11/20/09

Giving and Receiving

Jazz pianist discusses her experiences in performing for and with visually-impaired students

People mistakenly think that I teach the blind, but I’m not a teacher and I don’t have any family members or close friends without sight. I just felt called to start working with the visually impaired, and since then people have been calling me.

I like to give what I would have enjoyed receiving. For me, growing up in a sleepy Southern California town, a visit from a “professional musician” would have been really exciting. So about a dozen years ago I began volunteering at a local university’s Arts Reach program, where they bussed in local and inner-city children to experience music, dance and theatre. I also visited nearby Camp Bloomfield, run by the Junior Blind of America, and offered to play the piano for them. That was my first time around children who are blind, and it really touched me. Many had multiple handicaps, yet everyone at camp fished, created art and slept in cabins like kids at any camp. The following year I talked Kawai into loaning the camp a piano, and played again. When I then asked the Arts Reach program to invite the visually impaired children to one of their music programs, I was told it would be a “liability” for the university, something I completely disagreed with.

Helen Keller’s alma mater, Perkins School for the Blind, located near Boston, heard about my experience and asked me to play at their school. So in 2006, besides playing piano for music students and staff, I tried to bring some positive attention to programs for the visually impaired students. In 2007 I put on a full-length program for Perkins’ friends, families, students and supporters. I was happy to return—it’s a cool school, and it feels good just being there. People without sight respond based on a person’s energy and spirit, something I admire and respect. Joyce Kulhawik at CBS TV Boston came by with a camera crew, stayed longer than expected, and aired a lovely five-minute segment on children who are visually impaired. Inspired by my visit, I later helped Perkins obtain a music preservation grant from the Grammy Foundation, as well as a grant from another non-profit organization.

The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired asked me to come to their facility, and in 2008 I went and jammed with their band, Vision Quest. I was impressed not only with the band, but the job-training programs, the specialty eyeglasses and computers they had developed, and the Braille books that they house for the entire state of Illinois. I arranged a grant for them from a foundation, and returned to do a benefit performance this year.

I have met successful lawyers, radio hosts, musicians, executives and development officers as well as many children and teens who are blind. Whether we are aware of it or not, we judge, and are judged, based on visual details that have little to do with a person’s soul or spirit. I play the piano with my eyes closed, and I work with my band in the studio in a completely intuitive manner. The only thing that matters is the music. That’s the same feeling I get around those who are visually impaired, and I really like it.

The music business is tough—especially being a woman in jazz. But witnessing others bravely dealing with multiple challenges inspires action. I see tremendous drive in people who work with those without sight, personified by the motto at Perkins: “All We See Is Possibility.”

These experiences have created many wonderful memories, but I’ve also seen incredibly difficult things, too. Being multi-handicapped is rough. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were musical geniuses who rose above extraordinary challenges, but the world that most people with disabilities face is far from Hollywood. In Malibu, Calif., where I live, I’ve worked out at the gym next to Superman, watched James Bond smile as he cut in line at the seafood market, and witnessed the search for physical perfection that many celebrities (and their surgeons) strive for. Around here, “reality” can get a little fuzzy at times. Working with the blind and visually impaired is the Real World.

In jazz, it is the unique stuff—the bent notes, the juxtaposed rhythms, the accidentals—that capture our minds and attention, not the perfection. The other day, my little Italian greyhound started barking as Muddy Waters’ deep growl jumped out of the speakers—even my dog heard the authenticity in that blues legend’s voice. The reality is, it’s sometimes hard for anyone to see what’s important, authentic or real. You need to listen for those things.

Lisa Hilton is a jazz pianist, composer and producer. Her 11th release is Twilight & Blues.

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