Future Reflections Summer 2012
by Dr. Jessica Bachicha Ewell
From the Editor: Dr. Jessica Bachicha Ewell is an accomplished classical singer who has performed as a soloist in England, Italy, and the United States. Recently she performed at Carnegie Hall as first place winner in the Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition. Jessica won an NFB national scholarship in 2002 and was a tenBroek Fellow in 2006.
"Ready to go?" my dad asked as I came out of the dressing room, performance shoes in hand.
"Just about. I have a few minutes, and I'll wait a little while before I put these heels on."
I spoke lightly, but inside, my excitement about the upcoming performance pounded like foamy surf against the seashore.
I had been chosen as first prize winner of the Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition, and I was the only singer to represent the United States. This was the day of the winners' concert. I was preparing to step out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall.
I would open the performance with Gabriel Fauré's "Pie Jesu." In my mind, I went over the music for the thousandth time. I also imagined my entrance and exit and every gesture that would bring the audience deeper into the confiding entreaty of the piece.
As a blind classical singer, I know that movement and facial expression are essential aspects of my communication with the audience. In our extremely visual world, it isn't enough to give a beautiful and authentic musical interpretation. People need to see my interpretation being lived and expressed through my physical presence--in the gestures and facial expressions that tell the story of the song. As I have learned this skill, I have often reflected on how important it is--and not only for blind performers. All blind children and adults need to know how to communicate in the nonverbal language that is used and taken for granted by our sighted peers.
For me, acquiring nonverbal fluency has been much like learning a foreign language. As in language study, vocabulary, connection, and confidence are three key areas that constantly must grow and interact with one another.
In order to communicate using a spoken language, the speaker and listener must share a common vocabulary. The same holds true for nonverbal communication. What emotions or intentions do certain gestures or facial expressions convey?
Until I was ten or eleven, I thought that to wave good-bye one held one's arm out straight in the direction of the departing person and flapped the hand and fingers loosely in the air. One day, while I was confidently bidding farewell to some friends who were driving away, my little brother came up to me laughing. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Standing here," I replied.
"No, with your hand?" he persisted.
"I'm waving, of course."
"You don't wave like that!" He proceeded to show me how to put my hand up, palm outward, and move it calmly side to side from the wrist.
"Oh!" I exclaimed, a little embarrassed. "I never knew."
Facial expressions also form much of this nonverbal vocabulary. Until I was in college, I thought that a frown involved only the lips. I never knew how it looked for someone to wrinkle the forehead in anger. I was working with a voice teacher on an aria, and she told me to look angrier. I frowned as hard as I could, but she kept saying the same thing. Finally she saw what was missing, and she had me feel her forehead as she made the expression. Many small revelations such as this one have augmented my nonverbal vocabulary, providing amusing occasions along the way.
How many times do we, as blind people, think a gesture means something that it doesn't mean? How often do we develop our own ways of communicating emotion, ways that do not correspond to the social norms sighted people learn from observation? Parents and teachers can build a blind child's nonverbal vocabulary by making teaching moments out of ordinary occurrences. Waving, beckoning a friend from across the room, or hailing a taxi are all gestures to be learned through description and touch.
One can spend hours reading a French dictionary, but unless one practices the new words, most of them will run through the mind like water through a sieve. In the same way, a blind child needs frequent opportunities for practice in order to become fluent in nonverbal language. She also needs to connect what she practices with the world around her. For example, a teacher might show a blind child how to make the movements that accompany a particular song. The child can learn to move along with her sighted classmates, but the learning can go much farther. The teacher might go over the movements later with the child, explaining why these specific gestures were chosen to express the words or emotions of the song. "You open and raise your arms on this line because it's about flying, and this gesture brings to mind the motion of a bird's wings."
Through honest and repeated feedback from someone whose judgment the blind child trusts, she can cultivate her kinesthetic sense. Over time she can learn to perform gestures intuitively. The body naturally remembers how certain positions and expressions feel from the inside. This memory is sometimes called a sixth sense. Paying attention to this sense takes practice. It also requires confirmation from other people that what the kinesthetic sense is saying actually expresses the intended emotion. For me, this connection comes through honest feedback from teachers and coaches. These professionals tell me whether my gestures and expressions really convey what I think they do. Guided by their constructive criticism and their affirmations, I begin to form a kinesthetic memory of the desired expression. After repeated affirmations that I can recreate the effect at will, I am ready to test it in the real world of the stage. There, if I am successful, my expressions can easily be understood.
Finally, if one gets top grades in writing French but quails before the necessity of speaking French to the Parisians, one will never attain fluency. Again, the parallel with nonverbal language is clear. Confidence must pervade every movement and expression. There is no "halfway there" in a gesture. Even if the gesture is incorrect, carrying it through with a definite intention will give it a meaning it would otherwise lack. In my case, this confidence took years to mature. When I was a child, I took part in classroom activities that involved gestures only with reluctance. I felt I stood out from my peers because someone had to show me what to do. Even when I learned the gestures, I felt anxious. I worried that I wasn't doing the motions correctly, and I wondered whether my classmates were laughing at me. To make matters worse, I didn't know why moving my arm or taking steps in a certain way meant anything. Frequently, the motions did not seem to connect to each other. I wanted to give up. I did not understand why the other children thought making these gestures was fun.
My inhibitions began to melt away when I took ballroom dance lessons in my teen years and at college. Within a harmonious whole, individual motions made more sense to me. I experienced the splendid freedom of graceful movement.
"Complete every gesture," a movement coach once told me. "Whatever you do, don't let your arm just hang there." Although this advice applies directly to performance, it is helpful in social nonverbal communication as well. Once the blind child has a selection of gestural "words" to use and enough experience to know which ones serve his purpose, he must not hesitate to use them repeatedly, with a variety of people in a variety of situations. When he decides to make a gesture or facial expression, he must not hang back or do it halfheartedly for fear of making a mistake. He should not "second guess" himself. By encouraging blind children to act with confidence and openness to the unique emotional gifts and demands of each moment, we can bring them into a fuller participation in the nuances that make social life so complicated and rewarding.