American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2021     MUSIC AND ART

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All Things Strings

An Interview with Leslie Hamric and Julia LaGrand

From the Editor: This article is based on an episode of "Scene Change," a podcast of the National Federation of the Blind Performing Arts Division. Leslie Hamric, a cellist, and Julia LaGrand, a violinist, discuss their training, their aspirations, and their challenges as blind performers. On February 15 Julia, an eleventh-grader, was featured on From the Top, a syndicated program that is broadcast on National Public Radio. You can hear the program at https://fromthetop.org/show/show-395. The interview below was conducted by Lizzy Muhammad-Park, secretary of the Performing Arts Division.

Introduction by Lizzy Muhammad-Park: We're fortunate to have one of our board members here today. She is a cellist and a Federationist from Illinois, Leslie Hamric. We also have one of our newest members of the Performing Arts Division, a violinist from the great state of Michigan. Julia LaGrand is a high school student who has been playing violin since age five—am I right?

Julia LaGrand: Yes, I started playing violin at five. My sister began cello at around the same time. She's four years older than I am, and she's currently a cello performance major at the University of Michigan. Our parents are pretty musical. My mom played a lot of piano in high school and college, and she invested a lot in helping us become more musical.

Lizzy Muhammad-Park: Do you play piano as well as violin?

Julia LaGrand holds her violin.Julia: I played piano for two years when I was very young and for two years in middle school. I did a lot of jazz piano, and then I transferred to violin jazz. I don't do much jazz anymore. I'm mainly classical now.

Lizzy: Leslie, I read that you met your husband at a summer music program. Tell us a bit about that.

Leslie Hamric: I met my husband at the Meadowmount School of Music, which is a seven-week summer program in Westport, New York. He was a graduate assistant at the camp, so he was assigned to help the new students out. It started out that he was my reader, and he helped explain some of our teacher's methods. That was in the year 2000, and as they say, the rest is history.

Lizzy: As I understand it, you would have a reader play the music, and you would listen to it on a recording and learn it that way.

Leslie: I had two graduate assistants when I was an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. Both of them were cellists. One of them would play the piece and record it, calling out fingerings, bowings, and dynamics. When I got to Meadowmount, my teacher, Tanya Carey, said, "No, you're going to learn to do this yourself. You have the music." She was pretty insistent about not letting anyone record anything for me. I felt like my world had turned upside down! But it was the best thing she could have done for me. Now I can pick up a piece of music and learn it without any assistance.

Lizzy: And you can interpret it how you want. That's the power of Braille music! Julia is actually one of your Braille music students. Julia, how's it going, learning Braille music? How experienced are you with it?

Julia: I began learning Braille music when I was very young. I was self-taught out of some books, with some assistance from my mother. I didn't use Braille music much for violin. I used it some for piano because my piano music was very simple. But really those skills sort of languished. Then recently I read an article by Leslie in the Braille Monitor, and I got inspired to work on Braille music again. It was pretty difficult at first, but it's been amazing! It's incredible to actually read what I'm playing and not just listen to other people playing it, not to depend on other people's imprecise interpretations. At my fingertips I have exactly what the composer wrote. It really enhances my ability as a performer to be able to convey what is supposed to be conveyed and to make my own artistic decisions. I look forward to how Braille music will improve my performances.

Lizzy: What made you choose the violin?

Julia: It was offered to me—that's the simplest answer. My mother asked me if I would like to play music, and she suggested the violin. I didn't know much about it—I was five at the time!—but I really wanted to play music, so I got started.

Lizzy: What was it like for you, starting so young, and as a blind child? Did you ever face any discrimination from a teacher?

Julia: Only in the past few years have I thought about my blindness in relation to my music. I always knew I was using some adaptive techniques, but my teachers were extremely accommodating. I was fortunate to have really great teachers, so blindness was never really an issue.

Lizzy: How about you, Leslie? How did you decide to play the cello, and did you run into any discrimination?

Leslie: I started playing cello when I was eight. My mom suggested the cello because my brother already was playing violin. My brother and I used to play duets. We would put on concerts on Saturday nights for our parents. We called them mini-concerts, and it was a lot of fun. I'd already been playing piano for two years when I started cello. Then when I was fourteen I started voice.

When I was a senior in high school I decided I wanted to major in cello. I loved the sound of the cello—it really clicked with me. I felt like it was a part of me, and I still feel that way.

Lizzy: Did anyone ever try to discourage you?

Leslie Hamric plays her cello.Leslie: I was fortunate to have really good teachers. When I was sixteen I auditioned for the Chicago Symphony Youth Orchestra. At that time I was starting to have tendinitis, and it wasn't going away. When I auditioned, the person who heard me play said, "If you don't relearn your technique, in a year or two you're not going to be able to play anymore." He ended up taking me on as a student.

My first cello teacher taught me to play expressively, but I was always very tense. This new teacher, Wyatt Sutherland, made me relearn my technique. I had to change everything—how I sat, how I held the cello, even the way I positioned my feet on the floor. It was tough, but it was well worth it!

Lizzy: What's your first memory of the cello?

Leslie: My aunt got me a record of Yo-Yo Ma playing the First and Second Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. I remember thinking, "I want to play like that!"

Lizzy: How about you, Julia? What's your first memory of the violin?

Julia: I clearly remember bits and pieces of my very first violin lesson. I remember being thrilled to be starting! I think my first memory of the sound of the violin was when I was considering a new half-size violin. I was moving up from a quarter-size to a half-size. I remember trying out several new violins and being overwhelmed by the beauty of the sound. It was an amazing experience!

Lizzy: Julia, tell me about your first experience playing with an orchestra.

Julia: I started playing in a youth orchestra through a local music school when I was in third grade. It was a cool experience to play with such a large body. But this brings to mind a story about being denied a concert master position. I remember very clearly the conductor saying, "Her audition was the best, but she can't sit first [chair], we can't do that." That was probably my first major encounter with discrimination.

Lizzy: What was the reasoning behind that? What would your duties be?

Julia: You're supposed to present as very competently applying all the correct bowings and notes and rhythms, and you're supposed to lead to some extent. I think she had some concern that I couldn't fulfill that role. The next year she changed her mind, and I was able to play first chair.

Lizzy: It's great that you were able to get your rightful place. How about you, Leslie? What's your earliest memory of playing in an orchestra?

Leslie: I remember the first rehearsal, everybody playing together. I had learned some of the music ahead of time with my teacher recording it so I could play it back. I'd have the recorder on during the whole lesson. She'd play a phrase, and I'd play it back. At the orchestra rehearsal I remember thinking, "This is so cool when you put everybody together!" It sounded so beautiful and so full and warm! My mom always said I never wanted to leave rehearsal. She had to fight with me to go home because I didn't want to leave.

Lizzy: I suspect that somewhere out there is someone who thinks that blind people can't keep up with an orchestra. What tips do you two have for keeping track of the music? What sound cues do you listen to? What alternative techniques are you using when you're on the stage?

Julia: Most of my experience is as a solo performer or a performer with small chamber groups, although I've also done a fair amount of orchestra. One thing I have found particularly challenging as a blind musician is figuring out a lot of things about stage presence. As a soloist I have to figure out how to move my body in a way that is conducive to the music and not distracting. I don't have the experience of watching other performers to see how they move their bodies to convey certain things. It's something I've worked on a lot with my teacher. It's easy to get bogged down and feel like it's impossible! I think it's important to use the resources around you and keep trying to improve that skill, even though it might feel daunting. It's quite a lot to work through, but it's really important, and I think it's possible. You can do wonderful things with it, but you have to keep trying.

As a chamber musician, I've worked a lot on communication with other participants in the chamber group. Both blind and sighted musicians learn to focus on the breathing of their fellow musicians. Blind musicians particularly can benefit from really, really listening to the breathing of their colleagues. Often people say, "Look at that person to know what's happening," but there's a lot you can get by listening to their breath, and also just picking up the atmosphere. There are lots of ways to communicate with colleagues that don't require sight.

Lizzy: How about you, Leslie? What techniques have you learned from your years of playing?

Leslie: Lots and lots of listening! I can't emphasize it enough! Another thing is counting, but if you have to count sixty measures you're going to get very bored!

When I learn a new piece, the first thing I do is get a recording on YouTube or iTunes. I listen to it over and over again. By the time I get my Braille music from the transcriber I pretty much know the piece backward and forward and upside down. If I have to sit out sixty measures, just waiting, I'm not going to count measures! I'll be listening for a sound cue. Is it the winds? Is it the first violin? Is it the percussion?

Another thing that helps me—in rehearsal I get some verbal cues from my stand partner. For instance, if we all have to come in at the same time, she'll whisper, "He's getting ready!" She'll whisper very quietly so nobody else can hear her.

As blind musicians we come to rehearsal well prepared. We have to memorize everything, whether we're learning from recordings or from Braille music. The way we take in the notes is different if we read the music as opposed to learning from a recording, but we still have to have the music in our heads when we perform.

Julia: With a lot of the more complicated things I've done in youth orchestras, I've relied heavily on the recording of the full orchestra part. In terms of solidifying memorization, that's been very useful! One thing I've done, I'll take recordings and slow them down as I work on the memorization process. That's been a very useful trick.

Leslie: I agree. I often turn up my Alexa to Volume 10 and play with the piece.

Lizzy: One of our members asked how you keep your bow straight. I think that's especially hard at the beginning.

Julia: From my experience, it's not just at the beginning! It's a constant journey. It's about listening for the perfection of the sound. There's a certain sound when your bow is even slightly crooked. You can tune in to what that perfect sound is, and that's hugely important to figuring out whether your bow is straight. I also think there's a feeling in the fingers. You can kind of feel the straightness of the bow. When you are on the perfect path, there is a balancing of the fingers. It only occurs when the bow is perfectly straight.

When I've worked on it I have used sighted help, especially about two years ago when I started diving deeper into this area. I need to know when my bow is straight so I can memorize what straight feels like. I used a fair amount of sighted help at the beginning of that journey, but now I know the clues myself.

I think sighted musicians also have different ways of knowing whether the bow is straight. They might look in a mirror or look in their Zoom cameras. Sight might make the task approachable in a different way, but it's difficult for sighted people, too.

Leslie: My teacher at Meadowmount had a really cool trick called "T for Tone." She showed me that when your bow is straight on the cello, it looks like a letter T formed with the string and the bow. The sound opens up—it's kind of like a flower that blooms. The sound gets louder and fuller, and you don't have to work so hard! It's all about the weight of your arm and letting the string hold you up. If the bow isn't straight you have an X between the bow and the string, and it sounds very different. It sounds quieter. It sounds scratchier. With my students I can say, "I think I hear an X. Where's your T? Find your T." I say that to my son—my ten-year-old son, Michael, is a cellist.

I also can tell a person's position when they're out of tune. Maybe the left elbow is too low, or the hand isn't balanced. It's something I've had to learn to listen for.

When I'm teaching I've had to minimize my touch, how often I touch a student. At first I didn't realize how much I could get from hearing, but the ability is only getting stronger.

Lizzy: So you can tell all these things by listening to your students? That's really cool!

Leslie: I might say, "Is your wing up?" meaning, "Is your elbow up?" The student corrects it, and all of a sudden the note's in tune! It works great with my fourteen-year-old student whom I'm teaching online, but it might be harder with a younger student.

Lizzy: It's good that you started using less tactile feedback with your students, now that you're teaching online.

Julia: Obviously I don't have experience teaching, but I can attest to the importance of intonation and being able to tell when things are out of tune. When I practice I think about how I would address a problem in a student.

Lizzy: Is that what you want to do, Julia? Do you want to be a violin teacher?

Julia: I definitely want to be something related to professional violin playing, but right now I'm geared toward performance. I can definitely imagine teaching as a supplement, or maybe even as my primary career. I still don't know.

Lizzy: I would be remiss if I didn't mention Leslie's credentials. Where did you study?

Leslie: I received my undergraduate degree in cello performance from Northern Illinois University, and I have a master's degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. I also completed the coursework for music therapy at Western Illinois University, but I didn't do the internship. In addition to teaching I perform with the Elmhurst Symphony.

Lizzy: We're so lucky to have these two amazing performers with us today! They both have many accolades, and many more to come. Do either of you have any final advice for blind string players?

Julia: I think the most important thing I have to say is to reiterate what Leslie said earlier about the power of listening. It's crucial for blind musicians and for all musicians! It's wonderful to embrace that as much as possible.

I've been fortunate to have wonderful teachers who have worked to adapt things for me. I know not all teachers will do this. I encourage blind musicians to seek out teachers who are willing to teach adaptively.

Lizzy: Leslie, what final advice do you have for our listeners who might be interested in playing the strings?

Leslie: I would say you should learn Braille music at an early age, preferably when your sighted counterparts are learning to read music, so you don't have to play catch-up. Follow your dreams. If you run into a teacher or colleague who is doubtful about your abilities, try to educate first. If you get someone who doesn't want to learn from you, then they're not worth your time. Keep moving forward, and you'll find what you need eventually.

When you go to an audition, be as prepared as possible. Go in with confidence. The rest is out of your hands. As long as you know you've done the best you can, that's what counts.

Editor's Note: You can listen to the full episode of Scene Change at https://youtu.be/2LD9dZ3H0wM. For more information about the Performing Arts Division, please visit www.nfb-pad.org.

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