A New Way to Learn
by Beth Allred
I stand onstage, feeling the lights on my face and sing! “Batti, Batti, o bel Masetto.” “That’s great Beth, sounds wonderful. Now, how might you plead with someone to forgive you if you have done something wrong?” My friend Emily asks from where she is sitting in front of me. Emily and I have been working together for weeks on body movement and facial expression. As a blind person, I have never seen a face in its myriad expressions or understood the value of a body’s actions speaking as loudly or clearly as a voice. I have to learn these things by experiencing them in my body and having someone tell me how they look. Now, back to Emily’s question. I gulp and look down at the floor knowing that it has no inspiration for me. I plead with my voice, not with my hands or with my body. Thus, I experiment by going down on my knees and holding out my hands beseechingly; hoping that is the correct answer. “That is good. But what if we tried this?” Emily says and proceeds up on stage to help me achieve the desired pose.
Music has always come easily to me, the notes, the languages, the expressive sound pulled from me by the feelings the music evokes inside me. As a young child, I learned piano music and later vocal selections by ear. Classes during my undergraduate program were difficult but not any more so than they are for a sighted student. I have a computer that reads everything on the screen to me in a speech synthesized voice, and a scanner with which I can scan my textbooks and a note taking device which allows me to write my notes in Braille and read them back. I have pianists that I work with who help me choose music and also help me by playing accompaniments and notes so that I can learn the music faster. Many people and pieces of technology contribute to my success as a musician and I am grateful to each and every one. If it weren’t for the support of my teachers, colleagues and family, I would still be playing Chopsticks and wondering what came next.
I view my blindness not as a hindrance or as a source of bitterness; instead, it is simply another physical characteristic like the color of my hair or the shape of my nose. I am proud to be blind and have never used it to gain sympathy or advantages that might be available to the disabled. I view myself as a singer who happens to be blind. In that way, I view all challenges as adventures, not obstacles. Of course, there are challenges specific to blindness that arise when one is a musician. Finding translations of operas and arias is a challenge. There is not much online and I invariably am forced to scan in librettos and translations in order to learn a role. Learning off recordings is always a slippery slope to copying what you hear if you are not careful. I listen just enough to get the notes, and not long enough to start emulating the performer. But the biggest challenge I am currently facing is stagecraft.
Imagine for a moment that you are trying to learn hieroglyphics by listening to the Egyptian language. Not an easy task; learning a language by ear. That is how I feel when learning body language and facial expressions as if someone were to tell me, “look confused, act out what you would do if someone said something distasteful.” I have always reacted to those kinds of stimulus with words. Now, I have to learn a whole new language, one that has no emotional significance to me since I do not attach importance to faces or any meaning to what hand gestures indicate.
Slowly but surely, I am making progress. Many of these gestures and expressions I find are instinctual. It involves making me feel the emotion inside me; causing me to bring forth if possible feelings that I have felt in the past and transferring them to my face. It is also a matter of experimentation; trying hand gestures and movements to see what is effective and what isn’t. Emily Martin, whom I have been working with all year calls herself my mirror, telling me what works and what doesn’t. So the next time someone tells me that I cannot perform an opera role because I am blind, my answer will be, “Yes I can!” I have never taken no for an answer and even though aspects of life are difficult, that doesn’t mean I should give up. Blindness causes challenges, but they can be overcome by creativity, determination, and most of all, a positive attitude.
Beth Allred is a Master of Music candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder.