking, knitting, whittling, and reading good science fiction and nonfiction science books.  And she likes standing on beaches feeling simultaneously small and exalted.

But music is what takes up most of her free time and makes a good try at her non-free time as well.  She’s one of the Grande Royale Ükulelists of the Black Swamp, a strumming, picking, harmonizing, rock-and-rolling, song-writing, carrying-on quartet which is maybe the most fun she’s ever had; go to http://www.grubsmusic.com for all the happy details. Find her and her band on Facebook and iTunes!

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I have been blind since birth.  I could perceive a little light and color as a small child, but lost all light perception more or less around age 12.  Although I have no external light perception whatsoever, what I perceive visually now — perhaps due to some ongoing random stimulation of my retina — is unpatterned brightness in a variety of colors which I can no longer accurately name but which I have learned to control to some extent.  This is sometimes very disorienting and sometimes moderately interesting.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I use a cane.  Always and only a cane.  Although I love dogs, I prefer to get into my own mischief.  I can also tolerate the foolish things sighted people say to cane travelers better than I could tolerate the foolish things they say to dog guide users.  The cane is so much a part of my identity that I sometimes find myself stopping when reading an action sequence in a book thinking: “Wait! If he’s running down the hall, and he’s got the alien artifact in one hand and his laser rifle in the other, how is he holding his cane?” Yeah … I know.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

To start, I’m going to sound like a very broken record here — or perhaps today we say a skipping CD — the most consistent frustrations I face related to blindness are the public’s bizarre, distorted ideas about blindness, and their perverse inability to notice, examine, and discard those ideas. They are fiercely ingrained, and anything that contradicts them is dismissed as an “exception to the rule” rather than evidence that the rule itself is faulty.

For example, I was appalled by the dependent blind character in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot  See, but many of my sighted friends had no trouble with her passivity or her literal inability to put on her own shoes. What I read as destructive stereotypes went unnoticed by most of them.

If, to take another example, I talk to my students about prejudice against disabled people and negative stereotypes about blindness in particular, the majority regularly inform me happily that these no longer exist: “You have a good job,” they say, and that finishes the deal for them. I become silent. What am I supposed to say?

So, I suppose my problem is that the harmful stereotypes that keep 70 percent of blind folks unemployed … simply do not exist in the minds of sighted people. They are omnipresent and thus invisible.

How do I handle it? Increasingly, I write. I try to let the experiences which enrage or frighten or dismay me flow in and out through my fingers.  I feel like … I hope that … it helps. And, maybe, if I keep doing it, these little sparks born of frustration will fly out and startle, or enlighten, or bring hope … or set fires. Here, for example, is a YouTube video I recently made in response to the destructive yet perversely popular #HowEyeSeeIt campaign from the Foundation Fighting Blindness:

 

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

There are, of course, my indispensable friends who hold space for me in the ordinary/extraordinary way that people can do for each other. (I hope that this is everybody’s answer to this question.) Beyond this, my very own front line defense against despair, rage, and exhaustion is dropping into wordless music. It’s planless: I don’t know if it’s the playing or the waiting to hear what will be played, but a space is cleared around me when I pick up an instrument to play and let go of whatever else I’m carrying. I can feel the day receding and the space opening, and afterward, I’m both more distant from, and more entirely a part of, whatever it was that set me off. It’s a connection that gives me courage and serenity, and inspires musings that are sometimes inexpressibly sacred and sometimes very satisfyingly profane. It is my power source.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

The belief about blindness that harms me most often is that blind people are viewed as basically useless in most situations. If there is a table to be moved, or something that needs retrieved from a high shelf, or even a long line to stand in, I am offered a chair while the work goes on around me … “Because it’s easier.” When I hear “because it’s easier”, I also hear exclusion from responsibility and isolation from the community.

And, horribly, part of me has gotten used to it. I’m so conditioned to things being inaccessible that I am not the first to jump when someone yells, “Who can get this?” If I’m standing at the side of a soccer field, and a ball rolls my way, I often stand unmoving, unwilling to risk diving for it, even though diving for it would be the fun thing to do. And I know why. I grew up in the same culture as everyone else, absorbing spoken and unspoken information about race, gender, and ability along with my language and my style of dress. These beliefs are everywhere, and I know that my own little acts of education or compassion or assertiveness are not going to sweep them all away. But I’m still hopeful; as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” So, that’s what I do: I spend my days birdwatching and tending my tresses.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. What can I say about this book? The blurb pulled me in: “Puerto Rican Jesuit linguist in space”. For real. Who would not love that?But the bit that fixes the attention is not the well-wrought story or the lovely prose; it’s a story about people who leap guts-first into life, struggling together with humor, compassion, grace, and dignity to do the right thing, and (quasi-spoiler alert!) when they fail, reassembling with courage and humility.  Ms. Russell asks the big questions, and the answers — when there are answers — are complex and beautiful. Rereading this book restores my faith that people are good, smart, and will work toward justice and peace … once they understand what that is.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

The next ten years? I’m still sort of figuring out Saturday.

I would like to become a more precise and effective voice in the ongoing struggle for equality for disabled people, and in case that sounds too pretentious, I would also very very much like to become a more expressive and powerful musician and make more and better music. I would like to continue to simplify my life so that I can concentrate my attention on the things I can do that might make a difference. That, and please let me go back to Hawaii again where I can practice being small and exalted for several uninterrupted days!

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about? What topics would you prefer to discuss?

If you had asked me about interview questions when I was 25, I would have said that journalists are incapable of detecting any kind of complex human existence beneath the dazzling light that reflects off a white cane. Everything I did had to be about blindness. Now, though, I seem to have emerged into new cultural territory. The media feeds on young disabled people who they can present as inspiring or old disabled people who are either heroic or poignant. In the middle, blindness, at least, is less interesting. I stopped being a prototype around 30, I think: middle-aged blind women aren’t as useful for inspiration porn, and my children are old enough now that nobody thinks to ask me how I raised them. So, in many ways, I am freer now than I have ever been before to be a linguist, musician, or anything else I want to be … and maybe because of this freedom, I am now actually ready and willing to talk about blindness. However, it is often clearly communicated to me that what I want to say about blindness is not nearly as welcome as the things they want to ask about blindness. But I’m not a young woman just starting to sort through these things any more; now, I’m a much older and stronger woman … with a power source, and an increasing desire to swat birds out of the sky.

 

“Sketching the Rose” in the September issue of Wordgathering!

Today the September issue of Wordgathering is live, and my essay, ‘Sketching the Rose,” is the sole piece in the Music section! Here’s how the piece begins:

Summer can be a slow season for my barbershop chorus. We enter regional competition in April, and if our scores are good enough, we’ll compete on the international stage in October of the following year. Because we have eighteen months to perfect our competition music, we spend the summer months expanding our repertoire and just having fun–which is barbershop code for learning “tags.”

Tags are the last few lines of a song, stretched out and embellished with lush harmonies. At our regional competitions, the hotel corridors are filled with quartets singing tags. Established quartets and pickup quartets–groups that have competed for years and foursomes who have just met by the elevator. Because tags are short and catchy, most people teach and learn them by ear.

When we see “tag singing” on the rehearsal agenda, my fellow singers and I find our respective sections on the risers: lead, bass, baritone, and tenor. Even in an all-female ensemble, we still use the traditional part names from men’s barbershop–we can’t help that the male tradition was established first. As I step up next to the other baritones, our section managers form a quartet in front.

Read the entire piece here.

Two Essays Published!

Today two of my essays appeared in the June issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The first, “Designing the Parachorus,” was originally posted on this blog (that’s right folks, you read it here!), and is now in a section of the online journal called “The Arts.” In this piece, I described my problematic position as a blind musician and my thoughts on the ultimate disability-friendly ensemble.

When Wordgathering asked if they could (re)publish this post, I proposed a follow-up piece that would describe how my theories played out on a real stage. I wrote “Quartet Beyond Measure,” an essay that describes my quartet’s first experience of Regional Competition. Here’s how it begins:

In the noisy hotel lobby, Jeanie and I take our places behind several women checking in at the front desk. We guess that they are fellow Sweet Adelines—barbershop singers who have arrived in Daytona for Regional Competition. As we step forward to offer our names and credit cards, Jeanie turns to me: “Is it too bright in here for you?”

“Absolutely,” I flick one brief glance over the receptionist’s shoulder. Behind the tall desk, huge windows offer a view of the sunny Florida beach. I look down, grateful for the dark surface of the desk, the small black wallet in my hand, and the even blacker Labrador in harness sitting by my left foot. Through my sunglasses, I watch as my guide dog slides to the floor, enjoying the feel of the cool tiles against his belly. While I converse with the receptionist’s blurry silhouette, I bless York’s dark coat—a visual anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar place.

As my fellow singers and I walk to our rooms, I steel myself for the unfriendly or intrusive comments that other handlers have warned me about. Although York and I have completed two pleasant hotel stays, I still feel compelled to prepare myself for incivility—or at least ignorance. But I meet neither of these as we traverse short flights of stairs, carpet, and tile. Instead, I listen to our porter’s cheerful commentary: “Yes, this is one of my favorite weekends of the whole year! We just love having you singers staying with us.”

Read the full essay here.

Essay: Sight and Singing

My three-part essay, “Sight and Singing,” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Breath & Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature:

I enter the large conference room, holding Kerry’s elbow. High ceilings and bare floors amplify the sound of our students’ voices as we find seats at the long folding tables. Most of our students are sitting at the table in front, so we choose seats behind them. For the next six hours, we will occupy cold, metal folding chairs – and mine makes an unnecessary amount of noise when I draw it away from the table. It scrapes along the floor, the sound intensified by the chair’s hollow legs.

Read the full essay here.

Article: Introducing my guide dog to the world of classical music

Today Minnesota Public Radio published my piece about York’s presence in my musical life:

“JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s Tuesday evening, and after a four-week hiatus, I’m finally attending chorus rehearsal again — but I haven’t assumed my usual place on the risers. I’m seated toward the back of the hall, awaiting a cue from my director and trying to curtail the explorations of my new companion: an 18-month-old black Labrador.”

Read the full article here.

Interview: “Therapeutic music: Edith Moore-Hubert on the healing properties of classical music.”

Today Classical MPR published my interview of a Jacksonville musician:

“With a master’s degree in piano performance from Manhattan School of Music, Edith Moore-Hubert has performed in academic, liturgical, medical, and concert settings for almost 30 years. In 2010, she released a solo CD, Music to Calm Your Soul. She describes her music as therapeutic, and I asked her to share some insight into the healing potential of classical music. ”

Read the full article.

Love Songs: Guide Dog Training Part 4

This short piece appeared in the Graduate Corner section of Forward Together: A Newsletter for Graduates of Southeastern Guide Dogs (August/September issue).

*  *  *

Before I started training at Southeastern, I spent hours dreaming of the moment when I would meet my pup. In my mind’s eye, the dog – features unspecified – would enter the room, bound toward me, and leap into my arms. Everything about its body language would shout, “I can’t wait to begin our life together!”

So when I was actually introduced to my pup, a black lab male named York, I had to watch my dreamscape crumble into ungainly pieces. Once his CCT* left the room, York ran to the end of his leash, dropped to the floor, and began a plaintive wail. Trainers assured me that York would warm up, but I didn’t believe them. I imagined York staring haughtily into the distance and longed for the moment when I would know that he actually cared about me.

When York and I worked for the first time in harness, I began to understand the level of trust and courage we both needed. On the nature trail, we prepared to step down out of the gazebo, and I froze. Unwilling to let York’s paws gauge the depth of the step down, I wanted my cane: I wasn’t prepared to depend on another being, especially one who didn’t seem to like me very much. After an eternity of minutes, I did step down – and I didn’t twist an ankle. York’s paws and my feet were safely on the path, moving forward. In that small gesture, I recognized his potential in harness.

Learning to trust my trainers as well as York, I should have believed them when they said the long recall would make me happy. After I left York in a sit-stay, he began a familiar sound – the morose whine I remembered from our initial meeting. At the end of the designated hallway, I called his name and heard him barreling down corridors, collar jingling, paws thumping. I saw him flying toward me – a huge hurtling black blur. My trainer caught him before he could leap into my arms.

When I left him on tie-down so I could do laundry, I heard York’s song again. I timed the process of loading the washer: not more than 5 minutes. But York stood at the half-open door to my room, his cries amplified by the long hallway. I turned down the hallway and saw him sprawled in my doorway, looking deflated. When I came to the door, I heard him leaping with joy, tail swinging, ears flapping.

I know I should quiet his vocal outbursts, but I can’t help smiling when York starts crying for me. His persistent whine – more like the moan of an injured whale – rings in my ears like a love song. It’s the theme to my longed-for moment, the song that says he wants me beside him.

 

* Canine Care Technician

“Singing Over the Bones”: The Miracle of Art and Intention

If a friendship starts with a conversation about books, the two friends are hardly surprised when literature itself becomes a third, equal presence in the relationship. This is how things began for Katie and me. Katie became my first “college friend” when an orientation team leader asked her to look after me. Both Katie and I considered this an awkward arrangement; I felt like her baggage, and Katie felt like my babysitter. Without openly acknowledging the awkwardness, I took her elbow, and we tried to make small talk. In minutes, the all-important question arose: Do you like to read?

I cannot now recall which of us asked this question, but it sparked an enthusiastic discussion. After only a few sentences, we were excitedly trading literary recommendations, kindled by the realization of our mutual love of Jane Austen. Over the next seven years of our friendship, we’ve since encouraged each other to read hundreds of texts—from classical Chinese philosophy to modern poetry. We’ve reveled in wide-ranging discoveries—the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the folktales of medieval Iceland, and the latest books that blend neuroscience and the philosophies of yoga. When Katie gives me a book, I know it will challenge my mind and speak to my soul.

For my most recent birthday, she presented me with a copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s 1975 work, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. It’s a thick volume – over 500 pages – that offers anthropological, psychological, and spiritual commentary on the female psyche and the power of storytelling. In its first pages, Estés introduces the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a mysterious crone who wanders the world and collects the bones of dead creatures, especially wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, La Loba begins to “sing over the bones,” and her singing transforms the skeleton into a living creature. With each line of melody, the Wolf Woman imbues the dead bones with life, adding blood, muscles, skin, and fur, until the creature begins to breathe and move. With purposeful singing, La Loba can resurrect any creature from this throwaway material “in danger of being lost to the world” – its bones (23).

It is the connection between singing, life, and intention that draws me to read on. After presenting the story of La Loba, Estés insists that we must all look for our own “bones,” the integral structures of our spirituality, the framework of our souls. She writes, “[The story] promises that, if we will sing the song, we can call up the psychic remains of the wild soul and sing her into a vital shape again” (24). For Estés, and for those who respect the story of La Loba, our life’s work is to uncover and nurture our deepest selves. We must find the bones and sing over them, crooning them to life.

I find this tribal story compelling because it reiterates, or perhaps predates, what I have learned through my experiences: singing changes the world of the singer. The cultures who believe in some version of La Loba are not the only ones to acknowledge the power of singing. Throughout my Catholic upbringing, the adults around me encouraged my love for singing, citing the mantra, “Singing is praying twice.” Whenever I performed sacred music – or choral music in general – my experiences confirmed the truth of this adage. I felt, as I have said in previous blogs, incredibly connected with my fellow singers and with the divine.

I remember when I first heard someone talk about the connection between art and life in specific terms. My tenth grade world history teacher showed slides of tribal artifacts from Africa and said, “These people didn’t believe in ‘life for art.’ They believed in ‘art for life.’” She meant that every tool for daily living, every piece of practical houseware, was covered with art: vivid colors, carvings, runes. The members of this tribe used art to infuse everyday life with meaning and beauty. No article went without embellishment.

Believing in “art for life” gives each person infinite possibilities for enriching their everyday experiences. In his Letters to a Young Poet, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke conveys his enthusiasm for this ideal; he argues that if you can’t find artistic inspiration, you’re not looking hard enough. Rilke teaches that the real artist can draw inspiration from the most ordinary experiences. The dedicated artist uses art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in the service of life—to make our existence more sincere, more real. To help us understand the unbearable and celebrate the miraculous.

But art is not always a miracle cure. In her exploration of animal and human emotions, behavioral analyst Patricia McDonald relates a story about Ella Fitzgerald, in which Ella’s singing brought to life some unexpected emotions. Apparently, after spending a year singing the lyric, “I’m so tired,” Ella began to experience chronic fatigue, but she didn’t unearth the connection between lyric and feeling until she discussed the situation with her doctor. Her repeated lyrics became a kind of incantation—though I’m sure her physician didn’t use that word—telling her how to live.

Lyrics contain a transformative power. Often at the end of rehearsal, my chorus members heed the call to “Circle up!” We join hands, making a human chain, and sing one of our many Sweet Adeline classics. To prepare for international competition in Hawaii, we currently favor “Aloha ‘Oe,” a beautiful Hawaiian parting song. But when I hear about Ella’s “I’m so tired,” I can’t help but think of one of our other favorites, “Harmonize the World.”

The skeptic in me wants to interrogate this song: Does it really work? Can lyrics really harmonize the world? But I silence the skeptic by remembering my bones. Singing is praying twice, and words have power. Then I feel that I am really doing something by singing over the bones of harmony, calling up from the dust of old chords a vision of a peaceful, civil world—a world of constant, contagious music.

Each time I prepare to sing, I ask myself a series of questions. What will I make with my music? What bones have I collected? What will I sing to life? I marvel at the miracles wrought by art and intention—the incredible changes in mood and circumstance that singing can achieve. I find power not only in the words I sing but also in the action of singing, in the sensation of being surrounded by kindred spirits, in the sheer, primal resonance of many voices making harmony. Even the mechanisms of singing are miraculous for me. I am delighted and absorbed in this spiritual task of finding my bones and my voice—of experiencing what I can build with my voice and my beliefs.

The Character of Sound

In his book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull calls himself a “whole body seer,” one who lives in a world seamlessly comprised of four senses. Like many blind people, Hull can detect seemingly visual features of his world through senses other than vision. He can understand where and how the rain falls by ear. Undoubtedly, he can tell whether he walks into an empty room or a room filled with furniture – just by how the air in the room feels as he moves. Describing how the brain of the blind person processes voices, he writes, “For the blind, people are not there unless they speak…When you are blind, a hand suddenly grabs you. A voice suddenly addresses you. There is no anticipation or preparation…people are in motion, they are temporal, they come and they go.”

I frequently experience Hull’s brand of vocal navigation. I am aware of an approaching person only by his or her audible personality. I must weave a narrative from the sounds around me. I will present two vignettes.

The first vignette places me in an environment where noises abound. Katie and I have plans to meet for coffee, and I arrive early. I sit down at a small, round table and pile my bags on the tabletop. I wait for the familiar jingling of keys that indicates Katie’s approach. As I wait, a person approaches me–through sound. A voice happens upon my ears. “Hilary? Is your name Hilary?”

I look up and search for the speaker. This is a complex spatial calculation; my mind places the woman in front of me, diagonally to my right—at two o’clock. I ask if she is speaking to me.

“Yes,” she says. “There’s a drink up for Hilary, so I wanted to see if it was yours.”

I explain that I am not Hilary, and I assume she walks away. She grows silent, so she ceases to hold my attention.

Moments later, a second voice emerges on my left—another woman, another courtesy. “Emily, I want to let you know I’ve just mopped this area. So be careful.”

I thank the unseen employee, whose voice is vaguely familiar. Unable to read her name tag, I don’t know who she is. I only know I’ve made small talk with her while she took my order and prepared my countless soy chai lattes.

Soon the jingling of keys – I think they’re keys, they sound like keys  – alerts me to Katie’s approach. Without fail, I can calculate about 3 seconds between the musical sound and Katie’s equally musical, “Hey Em!”

The second vignette finds me in a calmer, quieter place: the classroom. Here, I learn the location of students by the unzipping of bags, the shuffling of papers, the crunching of granola bars, and the beeping of cell phones. On final exam day, a new sound signals an approaching student—the chattering ice in a plastic Starbucks cup. I can construct a probable scenario from this ice, rattling as the student walks past. The noisy beverage tells me two things: the student was up late last night and the weather is hot today.

For the curious, I’ll add this: you can tell what kind of cup the student is carrying by listening to the ice. The ice in a plastic cup rattles more noisily than the ice in a styrofoam cup. You can also guess the quality and amount of liquid in the cup, depending on the speed and attitude of the rattling ice. I know from the sloshy rattling that my students are drinking iced coffees, iced lattes, or iced green teas. Frappuccinos, because of their smooth, blended texture, do not make a lot of noise until you get to the last few, desperate sips.

As students approach my desk to drop off their exam papers, I marvel at how many carry iced coffee drinks. To me, these students present identical audible profiles; each drink rattles in much the same way. When a student chooses to give a parting word, I can distinguish him or her from the crowd of iced coffee drinkers. I wonder if they realize their own anonymity in this case.

John Hull’s description of hearing voices makes the blind person seem like a solitary figure, suspended in a passive sea of sound. Unable to control who and what comes near, this auditory observer must discern and build his world. And from this perspective, this world-building seems like a lonely, vulnerable task.

However, building a world from sounds can create powerful realizations. Whenever I attend a concert, I intentionally sit far from the stage so that I won’t be distracted by scraps of visual perception. Sitting several rows back, I listen and find a place where the music itself rises upward—a unified fabric of sound, infused with human vitality. I often forget that the instruments, both human and man-made, are attached to human bodies. For me, the music becomes a seamless presence. Somehow the human endeavors are elevated, transformed. I forget about individuals holding bows, pressing keys, bringing the air that fuels the beautiful tones. I forget that the human voice resides in a human body. I can’t hear the boundaries of the human body, so the sound has no boundaries.

Beginning as perception, the boundlessness of music becomes poetry for me; it becomes the cornerstone of my musical philosophy. I immerse myself in the collaboration, only to be carried upward beyond my own body. In the audience, I forget that musicians are tied to the earth; as a performer, I nourish my sound on this perception.

My auditory world-building exceeds the task of telling me who is near and what they’re doing. It creates or conveys the personalities of others and shapes the deeper core of my understanding.

Music Lessons

Eleven years ago, I sat in a cold, hard folding chair, ready to meet my high school chorus director and fellow singers for the first time. Arranged in three concentric semicircles, the chairs faced a creaky metal music stand, a sturdy conducting platform, and a white board, designed to resemble a giant sheet of staff paper. Though I could not distinguish the neat black lines on the board, I knew they were there. My mobility instructor had described them when she oriented me to the room.

With two resounding thuds, a petite, compact person stepped onto the conducting platform. I could distinguish a dark blouse, and black pants. White cuffs and collar helped me find her hands and face. Her mouth resided somewhere beneath a head of bobbed gray-blond hair, but her voice could not be confined to that petite frame. It was huge, powerful, with a touch of gravel.

In a friendly, no-nonsense manner, she introduced herself as Mrs. B. She was prepared to teach us how to sing and read music. She was adamant to correct the school myth that her chorus class was an “easy A.”

“This may be an elective,” she declared, her voice intense and serious. “But you will work hard.”

Then she asked us about our previous musical experience. We were instructed to raise our hands if we’d had piano or voice lessons or played in a middle school band. At the mention of piano, my hand shot up. I was excited to prove myself, to show her that I was one step ahead of my peers.

“Well, forget all of that,” she insisted, waving a dismissive hand at our collective experience. “We’re all equals in this room. You may have had previous training, but your present dedication will earn my respect.”

In the next weeks, Mrs. B. introduced us to the basics of singing – posture, breathing, resonance, placement – all new concepts for me. Though I had years of experience singing in church and school choirs and performing in school musicals, I had never received formal training. Mrs. B. taught us to identify our vocal registers: head voice, mid-voice, and chest voice. She guided us through the dizzying stage of using our head voice for the first time. Because the head voice is a region of the voice where the air you breathe meets no resistance, your first tentative notes will make you lightheaded. It’s a new frontier for the novice singer.

Alongside vocal training, Mrs. B. led us through the rudiments of musical literacy. With my nose pressed against the pages of my thick chorus textbook, I learned to identify lines, spaces, measure lines, time signatures, and the other elements of musical notation. Mrs. B promised that we would become excellent sight-readers – able to glance at a piece of music and sing it with surprising accuracy.

I had my doubts about sight-reading. When I was learning piano, I was unable to visually track the musical line. If the music rested on the piano, I couldn’t read it. If I held the music close enough to read, I could only play piano one-handed. Luckily for me, using the voice left both hands free to hold the music – an inch from my face. I squinted at the bright white paper, where dark squat ovals of melody curved along the staff like tendrils of jasmine.

After months of sight-reading drills in class and furtive annotations at home, I began to parse the visual elements of written music with ease. I no longer had to count lines and spaces with a tentative finger or guess whether I was staring at a half rest or whole rest. I could not only read music – I could understand its theory, its rules of composition.

The musical instruction that Mrs. B. provided grew more valuable with time. I moved on to other choruses: an a cappella group (where I was required to read the bass line) and a fast-paced university chorale (where several soprano lines and foreign languages complicated the musical landscape). Her rigorous preparations ensured my success in these groups.

However, the most meaningful lessons I took from Mrs. B. were not related to music, though they occurred in a musician’s environment. They stand as bookends to my high school experience.

The first occurred within the early months of my freshman year. Our school was holding auditions for the musical Godspell, and, like any eager, hopeful freshman, I wanted to try out. With a few other friends from chorus, I practiced excerpts from the musical. I filled out the small audition form with my contact information and selected what kind of part I’d prefer. I stepped onstage in the cafeteria (this was well before my high school received a fully functioning theatre) and sang my excerpt.

After all the participants had done a little singing, the judging committee taught us a brief choreography routine. We were placed onstage in lines while a female teacher demonstrated the routine before us. I fumbled terribly, listening hard for my friends’ instructions. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Without individual instruction, I would never master a routine like this.

We took a short break before small groups of potential stars went onstage to perform the dance routine. During the break, I sat at a round cafeteria table with friends, feeling low. The judges – Mrs. B. and two other faculty – sat nearby, a few tables away, just within earshot. Hearing my name, I tuned in to their conversation.

“Are you sure Emily can do this?” asked one of the judges – her voice was unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. B. replied, “I’m sure she can, if we teach her the routine one-on-one. She just needs someone to show it to her.”

The third judge disagreed, “I don’t know. That seems like a lot of work. And she might not get it.”

Here, Mrs. B. said a line that I have often replayed in my head: “I have total confidence in her.”

When I think back on this scenario, I ask myself, How did she know I was worth it? Mrs. B. had only known me for a month or so, only seen me for a few hours each week. What made her believe in me?

I’ve never quizzed her about it. At the time, the line was too good to be true, but it was also exactly what I needed. I learned the routine. I did my best. I didn’t get a part in Godspell, but I felt empowered.

Mrs. B’s other lesson came three years later, when I was a senior. On my way to chorus, I had to walk down a crowded hallway in Building 3. With high ceilings and metal lockers along the walls, Building 3 was a loud, echoing space – amplifying all hallway conversations, especially the ones about me.

As the only blind girl at a school whose visibly disabled students could be counted on the fingers of one hand, I was often the target of unfriendly gossip. Since I had gone to elementary and middle school with the same group of classmates – a group who felt that mocking my poor vision was taboo – I wasn’t prepared for this negative reaction to my blindness. I walked into our chorus room, blinking back tears.

Mrs. B called her usual friendly greeting as I found my seat. I was the only student in the room, and she came to stand by me. I told her how hard it was to be the subject of constant gossip, to be around people who always underestimated and judged me. I said that I wished I couldn’t hear what others were saying as I walked to class.

She responded with practical wisdom: You don’t judge yourself by their opinion of you. You are so much more than they can understand. They don’t get to decide who you are. You decide that.

And she walked away, presumably to prepare for class. Maybe to give me a few moments to collect myself and process her words.

When I measure my experience of Mrs. B against other conductors, I find that the others always fall short. I think it’s because Mrs. B believed in something more than a power struggle between one person holding a baton and a group of musicians. Mrs. B wanted us to be empowered individuals and hardworking musicians. She stepped off the platform to check on us, and her reassurances were filled with strength and passionate belief.

Mrs. B was tough and honest. She didn’t sugarcoat the truth – she freely expressed her disappointment as readily as her joy. When she believed in us, we could believe in ourselves.

With her actions, Mrs. B. defined the teaching role for me.

A teacher believes in the subject and the students.

In the Care of a Chorus

At 6:45 on Tuesday night, Sherry and I enter the rehearsal space. We are among the first to arrive. We thread our way through the round tables toward the front of the room and deposit our bags. Internally, I’m bouncing with excitement. After six long years of absence, I finally get to sing with these ladies again! Freshly graduated from college, I now have the time to commit to three hours of singing every Tuesday night, plus the hours spent outside rehearsal learning new music.

Several members of the chorus recognize me; they remember me from all those years ago. I can’t even imagine what kind of person I was back then. I remember I was eighteen, a senior in high school. My fellow singers ask me about family, career goals, and more generally – what I’ve been up to! I beam each time I say, “I just graduated with my Master’s in English,” and I tell them about my plans to work toward a Ph.D.. None of them seem surprised. Their confidence in me feels so natural, effortless.

After a brief conversation with our director, during which she assures me that I don’t need to be voice-tested again, I learn that I’ll be singing the same part I sang before – baritone. In barbershop music, the baritone part is a quirky mid-range part; it’s the harmony that contains all the notes that make the chords complete. If you hear a bari singing her version of a popular barbershop tune, you probably won’t recognize the tune. It’s the ideal part for obsessive musical analysts and music theory nerds like me!

The other three options are bass, lead, and tenor. If these names sound masculine, it’s because the female barbershop style is modeled on the male style. People singing lead often have the melody; they sing the version of the tune that you recognize. Basses have a very harmonious, melodious harmony as well. You wouldn’t recognize the tune, but you’d probably enjoy singing it. And the tenor part is harmonically similar to an alto part in an SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) chorus, except that it’s placed in a higher octave. What I’m getting at is that these other three parts are pretty tuneful – not just notes jumping around. The bari part is sporadic, odd, a mess of notes hopping all over the staff. And it’s ridiculously fun to sing!

Once it’s decided that I’ll be singing baritone again, Sherry finds me a place on the risers next to an experienced bari so that I can hear my part among the group. Unlike many SATB choruses, we don’t stand in sections. We stand in “mixed” position, which means that we’re randomly assembled. The leads aren’t with the leads; the tenors aren’t near the tenors. We’re a hodgepodge, which makes for a neat, balanced sound and a well-exercised ear.

Our director places me on the right side of the risers, near Robin and Faye, two baris with great voices. After 30 minutes of aerobics and stretching, the chorus completes 30 minutes of rigorous vocal warmups. I remember many of the vocal exercises from before, but they’ve added some new ones—notably one where, after 5 seconds of breathing in, you try to sustain a mid-range note at the lowest possible volume for as long as you can. It’s more challenging than it sounds. Some ladies can hold the note for up to 65 seconds! I can only hold mine for 25-30, but I plan to practice every day to improve this time.

After an hour of exercise and warmup, it’s 8pm and we’re ready to start singing repertoire. We begin with some pieces that I heard at their March concert, and I lean toward Faye and Robin to catch those elusive baritone notes. The ladies have this music memorized, and our director coaches us on feelings, facial expressions, and breath. So much of singing is about your mental state and the state of your whole body; it’s an activity that far exceeds the voice alone.

We break into sections and conduct a short rehearsal. Robin offers me her arm and we trot off with the other baritones to rehearse two relatively new tunes. I don’t have the sheet music for these, so I just listen and try to sing along. I am amazed at how quickly I get a feel for where the harmony is headed! It’s all coming back to me, I think. Like riding a bicycle. Except I’ve never ridden a bicycle.

When all four sections rendezvous on the risers, we rehearse the tunes we’ve been working on. I’m delighted that I’ve learned most of one already. This harmonic intuition helps me feel that I’m right where I need to be, singing with the right people. When we first step up onto the risers, we’re still in our respective sections, four disparate little groups each singing their own part. Then our director asks us to assume our usual positions and I have to slide to the right. As we reconfigure ourselves, someone asks, “Who’s in charge of Emily?”

Quickly, another singer responds, “Robin and Faye are helping her,” and kind hands grip my shoulders, guiding me to the right spot. Later, I’m guided to a new place on the risers in the same manner, and I find myself standing beside Sarah, whose rich bass voice is easy for me to identify. She reaches for my hand and squeezes it, saying, “I’m so happy you’re singing with us again.”

Only after rehearsal has ended and I’m sitting in my room, checking email and preparing for bed, do I reflect on the question Who’s in charge of Emily. This is the kind of question that would irk the hell out of most disability rights activists. “In charge of Emily” – as if I need someone to be “in charge” of me, as if I can’t go through my life independently without assistance! The nerve!

However, the question did not irk me at the time, and it doesn’t irk me now. There was something so natural, so fitting, about it.

I think this is because being a member of a chorus isn’t about proving your independence. Yes, you have to know your part and hold your melody despite the harmonies around you, but you are never meant to stand alone. A chorus holds you aloft, melodically; each voice carries another voice. So as someone is “in charge” of me, I may be in charge of several others, carrying members I never even realized I was carrying. Standing in mixed position emphasizes the feeling that my voice helps innumerable, unknowable others. I do not just strengthen the baritone section. My voice provides the musical context against which other voices assert themselves. I know this, not from an inflated musical ego, but from hearing what my voice does for others in the way their voices help me. The voices surrounding me aurally reflect my own efforts and accomplishments as a singer. I hear myself in them, and, because of the context of their notes, I understand where I am.

I think that understanding choral life provides a powerful framework for understanding life beyond the musical space. I don’t believe any of us are meant to travel alone and carry all of our own luggage. Someone should help pull your voice into the chord, guide you to your proper place among the group. And while one hand pulls you into the tribe, offers you your music, or adjusts your posture, your hands are outstretched to pass on the loving attention.

I think this is what drives the production of music. A chorus is nothing more than a group of people, lovingly attending to one another and bringing all their skills to bear on a common goal.

*This entry was published in the July 2012 edition of The Pitch Pipe, the Sweet Adelines International magazine.

The curing hymn

After I graduate, I want to audition for a group that brings musicians and artists to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and similar facilities. The idea of singing as healing has always appealed to me, much more so than the thought of performing. I don’t feel the urge to be the center of attention onstage where I can’t really feel my audience. I prefer the intimate setting of a small room; I desire the closeness of a small audience whose reactions I can gauge.

My friend Edie, who brought the group to my attention, happened to tell me that “Amazing Grace” is one of the most requested songs in hospitals. I have never done any hospital singing, but I can conjecture that people find this old, familiar, warm hymn comforting. Especially in our locality, its lyrics of Christian conversion and rebirth are words we all learned as children — grandmothers sang them, we heard them in church, and they are likely inscribed on some article – plaque, sympathy card, cross-stitch pattern – in our homes. Those among us who have sung or played our fair share of funerals know that “Amazing Grace” has a special place in the hearts of the grieving.

Edie tells me about the technique of hospital singing and asks me what I will sing for my audition. She mentions a few other hospital favorites (“Danny Boy” and “How Great Thou Art”), songs which don’t have any particular significance for me. I start to think that, if I become a member of this group, I will certainly sing whatever patients request. I’m not there to judge their taste; I’m there to provide comfort, joy, peace. Healing. This is what I have always wanted to do with my voice and I cannot wait to do it.

But for my audition, I shudder at the thought of singing “Amazing Grace” whose lyrics for me seem graceless. I distinctly remember learning about the hymn’s composition, sitting in a 5th grade Religion class at my Catholic grade school. I remember our teacher saying that the author of those lyrics was the captain of a slave ship whose powerful conversion led to their composition and content. God found him, saved him, poured the sweet sound of grace into his ears, and cured his blindness.

“…was blind but now I see.”

Even as a child, I had a problem wit this line. I never mentioned it to anyone because I was sure they would laugh at me and say I was being “too sensitive.” “It’s a metaphor, Emily,” said the mocking, pitying voices in this imagined conversation. “Don’t be so touchy.” Or the more religious version, “Well, Emily, it’s about more than just physical blindness. Maybe you need to get past your worldly sensitivities and understand that you too have your own spiritual blindspots.”

But the newly-found disability activist in me rails against these imagined oppositions. The lyrics don’t talk about a man who was deaf and now can hear, who was lame and now walks, or who was cognitively impaired and now thinks clearly (although I suppose the earnest reader could say that he was “lost” and now “found” is the indicator of a mind on the wrong course). Instead, the first verse (and let’s not get ambitious here – who among us knows any verse better than the first?) talks about a man whose new spiritual beliefs give him a different way of looking at the world. He was “blind” but now he “sees” – God has, as He has done so many times before in our history, “opened his eyes” to a new reality.

And maybe for the sighted among us who are used to a visual world that makes sense, an interpretation of their physical space that never shifts, wavers, or distorts, this is a powerful transformation.

But I am used to a world of wobbling images, wavering lights, and constantly transforming objects. I have brushed against bushes before and said hastily, “Oh excuse me,” thinking I had grazed a person instead. I have gazed into the distance, blurred by too much sunlight (for almost any amount of sunlight is too much for my dilated pupils) and seen blurry objects take shape — what I thought were people turn out to be trash cans or signs or even columns. It all depends. It all shifts. I can’t even begin to articulate patterns, but I can say that my low vision constantly nourishes my poet’s imagination and keeps the shelves of my symbolic root cellar well stocked.

“I was blind and now I see.” I can’t bring myself to sing this. Not for an audition, not for the time when I will choose the words to represent what I believe. If I have the chance to pick my signature hymn, the hymn that will cry to the world my unequivocal status as a singer and healer combined, the hymn that will express me, I cannot choose the curing words of “Amazing Grace.” I do not want the visual miracle they advocate—not because I stubbornly resist change and improvement, but because it invalidates my current perspective and the beautiful life that wakes me every morning. I find value in the vision that I am using now, the sight that lets me watch the large white letters marching across my black screen, the sight that falters in the bright sun and makes me revel in shade, the sight that makes me feel transported when I can actually glimpse the moon at night or the veins of a leaf. These are rare, visually-epiphanic moments for me, and they comprise some of the bright points of a constellation of joy that I live.

I think I have found my hymn, the lyrics that express me and that validate my current perception. I have found the hymn that carries my golden light heavenward, the message that I would give in lieu of all others. If I had once chance to sing my beliefs to the world, this is the hymn I would choose. For me, it is a curing hymn, an anthem of preservation, delight, and timeless strength.

“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear its’ music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul–
How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;

The peace of love makes fresh my heart,
A song of hope is springing;
All things are mine since truth I’ve found–
How can I keep from singing?”

*If you want to hear one of the particularly gorgeous settings of this hymn that inspired me, go to iTunes and find the version sung by the University of Utah Singers. I wanted to put it here, but I was unable to find it on YouTube.