WBU-AP (Senior group) Fine Work

"What must a blind person do to become a good musician?"
Elisabeth Jacoba Maria Wesseling (37, female, New Zealand)

I propose to answer the question (as mentioned above) by relating how I believe I became a good musician -- with the ability to teach sighted and blind students, to sing in professional choirs, and play in orchestras as a soloist. It is my hope that other blind musicians can laugh with me at my own mistakes, and then take a leaf out of my book.
At age nineteen, I thought I had truly made it as a singer. My youthful arrogance told me I had a good ear and could learn anything without needing to use Braille music. Oh, I have been taught the Braille music code, but I had never really learned that vital skill of sight reading, or turning those dots into music without hearing it first. I thought Braille music was boring -- something academic which slowed me down, not something I could use to actually make music.
So nineteen-year old Lisette decided to join a semi-professional choir which often sang for concerts at short notice with minimal rehearsal. My acceptance into this choir was conditional upon me being able to sight read, as there was no time to learn notes by ear during rehearsals. I confidently assured the conductor I would not need to sight read as my ear was very good and I would be able to learn things from recordings. Braille music was, I assured him, too slow and clumsy. He wisely gave me the chance to prove myself, which taught me a very great lesson.
I set about learning one of the pieces we were due to sing on the radio in a week's time -- a complicated polyphonic motet by Palestrina. Since I am a soprano, I confidently learned what I heard as the melody or the top of the music. Not only did I not understand that this music had long lines which weaved in and out of each other, but also that I need to learn the piece as the performers interpreted it rather than what was actually on the scores used by the choir. There are often great differences between how a piece is rendered and what is on the page.
At the first rehearsal my downfall came. I started singing with the sopranos, but soon realised that I was not singing anything like what my colleagues were. Moreover, I had no idea where to start singing when we were told to go from a certain bar. My humiliation was very great.
I was the only person in that room who could not sight read and could not turn written music into sound. Ironically, I could actually read Braille music, but had deliberately chosen not to use it because I thought I did not need to. Lisette thought she was different -- the only exception from the rest of the choir. Having a good voice and a good ear was, I finally realised, not enough to be in this calibre of choir. I either had to pull my socks up or lower my sights. I chose the former.
Thereafter followed the slow and painful process of teaching myself to properly count rhythm, understand harmony, really internalise the rules of Braille music, and actually sing as I was reading. Rhythmic patterns became like series of letters which I understood at a "glance". I was no longer reading a code, but music! My perfect pitch and good ear certainly helped, but I was like a young child at this point -- fumbling and making many mistakes.
I found kind sighted people who dictated music to me while I used my Perkins brailler to literally write out my own soprano parts for the next rehearsal. We did this over the phone, in the car on the way to rehearsal, and over coffee. We practised singing together, and slowly but surely I became a useful soprano in the choir, and a fully formed musician.
My experience as that arrogant young person has greatly informed what I do as a music teacher and as a working soprano. I could not be on the professional stage without sight reading music. The world has neither time nor money to work with singers who cannot learn their own music independently and sing from a score. Conductors will not listen to excuses! If a singer cannot sight read, he or she will not be hired, blind or sighted.
We have a wonderful Braille music system which is unified worldwide. Like anyone learning to read music, it takes time and hard work to become fully proficient. Braille music is more than a code -- it is music to the ears represented in dots. It needs the skill of a good musician to make it live. Only when blind students are taught to turn what they read with their fingers immediately into sound can they be truly considered musicians. With the technology available today, it is so much easier to produce those soprano parts I spent hours writing out.
I say: Thank you, Mr. Braille, for having made it possible for me to be a solid and proper musician!


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