Breath and Shadow
Volume 11 Issue 4
Emily K. Michael
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.
We are about to
experience a presentation from one of the premier companies that
produces assistive technology (AT) for blind and visually-impaired
users. AT can include anything from a video magnifier that you carry
in your purse to a wireless braille display that translates the text
from your iPad, iPhone, or computer screen into refreshable braille.
During the morning, we will hear about AT for people with low
vision, and the afternoon will feature the AT designed for blind
users. I am excited. It's been at least a year since I explored the
As our presenter introduces himself,
he announces to the group that, like most of us, he has low vision.
He says that we shouldn't bother raising our hands, since he won't
see them, and encourages us to call out our comments. His speech
sounds familiar - a variation on the introductory remarks I deliver
whenever I speak to a group.
He begins to question us
about our everyday frustrations with low vision and our AT
preferences. He asks which of us have used screen-enhancing software
before, and I feel my hand go up. Immediately, I recognize my
blunder. He specifically told us not to raise our hands. I feel
foolish - until I realize that I'm nodding in agreement with his
comments, and I feel even more foolish. I begin to concentrate on
making my responses audible.
Having switched from
emphatic nods to verbal exclamations, I do not feel any better.
While some of our students pipe up with regularity, most of the
audience express themselves with quiet murmurs of awe. My sincere
exclamations - for this remarkable technology compels me to exclaim
- ring out against the silence of the self-restrained audience. Each
time my excitement and wonder bubble forth, I feel like a
rambunctious child in an upscale art gallery.
promised, our presenter dims the lights and begins to project
enhanced images on the wall. With each new gadget, he projects the
image from the monitor onto the wall so that the entire audience can
see it. He excels at verbal description, helping us to understand
each feature of the product on display.
us two portable video magnifiers of different sizes, he moves on to
the larger, not-so-portable model. This video magnifier sits on a
desk and enlarges and enhances the appearance of text. As with most
video magnifiers, you can change the colors on the screen: your text
could appear as white on black, yellow on black, black on white,
full color. You can strip away shadows and troublesome colors until
you find the setting that works best with your eyes so that you see
the text clearly. As he explains the many texts that you could read
with this device, he asks the group, "Are there any musicians
Ever the enthusiastic audience
participant, I promptly reply, "Yes."
do you read sheet music?" he asks, his voice full of promise –
he knows I will say that I read music and that my low vision makes
"I do read music."
"Well, come on up here for a second."
and unfold my cane, which clangs sonorously against the table's
metal legs. I maneuver around the two students sitting in
wheelchairs and round the table's corner, trailing the tabletop with
my hand. The presenter instructs me to face the wall on which he has
been projecting images. My back is to the audience.
"Now, this may not be your favorite song, but tell me what you
He slides a piece of music under the camera
of the video magnifier.
Before me, the wall transforms
as blank space makes way for a bright white sheet of paper on which
I can clearly distinguish the lines of a grand staff. The treble
clef, the collection of flats that make up the key signature, the
fraction that indicates the time signature, and the first few notes
of the song appear miraculously - clear, black markings marching
across the staff paper. I turn to the presenter, who stands to my
you invert the color - make it white on black?"
presses a button and what I thought was clear becomes even clearer as
the musical notation trades colors with its page. Now, white notes,
clefs, and numbers unfold on white staff lines, and white bar lines
rise up to divide the piece into measures.
believe that I'm reading music! And I'm not holding it two inches
from my nose. I'm not squinting at the bright white paper, whose
glare often muddles the notes and lines. When the presenter asks me
to describe what I'm seeing, I express with flowing articulation the
crispness of the image, the lack of eye fatigue that usually
accompanies a white page, the excitement of being able to visually
absorb the entire line of music at once. He hands me the piece of
sheet music, and, as I bring it close to read it, I explain that
holding the music up close means that I won't be able to take in an
entire line at once. I will be forced to read either the melody,
written on the staff, or the lyrics, written below the staff.
As I make my way back to my seat, I imagine what it would be
like to have music projected on the wall during chorus rehearsals. I
picture myself sitting at my family's honey-colored piano, practicing
music that I could never have played before. I imagine that my
page-turner would not stand beside the piano; she would stand beside
my video magnifier and shift the position of the sheet music so that
the image projected on the wall behind the piano would move up,
giving me a new line to follow.
The presenter slides
maps, charts, and photos under the video magnifier's camera, and
their enhanced images appear on the wall. He explains that you could
be cooking in your kitchen and project the recipe on your kitchen
wall, a perk that appeals to me. But I'm too distracted to focus on
what he's saying. I have eyes only for the graceful curves of the
treble clef, the reassuring fullness of the white quarter notes, and
the clear white lines of the staff. I imagine Baroque scale passages,
lines of determined eighth notes, running up and down the staff. I
think of whole rests and sustained notes, aria lyrics and chords I
could easily decipher. In my mind, the projected, inverted music
flows lazily across the blank wall, and I don't miss a single note.
as Second Nature
Our conductor gestures and, immediately, the sound
of shuffling feet and sliding chairs fills the room. The chorus
rises, the piano begins, and we prepare to sing. I stand with my
feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and hands loosely at
my sides. A few measures before I'm supposed to sing, I begin to
regulate my breathing, inhaling deeply through my mouth and feeling
my intercostal muscles (the muscles around my ribs) warm up. I feel
the muscles of my abdomen coming to attention - waking up and
sliding into comfortable habits. I breathe in and exhale, preparing
myself for singing. When I'm one measure (3-4 beats) away from my
entrance, I exhale, emptying my lungs, and inhale again - feeling
the knot of muscle in the middle of my chest contract. I know that
this is the diaphragm; its steady involvement will keep my ribcage
lifted throughout the performance. As I fill my lungs, I feel the
consistent pressure of the diaphragm's tightness against my chest.
The muscles around my ribs swing my ribcage up and out. As my lungs
grow full, the muscles in my upper back start to work, preparing for
the first notes.
I have heard singing divided into five
components: posture (the position of the body), breath (the
management of air), phonation (the production of sound),
articulation (the production of words), and resonance (the use of
the body to change the vocal tone). When teaching someone about the
voice, I find these components useful. They help to break down an
otherwise mysterious and other-worldly practice. However, as a
singer, I understand that the ability to sing means nothing without
the opportunity to sing, especially among friends.
Though singing occurs by means of air traveling through the vocal
folds, the act of singing is a holistic exercise. Singing requires
the participation of my feet, legs, arms, abdomen, head, and brain.
When I sing, I feel myself extended beyond the physical parameters
of my body. The vocal tone I produce does not hover in front of my
mouth or even in front of my face - it spirals beyond the top of my
head and seems to pull me skyward. In these moments, I feel my feet
connecting me to the earth as my whole body works to improve the
resonance of my sound. Music travels through me; it is my
cooperation with the air and the environment.
sing, I experience an overwhelming sense of lightness, an efficiency
of motion. Each contracting muscle - the sway of my hand at my side,
the shift of weight from one foot to another, the slight bend of my
knee, the smooth slide onto the balls of my feet - works to bring my
tone forward and outward. I struggle to think of these facets of my
movement as disparate parts of one body. Singing makes me feel like
a one-celled organism, all parts connected through fluidity and
common purpose. I feel all motions with each part, observing the
same sensations at the tips of my fingers and the crown of my head.
When I sing, I know that I am resonating, because my lips
and teeth begin to vibrate. I send my voice through the top of my
head, using my hard palate to achieve a straight tone (a tone
without vibrato) that has a show tune edge. Relaxing into the
voice's natural vibrato, I let my tone slip past the hard palate and
travel up through the soft palate. I imagine that my voice starts at
my feet and travels along my legs, through my belly - eventually
passing between my nose and ears in a narrow column that blossoms
from the crown of my head. I try to produce overtones (secondary
notes that occur as a byproduct of resonance) by sending my tone
farther back, until my ears begin to vibrate and I can hear a
strange fullness in my voice. When I direct my tone in this way, I
hear a voice multiplied - growing thick and round.
high notes, I give all my attention to the voice and the feeling of
endless, joyful tumbling into the aural stratosphere. The column of
air that produces my sound finds its well-worn path through my head
and threatens to pull me out of myself. I feel the bones around my
eyes and forehead tingle as high notes draw resonance from these
Not all notes come so easily. I slip out of
second nature when I sing low notes. Because their placement is
unfamiliar, I must concentrate on when to breathe, where to direct
the tone, and how to hold my body. I strive to create a consistent
quality from the top of my range to the bottom. I imagine that I am
a violin or viola, and I force myself to track the resonance of my
high notes so that I can place my low notes in similar positions.
To analyze something that feels as natural to me as
singing, I must cast my mind back to when singing was difficult,
when my voice was unpredictable, and when I couldn't complete a
musical phrase without stopping for breath. Singing continues to
challenge me, so I keep close to my novice self - remembering,
learning, and dreaming the shape and structure of my voice.
and Singing: How Blindness Creates Musicians
year ago, I reclaimed my place on the risers next to 60 singing
women. I had been absent from this chorus for six years, singing
where I could - in college chorales, with friends, at karaoke nights
on campus, and, once, with a talented jazz combo in St. Augustine.
Now that I'm back with my chorus, I have the chance to
improve many aspects of my singing technique, and my favorite methods
incorporate tactile elements. During rehearsal, one director asks us
to turn to the left and place our hands on the belly of the singer in
front of us. We should feel movement in the singer's abdomen if she
is breathing correctly. One hand rests gently against the singer's
ribcage while the other presses her belly - and, sure enough, her
breathing pushes both hands forward. Our exercises include a plethora
of breathing sounds, routines of sh sh, hee hee, ff ff, ts ts. Hands
on each other’s bellies and ribs, we complete the routines with
fierce concentration - until a singer murmurs, "Get ready, the
Another exercise I enjoy is the
tactile chorus line. During our physical warmup, we take the hands of
the women beside us and close our eyes. Then we do knee bends and
kicks, trying to move in sync with the women on our row. For the
first few seconds, I can feel the line wobble as each woman strives
to pace her kicks with the others. But we learn, through pressed
palms and gripping fingers, when the line is ready to move. Then, we
kick, we bend, we sway together.
I appreciate these
exercises because they direct our collective attention to the feeling
of making music - the tactile arena of producing sound. Often I think
there is too much sight involved in singing, and these exercises help
us connect with our other physical impressions.
whether music needs to be visual. I will concede that musicians must
see to follow a conductor and read printed music. In smaller
ensembles, they may nod to each other when it's time to solo. But
other than these few circumstances, what are the visual elements of
Usually, I cannot detect the visual aspects of a
performance – the costumes, facial expressions, or choreography
- unless I'm seated in the front row. However, that's a seating
mistake I'll only make once. When attending my friend's senior
recital, I sat in the front row, and I could only focus on her dress.
It was a beautiful silver gown, knee-length, with a large bow. No, it
was a bright yellow ball gown, off-the-shoulder with a full skirt.
Actually, it was a bright pink fitted dress, covered with
Okay, so I've sat in the front row more than
once. I've thought, "It will be so great to see her perform, to
really see her!" And when I've seen her, I haven't heard her. Or
I've heard but haven't listened. I was unable to immerse myself in
the sound because I was too distracted by the sight of music. And
music looks quite boring. That's why we need the choreography and the
costumes. Music is for the ears, not the eyes.
I'm a blind singer, this philosophy gives me an unfair advantage.
Others characterize it by praising my gifts. More than once, I've had
a new conductor say, "Well, I bet you have perfect pitch."
Pair the white cane with an interest in music, and you automatically
get a prodigy!
I do not mean to downplay my musical
gifts or belittle those who praise them. I certainly enjoy hearing
that I sing well, knowing that my music has affected someone. But I
want to advance a theory about how musicians are made.
The figure of the talented blind musician can be justified through
neuroscience. Blind people often show great musical gifts because the
primary visual cortex, the brain area that processes visual
information, isn't being used for vision, so it gets repurposed for
something else. Sometimes it's an acute spatial awareness; sometimes
it's perfect pitch.
Blind people also become musicians
because they are encouraged to take music lessons. A low-vision
specialist suggested that I start piano lessons at age three since
playing the piano would prepare me for typing. Other blind children
are guided in similar directions because everyone assumes that blind
people have more sensitive ears. Neurologists would say that their
temporal lobes, the part of the brain that contains the auditory
cortex, are gathering the information that the visual cortex can't
gather through sight.
Here, I will interject an
important question: Does blindness make musicians or do musicians
To be a good musician, you have to learn
to turn off your eyes. No, you may argue, you have to watch the
conductor! But I've never been able to watch a conductor in my life.
Instead, I've memorized my music and learned to sense the singers
around me. I've learned to calculate rhythm by feel. I've learned to
understand dynamics (louds and softs) as a contouring of the musical
line. In addition to the dynamics sanctioned by the composer, I
expressively apply my own louds and softs to the music.
I think that my blindness has helped make me a good musician because
it forced me to develop these skills. Unlike my sighted counterparts,
I could not read my sheet music under bright stage lights. I couldn't
watch a conductor, so I had to learn my entrances and memorize the
duration of each note. This learning happened during rehearsal –
where I tried to understand consciously what my brain was doing
There is no shortage of challenges for
the blind musician. Under the baton of a capricious or whimsical
conductor, I can't rely on the previous musical plan I've learned.
And I'm no lover of the Kodaly hand signs - a group of visual
gestures used to train choruses to sing a particular pitch on
command. I find these visual aspects of music tiresome and irritating
because I haven't found a way to work with them.
However, I believe that all musicians need to embrace blindness –
not as a deficit but as a way of being in the world. In doing so,
they will learn to trust themselves and their fellow singers. They
will feel that mystical rush when we, undirected, breathe at the same
time or rise and fall to unprecedented volumes. Music insists that
you close your eyes and immerse yourself in the collaboration.
K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living
in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and prose have appeared in
A Journal of Disability Poetry,
Inquiry in Bioethics.