American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2018 MUSIC
by Leslie Hamric
From the Editor: Blind since birth, Leslie Hamric has been a dedicated musician throughout her life. However, through much of her training and career, she lacked an essential tool. In this article she recounts the long journey that finally brought her to embrace Braille music.
When I hear the word music, many feelings come to mind. Music has always been my passion and my joy. It gives my life a sense of excitement. I took lessons in piano, cello, and voice during my first three years in high school. How natural it felt when I decided to major in cello performance in college! Surely I was heading in the right direction.
I seemed to be doing fine as a blind musician, learning everything by ear. However, one essential tool was missing: Braille music.
Since I was learning scores by ear, was I musically literate? Did I really know what the composer wanted to get across? Although I had a basic knowledge about notes, dynamics, articulations, and rests, how did I know the difference between a note with a staccato on it and an eighth note followed by an eighth rest? Was I operating on an equal playing field with sighted musicians? The answer to these questions is an emphatic "no!" How was this essential tool omitted from my education when music was to be my profession?
When I was seven years old, my piano teacher introduced me to the Braille music code. I took one look at the page and frowned. No way! I thought. I would never use this method. Learning by ear was so much faster. Even though my piano teacher told me that Braille music would increase my independence, I refused to believe her.
Not wanting to rock the boat, those around me, music teachers included, followed my lead. Learning by ear was the answer, and that was that. Even some of the professionals who worked with blind people agreed that Braille music was just too much and claimed that nobody uses it anyway.
When I was in high school my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), Cindy Starzyk, started to transcribe both words and music into Braille for me, at the strong urging of the choir director, David Danckwart. Although she made the music available, I only paid attention to the words. After all, who needed all those notes on the extra line below the lyrics? I could learn the music by ear.
Then, on a Monday during my sophomore year in high school, I had an experience that literally changed my tune. Earlier that day I had told my TVI that she only had to Braille the words and not the music for choir. I said that dropping the music would save us time, and she agreed.
I was sitting in choir rehearsal without my music as we sang an arrangement of "Deck the Halls" with an easy soprano part. Suddenly, much to my surprise, Mr. Danckwart stopped everything and asked me where my music was. I told him that I had the piece memorized and did not need to use music. He did not buy it for a minute. In front of the whole choir, he said, "Leslie, I would appreciate if you learn how to read and use Braille music. It's going to be the best thing for you."
The choir director went on with rehearsal as though nothing had happened, but I was shocked and embarrassed. He had singled me out. However, once my shock and embarrassment wore off, I began to look forward to the challenge. I realized that he treated me no differently than anyone else. He believed in me and held me to the same high expectations he had for every other student. From that day on, I always used Braille music in choir, even if I had the piece memorized.
Nevertheless, I still refused to use Braille music for piano and cello. When I was sixteen, I switched cello teachers because my technique was causing serious physical issues, and I could not play for more than twenty minutes at a time. Consequently, I relearned how to play the cello from the ground up. This was a difficult period in my life. I still had to play in orchestra using the old way of playing and go to lessons and use the new method. It took about a year for me to get my playing to a manageable level where I was relaxed and could keep up with my cello obligations of high school orchestra, lessons, and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. With all this transitioning and activity, who had time for Braille music?
I did, however, continue to use Braille music in choir. I was surprised to discover that I could keep one finger on the line with the words and another on the line with the music. It was a big step in a positive direction.
During my senior year I visited two universities, Northern Illinois University (NIU) and Illinois State University (ISU). I decided to major in cello performance at NIU for two reasons. First, the cello teacher at NIU was strongly recommended. Second, the woman who directed services for the visually impaired at the disability services center, Linn Sorge, was totally blind and had a music education degree. She knew Braille music well, and she was willing to help me with it. She also understood my needs in terms of getting books for music theory and ear training Brailled on time so I would have them ready for my classes. I couldn't believe my good fortune!
I entered NIU in the fall of 1994, and things were awesome. Among my mentors were Linn Sorge and two graduate assistants who recorded all of my cello music. I only used Braille music for theory and ear training. Linn Sorge and one of my theory teachers strongly urged me to start using Braille music on cello, but my resistance was still as strong as a marble column. I did not have time, and I learned much faster by ear, so what was the point?
During the summer of 1997 I attended the Aspen Music Festival for nine weeks. I had the opportunity to play in many orchestra concerts and to perform in a cello master class. During my performance at the master class, the cello teacher asked me questions such as, "What's the dynamic at measure 34?" I had no idea where that was! I didn't even know what the exact dynamics were at precise places, so I had no choice but to ask my accompanist. I was the soloist, yet I had to ask my accompanist about the dynamics at various places in the piece!
After the master class, I knew that something was not right. Somehow I needed to keep better track of what was going on in the piece—but how? Pushing these questions aside, I determined to continue learning by ear. After all, my method had gotten me this far.
One day a newspaper reporter came out to Aspen to do a story about me as a blind musician at the festival. In the interview I mentioned that Braille music was too slow and difficult and explained that I never used it. Little did I know that my statement would get me in touch with a well-known Braille music transcriber who would prove to be a valuable resource.
When I returned to NIU, I received a Braille letter from a music transcriber named Bettye Krolick. She said that she had read a nice article about me in the newspaper. In her second paragraph she informed me that Braille music is not difficult to use, and she suggested several books that could help me get started.
My first thought was, not again! Now someone else was trying to talk me into using Braille music, especially on cello. However, a new idea came to mind almost immediately. Maybe the people pushing me to use Braille music had good advice. Here was someone else who might be of great help to me. Bettye Krolick took the time to write to me. She was trying to tell me that Braille music was not really difficult.
Once again, I accepted a challenge. I contacted Bettye Krolick, and we had a nice conversation on the phone. I asked her if she would be willing to transcribe a textbook I needed for orchestration class the following semester. She agreed to transcribe the book, and I promised to start using Braille music more often on cello. It was a promise I made to myself as well.
I tried to use Braille music more consistently, but it wasn't easy. Once again I came to the conclusion that it was much faster for me to learn by ear. I still had an assistant to record music for me, and that seemed to be all I needed.
I graduated from NIU in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in cello performance. Three months later I started graduate school at the Eastman Conservatory in Rochester, New York. During the first semester my cello teacher let me learn music by ear. However, he had a talk with me when the second semester started. He explained that I needed to start being more independent, learning music on my own like everyone else. He also showed me how I could tell what a cellist was doing for fingering by sound, such as shifting from first finger to fourth finger on the same string.
A new problem had come up, too. My new assistant was not a graduate student and was not as advanced as the assistant I had at NIU. I was learning the cello sonata by Frank Bridge. Since my assistant had not played the piece yet, I had to find someone who knew it well. I realized that if I learned music on my own, I could make musical decisions and do my own interpretation. I wouldn't have to worry about the level of the cellist who was recording the piece for me. Someday I would be the cellist making all the decisions about how to play the piece.
Although I got the first movement of the sonata recorded, I promised my teacher that I would learn the second movement independently with Braille music. It was slow, hard work, but I did it. I was able to play the entire piece at a recital I gave at the end of the semester in 2000.
I had five pieces transcribed for my upcoming summer session at Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, New York: four recital pieces and one string quartet. I had no idea what to expect at this camp. I only knew that it would be quite different from Aspen. That turned out to be the biggest understatement of all time!
During the seven-week session in Westport, my cello teacher, Tanya Carey, would not let either of her graduate assistants record any music for me, even after I tried to talk one of them into it. It was as though my whole world had been turned upside down. Tanya insisted that I use Braille music for everything I was working on. This time, I actually had deadlines for when I needed to learn the pieces. We only got to two of the pieces, since I still needed to hear all the notes by ear. My lessons were difficult, and I was not sure I would be able to meet Tanya's proposed deadlines.
Tanya insisted that I play the music like I meant it. "Play forte loud and play piano soft," she said. "Play a crescendo starting piano; keep it going; build, keep it going all the way to forte." "Let these notes giggle; exaggerate the accents and articulations." Little by little I learned to produce tone colors and dynamics that I had never thought possible.
Everything was slowed down for me because it took me forever to read the notes in Braille music, hear them in my head, and put them in perspective. Sometimes I would scrub the dots, running my fingers over them again and again so I could tell what the note value was; the value of the note depended on whether the cell contained a dot 3 or a dot 6. I left each lesson with new musical ideas.
Eventually, I did make progress. By the time that summer was over, I felt more confident with the cello than ever before. I also felt more confident with the Braille music, and I was beginning to hear notes in my head as I read them. Through all that hard work, I discovered that, with practice, I could learn music on my own just like everyone else. My musical independence as a cellist had finally begun.
In the midst of this musical transformation, I met a very special young man, Andy Hamric, who is now my husband. With constant encouragement from Andy and Tanya, I began to realize that many of my struggles were similar to those of the people around me. They implied that I did not need to make my blindness an obstacle. In fact, they told me, "Just do it." Perhaps blindness did not have to rule my life as it had for years. I left Meadowmount feeling I could conquer the world in every area of my life, especially in Braille music. I could not wait to get back to Eastman and apply the skills I had learned at Meadowmount.
Ever since that life-altering summer I use Braille music all the time. If I want to learn a new piece, I have two transcribers I can call upon. Sometimes Andy can Braille the music using the DancingDots software. The nice thing about using the DancingDots software is that one can transcribe a piece without having to know Braille music.
Do I still listen to recordings? Absolutely! Listening to a recording helps me put the whole piece together in my mind. When I go back to look at my part, everything makes more sense.
Recently I completed a course through the Hadley Institute for the Visually Impaired, "Introduction to Braille Music." I have been teaching cello since 2004, and I find that Braille music is a real asset. When I say, "Let's start at measure 10," my student and I both know where that is. Recently I also have taken on one student in piano and another in Braille music. With my long history of resistance to Braille music, who would have thought I would be teaching it someday?
I love the opportunity to give back. I wanted to help someone else learn Braille music earlier than I did. A month ago, my Braille music student told me that she prefers to learn music from Braille instead of from recordings. Hearing her say that means the world to me! She is now learning the piano accompaniment to the first movement of Cello Concerto number 1 in C Major by Haydn. I have played this piece before, and we plan to perform it together this year or next year.
As for me, I auditioned for the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra (ESO) in September 2017. I made it! I am in the process of learning the cello part to the Verdi Requiem, and I will be performing this piece on March 10 and 11, 2018. The ESO will be joined by the Chicago Apollo Singers. The conductor and I are pioneering together. This is his first time working with a blind musician, and it's my first time learning an orchestra piece using Braille music exclusively. We have agreed to work together and learn as we go along. Once again, I embrace another challenge: to make this performance a reality.
Turning my resistance into success was the best thing I ever did. Turning things around was a slow process, but it is never too late to make a change. Success builds upon success. As we always say in the NFB, "You can live the life you want. Blindness is not what holds you back."