Vicky Chapman From Discrimination to a Dream Come True by Vicky Chapman ********** From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Spring, 1999, edition of the NFB Vigilant, a publication of the NFB of Virginia. ********** A timid seven-year-old slowly walked into a small dance studio which appeared very large to the little girl. The child was in awe at how large the room was, and she wondered who the other little girl was who faced her and copied all her movements. She could see shapes, figures, and colors. She could not see faces or recognize expressions. Watching the dance instructor, the little girl tried to mimic her steps. Realizing that the child wasn't following her movements, the teacher provided oral instructions to guide the child's feet through the shuffle-toe- heel dance steps.
After three years of tap dancing classes, the little girl recognized her love for music and asked her parents if she could take piano lessons. She had seen Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals put on by the local high school and had dreams of singing and dancing on stage. Musical training was a must for performing in musicals. Although her parents realized the extent of her blindness, they did not want it to discourage their daughter from doing what she wanted to do. They bought a piano; then they began an extensive search for a piano teacher. The search became a drudgery after three piano teachers refused to instruct the little girl. The mother finally took the child to one of the best piano teachers in the small town of Hartsville. Miss Salleby, the piano teacher, asked the child to sit on the bench in front of the piano. The room was dark, and a small light shone over the sheet music.
Fearful of the dark room, the child slowly walked over to the piano bench, sat down, and faced the sheet music. Miss Salleby asked the child how many lines and spaces were in one row. Leaning over the piano keys, with her nose touching the sheet music, the child attempted to count the lines and spaces. Immediately, before the child could announce her findings, the teacher turned to the child's mother and announced, "I can't teach a blind child how to play the piano."
The child wanted to scream, "I am not blind. Just give me a chance to learn how to play by ear." Without knowing how she got out of the woman's house, the child was in her mother's car riding home. There was a big lump in her throat, and the child wanted to cry. She wanted to be held in her mother's arms and be comforted. She wanted to know that she would be given another chance for her dream to come true.
That event was never again mentioned in front of the child, and the word "blind" was never again used in front of her until she reached college. The child would not touch the piano when her parents were home. She would sneak into the living room and teach herself hymns, first playing the melody line and then trying to play the chords with her left hand. If a member of the family caught her trying to play, she would shut the piano lid and go to her room.
Looking back through the images of my childhood memories, I still find myself a bit tearful. There are so many types of discrimination in this world, but I do believe that denying a child the opportunity to learn and expand on her talents is a travesty. "Where there is a will, there is a way," is a true statement that applies to my life.
Considering the stumbling blocks I have encountered with my music avocation, it is hard to believe that I am a part of the Roanoke Opera Chorus. Throughout my high school and college careers, I participated in the concert chorus. Listening and reviewing recordings from rehearsals was the way I memorized music. Instructors discouraged me from trying out for musical roles from a fear that I would have difficulty moving around on stage.
While in college I attempted a degree in music therapy. I was not allowed to use a reader for theory classes, and the instructor refused to read aloud what he had written on the board. Although I was passing my music therapy classes, I found myself exhausted from fighting with instructors and trying to obtain the assistance I needed in order to learn. I was taking voice and piano instruction, and the piano teacher would enlarge my music. Finally, when a theory instructor assigned a fugue to be analyzed using a graph, the difficulty I would have completing the assignment on my own became obvious. When confronting the instructor with my dilemma, he immediately informed me that the task had to be completed independently, with no assistance. The instructor clearly stated that if the assignment could not be completed on my own, I had no business in a music program. I dropped out of the program and completed my degree in early childhood education.
For several years I tried to run away from music. After completing my bachelor's degree, the prospect of facing the world of work haunted me. Denial of my blindness resulted in fear about how to perform the duties of a job.
Realizing my problem, my best friend encouraged me to move to Nebraska to attend the Nebraska Center for the Visually Impaired. Taking on the challenge, I attended the Nebraska Rehabilitation Center. I wore sleep shades from eight to five, five days a week; and I was told that I must use, not just take, the long white cane everywhere I went during training. One of the most difficult tasks for me was facing my fear of blindness. I had to talk about my fears, frustrations, and dreams. One of the instructors constantly reminded me that I should be on stage singing and acting. Performing was difficult for me to approach because I was convinced this was a dream that would never come true. Through the excellent training I received at the Nebraska Orientation Center, I gained confidence and belief in my abilities as a blind person. I was no longer ashamed of my blindness. It was time for me to apply the skills I had learned to my life.
Professionally, my life blossomed in the field of rehabilitation. As a recipient of various grants and scholarships I was able to earn a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from Michigan State University. I tried continually to move away from music but was constantly encouraged by friends to sing in various church choirs. My dream continued to haunt me, and I found it difficult to hold my tears back when attending a performance. It wasn't fair; I wanted to be one of the performers on stage. Testing the waters, I slowly began participating in church choirs and even sang one semester with the Michigan State concert choir. That vessel that had been empty for so long finally started to be filled.
After moving to Anchorage, Alaska, I joined the community chorus, one hundred and sixty voices strong. Despite being the type of person who is neither religious nor superstitious, I have to admit that I do believe that an angel came into my life by the name of Kathy. Kathy lived in my neighborhood and gave me rides home from choral rehearsal. After hearing me sing, Kathy encouraged and nudged me to become more active in music. The Anchorage Community Theater was having a call for people to try out for The Sound of Music. Kathy talked to the director and had a couple of pages enlarged that I would have to read for tryout. Naturally, I memorized the two pages, prepared a song, held my breath, and showed up for tryouts. To my surprise, I was offered and accepted the role of Sister Sophia. Interesting note: when I was a little girl, my grandmother would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Smiling and very serious, I would reply, a nun. The director was not concerned about my blindness but was concerned that I would be off crutches by the time of the performances. While I had been skiing, an unfortunate accident had left me with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
One could say that my dream came true. After the completion of the musical, the chorus director of the Anchorage Opera Company encouraged me to try out for a part in the chorus. Again, mustering up my courage, I dusted off some old voice instructional books and auditioned. Now, looking back, it is hard to decide which was most difficult: auditioning in front of a New York director or performing on a sloped stage which was very slippery. La Traviata was my first opera. I never dreamed of being dressed in such elegant costumes and performing on such a grand stage.
When I moved to Roanoke, Virginia, finally I knew in which community activities I wanted to participate. Within my first month of moving to the Star City I auditioned for the Roanoke Symphony Chorus. Seven months later I was standing in a gym at the Jefferson Center auditioning for a part with the Roanoke Opera Chorus. Again I was shaking as I walked toward the piano, proudly using my cane. I turned and faced the director, Craig Fields, and nodded to my accompanist to begin. When I had sung the last note, I waited anxiously for a response. It felt as if I were waiting an eternity. Finally I mustered the courage to inquire about Mr. Field's opinion of my audition. To my relief the director informed me that I was in the chorus. My heart soared, and immediately I realized that Mr. Fields had not asked me any questions concerning how I would learn my music or move around on stage. Again curiosity got the better of me, and I asked Mr. Fields if he had any questions about my blindness. His response was "no." To my relief, Craig informed me that he had worked with several blind people over the years as a vocal instructor and choral director.
As of now I have performed in four operas with the Roanoke Opera. The chorus members are like a small family. We work together to help each other learn parts, act, and move around on stage. My fellow chorus members know that I will ask for help when I need it and are more than willing to assist me. Craig has indicated that he is amazed at the way I move around on stage. I have to admit that I have failed to tell him how many times I have run into props back stage. Seriously, my tenacity on stage comes from my desire and belief in myself and Craig's belief in my abilities. Yes, there are times when I am afraid that I may miss a movement or a musical cue, or sing the wrong note. These are fears that any actor has and mistakes that any actor can make.
I may never be on Broadway, but that doesn't matter. Remember that my dream was to be on stage and perform. That dream has come true. It has been a struggle, but hopefully one that will pave the way for others who are blind. Everywhere we go we are setting examples that others can observe, learn from, and follow. When we are willing to follow our dreams, discrimination can result in a dream come true. **********