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.

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Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

In his 2011 TED Talk, British conductor Charles Hazlewood insists that music-making depends not on skill, but on trust. Describing past and present musical projects, Hazlewood emphasizes how trust grows through collaboration. “Where there is trust,” says Hazlewood, “there is music—by extension life.”

One of Hazlewood’s remarkable projects is the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble of disabled musicians. Paraorchestra, which debuted at TED in November, 2011, is Hazlewood’s attempt to provide a space for professional musicians with disabilities—often overlooked by professional musical organizations.

Though disabled musicians may be more prominent in 2015, the prevailing question is always, “How will they cope?” How will the blind doctoral piano student handle complicated printed music? How will the paraplegic horn player keep up with the orchestra?

Guesses made by nondisabled authorities can outweigh the actual circumstances of a disabled person’s life – as an employer, a graduate advisor, or a teacher attempts to foresee every pitfall. This preemptive troubleshooting –regularly  performed without the disabled person’s input, despite their closeness to the situation – is an example of what Benjamin Zander calls “the world of measurement.” Zander, another influential British conductor, describes two worlds: the world of measurement and the universe of possibility. (Find out more here.) In the world of measurement, every “what-if” is a potential snag, a hiccup in the smooth machinery of organizations. Every deviation is an error, and all errors are preventable, as long as we never let our guard down. In the universe of possibility, every “what-if” is a chance to learn, to imagine.

Paraorchestra is a project in the universe of possibility, a chance to re-imagine the kinds of people we expect musicians to be—and the kinds of instruments we expect them to play. It’s a chance to reinvent how we judge our bodies and our instruments – where one ends and the other begins. By establishing Paraorchestra, Hazlewood helps us question the traditions of musical performance—norms set by nondisabled musicians. If every musician onstage is disabled, “disability” can no longer be imagined as a barrier to music-making. The troublesome “what-ifs” are banished by the most effective brand of activism: people sharing their passion with others.

Though I’m not an orchestral musician, I want to bring Hazlewood and Zander’s ideas into my musical endeavors. In my 15 years of choral experience, I have always been the only singer onstage with dark glasses, my white cane tucked between the folds of a black chorus dress. No director has ever taken issue with my onstage needs, but I feel a pressure to conform every time the chorus receives a speech about “visual unity.” Even when I have mastered the choreography, body angles, entrances, and exits, I am aware of my sense of difference on the risers.

But awareness is not shame. Now, when I think about the singers who stand beside me, I ask myself, Where are the other blind musicians? Why aren’t they here with me, forging trust and performing a message of inclusion? For each time I stand on the risers with my dark glasses, I am offering a message of what it means to live a life. I want my presence to show the audience that there is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about a blind singer fully participating in a musical organization. There is no magical “overcoming” here. I carry my disability into rehearsals and onstage. Performing on the risers doesn’t make me nondisabled; it makes me human.

Two new developments are allowing me to extend my musical activism to new audiences: my guide dog and my new quartet. Though York has been to several chorus rehearsals, he and I shared our first chorus performance earlier this week. The informal setting was an ideal place for York to practice his performance training:  I placed him in a down-stay at my feet and kept one foot on his leash.

When I tell people that York will not be on the competition stage with my chorus in April, they laugh and say, “Of course not!” Because our contest songs are accompanied by vigorous choreography and because I am placed in the center of the chorus, I have chosen to leave York backstage with a friend. As I acknowledge the logic of this choice, I drift into the universe of possibility. Will all ensemble musicians be forced to leave their service dogs in the wings forever? What would happen to a guide dog in a Parachorus?

While I rehearse and perform with my quartet, I can conduct my own Parachorus experiments. With advice and encouragement, my quartet members have helped me develop York’s performance etiquette. He lies at my feet throughout every three-hour rehearsal and transfers this behavior to our live performances. We are perfecting his position because he will accompany us on the competition stage in April. When we sing with York, my quartet and I can redesign the performance space and create new expectations.

No one should be surprised to see a disabled musician waiting to audition or perform. If disabled and nondisabled musicians can make music together onstage, they can make lives together offstage. I want to replace the skepticism of measurement with an invitation to imagine, to collaborate.