In around 2007 I was working as a musicianship tutor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Part of that employment was working with very musically advanced children on Saturdays (I am privileged to do similar work today at the RCS in Glasgow). One week, I was invited to teach musicianship to a girl who had been blind since birth. I was comfortable with this challenge as I already had some experience in this area, and so I met Rachel. From the first class, I was captivated by her amazing passion and deep love for music. She had an incredible ear and was able to memorise repertoire at a frightening rate. We had a game where I would play a random CD (in any style) as she entered my room with a helper, and she would immediately, grinning from ear-to-ear head to the piano and rattle off what she’d just heard pretty much note-for-note. The helpers usually fell over in disbelief.
As time passed I recognised that Rachel’s musical gifts were utterly extraordinary – at times inexplicable. She was always reliant upon her amazing memory and ear to learn repertoire, so colleagues and I thought it would be wise to teach Rachel to read music. Together, Rachel and I learned the basics of reading Braille sheet music – a process which was pretty torturous for me but which Rachel picked up admirably. There was no doubt though that using her ear and memory would always be her primary technique, and why not? It is an art of the ear after all.
With colleagues, we tried to direct her through A Level music many years early. The content of the course was almost too easy but the accessibility issues created many frustrating barriers. I’m still uncertain as to whether visually-impaired musicians face an even playing field when it comes to assessment today.
So you can imagine my surprise and sense of joy when I saw that Rachel had posted a recording of her final degree recital on Facebook (available here). Kirsty and I watched much of it last night and I confess to being deeply touched by what I heard and saw. I was thrilled to see that Rachel and her teachers had had the courage to allow Rachel to present improvisations in the style of certain composers as part of the concert. This is a practice which was commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries but is dying today. Please understand that we are talking of multi-voiced, modulatory, structured improvisations here rather than jamming a blues scale over a few chords. Rachel achieved a near-unprecedented mark of 96%. It is richly deserved and I am both unsurprised and thrilled to bursting point for her.
It is important to say that I have played a very tiny part in Rachel’s musical development – the vast majority of the credit belongs to Rachel herself and her piano teachers. Rachel had an incredible energy and joie de vivre which all part of the package of her as a musician. As I consider her story, I feel that I was taught more by her about the art of teaching and the question of developing the inner ear.
When I talk of this experience with fellow musicians, I am often faced with statements such as ‘she was so good because the ear compensates’, suggesting that in the absence of one sense, another develops at an increased rate. The problem with this is assumption that there is no evidence whatsoever to support it. I think that what we are witnessing is something slightly different. I believe that the ear and memory have been required to work harder. The development is not a compensatory gesture put in place by the body but has happened through sheer hard work. The key point here is that such accelerated aural and memory skills are probably available to all, sighted or otherwise, should we choose to train ourselves in a balanced manner.
Whatever the truths of such things, there is one definite. Rachel, you richly deserve what you have achieved and you continue to be an inspiration to many. Now a joyous career of music awaits and I for one look forward to hearing more from you!