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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2014 - Vol. 11, Issue 4

"Sight and Singing"

written by

Emily K. Michael

I. Sudden Sight


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 latest technology.


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.


As 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.


After showing 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 in here?"


Ever the enthusiastic audience participant, I promptly reply, "Yes."


"And 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 it difficult.


"I do read music."


"Well, come on up here for a second."


I stand 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 see."


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 left.


"Can you invert the color - make it white on black?"


He 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.


I can't 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.


II. Singing 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.


As I 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.


On 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 places.


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.


III. Sight and Singing: How Blindness Creates Musicians


One 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 baby's coming!"


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.


I wonder 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 music?


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 sequins...


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.


Because 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 make blindness?


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 unconsciously.


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.

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry, Artemis Journal, and Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics.

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