Access to the Stage: Life As a Professional Blind Musician

This is the research assignment that i submitted for the disability studies course. When i emailed it to one of the participants yesterday, he suggested that i should put it online, or somewhere where people could read it. I agreed, because i think both musicians brought up some very interesting points.
Its a long one, but if you read it, i hope you enjoy it.

Access to the stage: Life as a Professional Blind Musician

When I began this research, my original idea was to focus on the experiences of professional musicians with a variety of disabilities in Ireland. I had difficulty contacting people who perform regularly, and if I’d been able to get in touch with everyone I had in mind, it would have been a much longer project. As a result, I decided to focus specifically on musicians with visual impairments. Being blind myself, and having a keen interest in music, I wanted to learn about the reality of performing when you can’t see. I spoke to two musicians/singers who are blind, and their interviews became the main source of information for this project. I wanted to find out how blindness affects their career. Are they treated differently by audiences or people in the music business because of it? What assistance is available for these musicians?

Playing music is a popular activity for many blind and visually impaired people, due to its aural nature. For some people though, its much more than a pastime, it’s a way of life. Music was one of the few career options open to blind and visually impaired people during the 17th and 18th centuries. Irish harp player Turlough O’Carlan was one of the most influential musicians of this time, learning and composing pieces by memory, long before musical notation was in use. More recently outside Ireland, musicians such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli have brought the work of blind people to a world-wide audience. This has no doubt altered people’s perceptions of blindness among the general public. But what is the reality for performers in Ireland if they have a visual impairment? There are many talented amateur musicians in this country, but few choose it as their professional career today, and very few work as full-time musicians.

Born in Dublin in the 1930’s, Joe Bollard has had a long and varied career as a pianist and singer. When you talk to him about this, three things quickly become obvious; his enthusiasm for music, his determination, and his positive attitude. His family moved to Liverpool when he was six years old.
“It was there, in the school for the blind, that I got my very first music lesson. I can remember every minute of that lesson. It was half an hour. I sat down at the piano. The music teacher said, ‘put your hands on the piano and tell me what you feel?’ And I said, ‘well there’s some flat things here, and there’s some lumpy things at the back. The lumpy things go in a sort of pattern, two three, two three.’ ‘Yes she said, ‘the flat things as you call them are white, and the lumpy things are black.’ And then she told me to press a note, so I pressed one. I remember I pressed middle C, and the sound was amazing! Me, producing this sound by just one note gave me butterflies in my tummy. From the first day I played that middle C on the piano all those years ago, all I wanted to do was become a musician.”

Joe played classical music and learned to read Braille music in school. When he left school, he began listening to the popular music at that time, and learning it by ear. People started hearing about “this blind piano player” and offering him work. He joined a band with a drummer and a bass player, who often played at weddings, private functions and in nightclubs. He also regularly played piano with a female singer, travelling around the U.K, learning his trade.
“Around this time I had started visiting local dance halls. I wasn’t dancing, but all the big bands went there. I’d go and sit all night at the front of the stage with a glass of lemonade, listening to all the bands and talking to various people in the bands. I’d listen to the arrangements of the music and learn about the arrangements, and how singers presented themselves and how they looked. I’d ask questions like what’s he wearing, or how are the band situated onstage? I wanted to know that they were sitting with their heads bowed, rarely smiling, always looking like they had lost a tenner and found a fiver. When you’re blind you can’t see that, so always ask. When you’re blind, you really have to push yourself. If you sit down in a chair and wait for somebody to bring you up to the piano, you’re going to sit there all day. You go in and say, ‘where’s the piano?’ You just have to push yourself. I have to do that even now. You have to ask questions, and get people to show you things. Sometimes you’ve got to be cheeky and forward and say, where’s this, where’s that?”

Joe had always wanted to return to Ireland, and it was a job with an eight piece band in Ballina that prompted him to do this. Even back then, he was determined to show people that his musical talent was more important than his blindness.
“The first gig we played was in the town hall in Ballina. Everyone was reading music except me and the bass player. About half an hour in, the place was packed, and Jack said, ‘Now ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to my new musician in the band. This is Joe Bollard, the blind piano player’, and I hit the ceiling! I didn’t say anything there and then, but when we took a break I said ‘Jack, don’t ever do that again. Don’t introduce me as the blind piano player. I’m not using my blindness as a vehicle.’ I told him that if he did it again, I’d be on the train back to Dublin. He’d just had a load of posters printed for the various dance halls we were playing for the next month, with “Joe the blind piano player” written on them, and I said, ‘you can get rid of them!’ I wouldn’t allow him. I became really good friends with Frank the saxophone player, and I made sure that he let me know if he saw the posters anywhere. He saw two, and I told Jack that I wouldn’t go on until he took them down, and he did. I stayed with that band for seven years, and by the time I had left, I was doing three different jobs. I was playing piano and singing, I was the arranger for the band, and I was doing a sort of a roadie thing. If we were in Ballina and we were playing in Newcastle West, Jack would ring me up and ask how we would get down there. I had a map of Ireland in my head, so I was always able to help.”

Joe left the band in order to spend time with his wife and children. They moved to Dublin, and then to Bray in Co. Wicklow, where he currently lives and works. He does a lot of freelance work, and is very involved with his local church, training the choir and playing the organ.

Nicky Kealy has been working as a professional musician since the year 2000. His love of music began at a young age, when music was always being played on the tape recorder at home. At St. Joseph’s school for the visually impaired in Dublin, Nicky was encouraged to learn piano and join the school choir. He played classical music and did piano exams, and also had the opportunity to learn to play the Uilleann pipes. Nicky joined the schools traditional band, who participated in many competitions. He took an interest in solo traditional singing, learning the songs by listening to recordings and picking up the ornamentation. In 1995 he won the under fifteens Fleadh Ceol, came third the following year and later won the under eighteens. It wasn’t competitions, but his first experience of recording which helped Nicky to decide that singing was what he wanted to do as a profession.
“I had been in a studio when I was sixteen, and I recorded my first 4-track EP, and that’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do when I leave school. People were telling me who were in it at the time that it was a profession that I was not going to be able to walk into. Others were saying, “aah, if that’s what you want to do, try it out.” So there was a bit of a conflict of people wishing me well, but others being cautious at the same time.”

Since then, Nicky has recorded and released albums and EPs, performed on many cruises and trips abroad, as well as putting on his own shows in his hometown of Carlow. One of Nicky’s biggest achievements was winning the 2011 series of the popular country n’ western talent show glór Tíre.

I was curious to know, what, if any affect does Nicky’s blindness have on his ability to perform?
“When I’m on stage it doesn’t. In fact I really forget about it. If I’m doing a show, I’ll have a set list beside me, because myself and the band will have a running order of what we’re doing. I’ll have that in Braille beside me, and I’ve often made a joke about what Braille is, people will see you reading it and you have no choice. I’ve done other dances and gigs were you wouldn’t have a set list. You’d do maybe two or three together and you’d know what you’re doing. Then you’d have a little break and you’d converse with the guitar player or someone in the band. Then you’d go off and do something else. Because people are dancing, you have to change tempos for them all the time, depending on what kind of crowd you have. On stage you don’t see the disability, but I think off stage people do. When you’re on stage, and you know everything is going right, you can just perform and be as natural as possible. It’s when you meet people and your off stage, you have to be conscious of how you look at them, how you shake hands with them and appear interested in them. Funny enough, it’s the audience who you have to work with, because when you talk to fellow musicians or performers, they don’t see the disability. Sometimes people will come up to me and say, ‘God you’re absolutely fantastic. Isn’t it great the way you can get up and do that’, and I don’t think they would say the same to a person who is fully sighted or doesn’t have a disability. That annoys me, because blindness has nothing to do with what I do.”

We live in a sighted world, where image speaks volumes, and we are often instantly judged on our appearance. How does a blind musician, who regularly performs on stage in front of an audience deal with this? While filming for the Television series Glór Tíre, image was something that Nicky was often conscious about.
“There was a scene after every live performance where the performers would be up on a balcony looking down on the people below. The presenter Aoife would finish the program, and everyone would have to wave, and it may sound stupid to some people, but somebody had to show me exactly how to do it properly. I wanted to look like everybody else. People would be smiling and waving directly at the cameras or the audience, so I got somebody to show me exactly how to look or where to look. I think image is very important. If you’re trying to persuade somebody that you are as good as everybody else at doing something, you have to make 110% of an effort in your image, your looks and your fashion. You do have to work that bit more than everybody else, because people will notice. Someone might think, ‘aww, he didn’t look at the camera there, he didn’t smile or he didn’t wave. God love him, he’s blind, sure what would he know.’ So you have to look your best. You have to look better than the sighted fella standing beside you. That’s just the way it is. Like it or not, there are some things that you are going to have to be aware of more than others. You need to put yourself out there as being independent and fully capable.”

Joe has a similar attitude. The fact that he can’t see means that he has to put more of an effort into how he appears in front of his sighted audience.
“I do a gig regularly on a Sunday night in my hometown of Bray, which is a kind of sing-along. At this regular gig I have two friends that come in regularly and they are brilliant. I hate saying it, but I’ve trained them in. When they come in they sit at a table near to me so I can hear them. I call people up to sing, and as the evening goes on they will quietly tell me things like, “Johnny’s just come in.” or “Mary’s just had her hair done.” Or “Alice got a new dress.” So that when they come up to sing I can comment on their lovely hair or their new dress, and they’ll be thinking, ‘I thought he was blind!’ It brings me in on the same level, and in the summer for example when we have a lot of visitors in, they don’t even know that I’m blind. I want to be on a par with the audience and talk about them like I can see them. It makes my sighted friends feel more comfortable around me. No matter how good you are, you have to have a relationship and a rapport with your audience. Sometimes I might sing a song and they don’t like it, or there’s no applause, and I’ll just say something like “oh well. Thank you. That’s another one you didn’t like.” That causes a ripple of applause and I’ve got their attention again.”

Performers who are blind want to look as natural as possible on stage, equal to their sighted peers. Knowing the layout of the stage is very important. Using a microphone stand to keep a central position, and being aware of the surrounding objects ensures that the performer is facing in the right direction at all times.
“I don’t put much effort into learning my way around a whole place”, Nicky admits. “I’d have to be performing there for a few nights to do that. If I’m walking on to a stage, someone will discretely walk me on and leave when I’m set up. I have a friend who prefers to do all that himself, down to the art of counting how many steps, and knowing where to turn and everything. I think that’s far too much pressure to put myself under. His coordination is obviously so much better than mine. I think that I have enough to do to plan the gig myself, and that’s what I use the assistance for. Trying to navigate your way around big hotels or venues is difficult. I don’t bring my guide dog with me, and some of the places are huge!”

A report entitled ‘becoming a national resource’ (ADAI, 2010) states that:
“Many artists who have impairments deliberately decide not to mention their disability or make it part of the marketing of their work. Some believe that knowledge of their disability will influence the interpretation of their work, leading to condescension, and possibly even exclusion from, or discrimination against, their participation in mainstream arts.”

Both Joe and Nicky have no problems disclosing and discussing the fact that they are blind when looking for work. For Joe though, especially in the early days of his career, finding work wasn’t always easy.
“I sometimes got turned down for work because I was blind. I got turned down more times than I got work. I actually heard somebody say once, “Joe Bollard’s good, but he’s blind.” The biggest thing of all seems to be, how are you going to get to the loo! It’s not how are you going to get out if the place goes on fire! Things have changed and I’m glad to see that they have. This change is to do with a lot of younger people’s thinking about people with disability. Years ago people were put away. Now more people with disabilities are going to third level education and being accepted by their peers, and you know I think that’s great. There are still difficulties of course, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was.”

Nicky has benefited from this change in attitude towards people with disabilities, and his experience of finding work has always been positive.
“It’s never came up in discussion that, how could I play a pub or a venue because I am blind. I think they want you for your performance. Venues and promoters, if they know you can sing, if they’ve heard you or heard people talking about you, they want to get you in there. Being blind has never been an issue for me.”

Having a disability can add a significant extra financial cost to a person’s everyday life. This is a challenge which many musicians with visual impairments experience, as Joe explains.
“At the moment I do a couple of gigs and I have a guy who does roadie for me. I pay him for it, and that’s an extra cost. If I could see I’d throw all my stuff into the back of the van and drive away. You can’t see so you pay somebody to do it. It’s a pain in the rear but you still have to do it. He carries the stuff in because I’m not physically able to do it. He puts the speakers up on the stands but I set it up. I connect all the speakers and do all the testing, and the same happens when I’m finished I take it all down myself. All he is doing is carrying the heavy stuff and driving me there and back, but he still gets paid for it. That’s one of the prices of being blind. You have to rely on other people, but there’s no shame in doing that. I have no problem with it.”

There are some funding options available to artists with disabilities. The Arts and Disability Forum (ADF) is just one example of an organisation which can provide grants of up to £5000 to fund specific projects. If successful, a musician could put this funding towards the recording of some music, but it cannot be used for practical assistance such as the cost of transport, or paying somebody to accompany the performer when necessary. When I talked to Joe and Nicky about funding, they both emphasised that it wasn’t something people with disabilities should expect or depend on. It’s a bonus if you can get it. Even if assistive technology such as computers and software was less expensive, blind and visually impaired people would benefit greatly.

Regardless of funding, the extra cost incurred by a person’s disability is a huge factor in their decision to work as a full-time professional musician. For financial reasons, Nicky currently works part-time, though working in the music business full-time would be his ideal job.
“Not being able to drive and needing transport is hard. If you don’t have a vehicle, you can’t carry your own stuff. To do a gig, you have to be able to make enough money to pay someone to travel with you. I have been lucky because I have my parents to go with me. I would give them petrol money. Someone else might take a gig because it earns them an extra 20 quid, but that’s no good to me. I have a five day a week job which is secure. If I was going to go full-time, I would need to take some time out of that to give it a good go. I have a mortgage to pay, so that’s not really possible. It’s very difficult for someone with a disability to have a start-up business, and that’s what my playing music would be, because I would be employing somebody to assist me. How do I make a profit? Should I stop myself from doing something because I don’t have someone to bring me? I don’t think I should, so that’s why I’m singing and working at the same time.”

Organisations which assist people with disabilities may not exactly provide direct assistance or funding for musicians, but Nicky believes they could do more to change the attitudes of society.
“As much as organisations want to try and represent everybody, they’re not going to say everything that’s going to make everyone happy. “But in terms of everyday image, there’s definitely more that organisations could do to help people with disabilities. We get asked questions all the time about how we do everyday things, so maybe there should be more public awareness or education, because then people will see you more as a “normal” person. Then when they see you performing, or doing a job that you are able to do, they won’t be as amazed or mesmerised. I think the most important thing for anybody is to just get out there and believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, there’s nothing anybody else can do for you.”

Speaking to Joe and Nicky was very interesting for me on a personal level, and I greatly admire their positive attitude towards blindness. People in the audience see them performing on stage, possibly never even considering the amount of time and energy that they put in beforehand, to ensure that they fit in equally in this sighted world. Being blind is just a part of who they are. When Joe and Nicky are on stage, they forget about it, and the music is the most important thing.
“Maybe it’s a personal thing with me, but I want people to remember Joe Bollard for his musicianship, not because I am blind. Again, it’s not that I’m ashamed of being blind. I’m not. You shouldn’t ride on it as a vehicle all your life.”

Both musicians recognise that there are still some barriers which make it difficult for people who are blind to perform in Ireland. The attitude of society is changing for the better, but it is up to people to get out there as much as possible and show what they can do. By doing this, musicians with disabilities will become less of a novelty, and the attention will be focused on their performance, rather than their impairment.

Why i loved working in schools

Yesterday was my last day working with primary schools as part of my job.For the last three years, myself and a few different personal assistants (Pas) have been delivering disability training to children between the age of nine and twelve, and I’ve loved every minute of it. We’ve visited probably almost 50 schools and met around 2000 kids, (that’s a lot of pets for OJ!) No wonder he’s always so happy. I’ve been to parts of Donegal that I’ve never seen before, my geography is improving all the time. Feedback from the program has been very positive, and the children, teachers and staff have been brilliant.
This was definitely my favourite part of my job, and I wish it could continue. If we had the funds, we could be working full-time around the county, but that’s just not possible. At the minute we’re applying for funding so that I can bring a similar, age-appropriate program to secondary schools, and it would give me a job a couple of days a week for another year. If we get it, the work will be challenging and very different, but I think I’m ready for a change. Younger children ask the most amazing and funny questions, so I thought I’d share some of the ones that I remember being asked this year. Then you will see exactly why I loved my job!!

If O.J sleeps downstairs, how does he know when you want to get up? Does he come and get you and bring you downstairs?

Kid: Where do the puppies come from?
Me: O.J is a boy.
Kid: But where do the puppies come from!

Me: What do you need to allow you to park in an accessible parking space?
Kid: A car!

Me: Why might people choose to use either a guide dog or a cane?
Kid: Because they might be allergic to dogs.
Another kid: Or they might be allergic to the stuff that canes are made from.

We did two classes in the same school one day, and I could hardly keep up with all the children’s questions. They had lots of examples of TV programs and documentaries they’d seen about people with illnesses and disabilities. Fascinating to see children being so sensitive to other people.
One of the boys, who was really gentle and polite came up to me and thanked me for coming to the class before i left. He’d clearly been absorbing a lot of what I was talking about, and wanted to tell me a couple of things before I left. He told me that it was amazing and really cool how you wouldn’t really know that I had a disability. If I want something I just get it. When I take something out of my bag I just get it, and you would hardly notice that I had a disability at all.
He also talked about how difficult it must be when you get a disability and you aren’t born with one. It must be so much harder to adjust.
What an intelligent, mature kid!

And my personal favourite, both from the same school:

Small girl in junior infants:
“Does O.J poo?”

Older boy in the same school:
“If you’ve been blind since you’ve been very young, you don’t remember what its like to be able to see, right?
So how do you know how to smile?”

An interesting week

The last week has been busy with lots of different things happening. Last weekend Darragh and Emma came to visit, and it was lovely to finally have them up, show them Buncrana and show them my house. Darragh even
wrote about it
when he came back, so I’m glad they enjoyed it too.
Harry was three on Monday, so i convinced Nicky to stay an extra day so we could enjoy being in the park with the boys and going to their house for dinner and birthday cake. Harry is so intelligent and funny for his age, and he makes me laugh every time i see him. I am totally crazy about the three boys!
The rest of the week involved the usual joys of work and a couple of walks with O J and Dougal in this really hot weather we’re having. But I did two things this week that i specifically wanted to write about.

On Wednesday morning i went to an art class run for people with disabilities, giving them an opportunity to try out new things that they may not otherwise get a chance to experience. We were taking some people from work and there was a spare place, so the manager asked if I’d go. Sure why Not!
The class took place in a studio in the artist’s house, which was located in a place called Glendoan, which I’d never even heard of before. Its about 20 minutes from Letterkenny, but in the complete middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and wildlife, with a river nearby. Its the perfect place to create art, and it was a perfect sunny day too.
We explored different smells, plants and herbs, and then learned how to make perfume and lip balm. I made a lemon flavoured lip balm, which was easy, and I’ll hopefully make more at home. While we were working, we could hear the sound of sheep, and children in the distance who were out on a nature walk. At one point we heard a cuckoo, and O.J barked at it for a minute or two. There are two more classes left, when we will have the opportunity to make dream catchers and things from willow and tree bark, and pottery using clay, which i always enjoyed when i was small.

The second interesting and new thing i did happened today. My aunt is a yoga teacher, and she teaches in the
yoga centre
in a fort in one of the nicest areas of Inishowen. She had invited
Jack Harrison
to do a day of yoga with local people. I went with my mum and two aunts and had no idea what to expect, but it was the most relaxing lovely thing i have experienced in a long time.

Jack Harrison is a yoga teacher, singer and folklorist, and has studied in these three areas for the last 30 years. His workshops blend yoga and music with Irish mythology. Born in Dublin and now living in Galway, Jack has worked in many countries, spending a lot of time in Thailand. My aunt first came across him at Electric Picnic of all places!

It was easy to pay attention and enjoy what Jack was teaching us to do because of his relaxed gentle nature. He was down to earth and funny, and great at noticing if i needed help when he was explaining something. He helped everyone at different times, so the fact that i was the only person who doesn’t regularly do yoga as well as being blind didn’t make me feel awkward.
The thing that sold the idea of this yoga day to be instantly was the importance of music. Jack has an amazing strong voice, and when his co-worker Mallaki sang with him, i wasn’t expecting it at all and was completely blown away by how beautiful and perfect their voices sounded together. She has one of the nicest female singing voices I think I’ve ever heard, and they work brilliantly together. They performed music for almost an hour for us when the yoga was finished, and I think i speak for everyone when i say that the time flew and nobody wanted to go home.

I bought one of Jack’s CDs before i left. I would have liked to have talked to him more, particularly about his career and his work in Thailand, but as always during days like this, there’s a lot of people who want to talk, so everybody gets a short chance.

Today was good for me for a couple of reasons. I think there’s absolutely no point in doing the same thing all the time, and its good to try new things, even though the thought of them beforehand can make you unsure. Also, one of the things you are encouraged to do in yoga and that we were reminded of many times today is to be with yourself. Try to let go and not be thinking of other things, like what you’re going to do tomorrow, all the things you need to do next week etc. Just keep your mind focused on yourself at that exact moment, and nothing else. And believe it or not, that’s a really hard thing to do. I found that it took me a long time to switch off and completely relax, but the music definitely helped. It was nice to get the chance to do that. I’m always very busy which is great, and i wouldn’t have it any other way, but I’m constantly thinking of what I’m doing for the week ahead, what days I’m working, what’s happening at the weekend, and all sorts of things. For instance, i know I’m doing something practically every weekend until the middle of September. These might only be small things like babysitting or meeting friends i haven’t seen in a while, but they still take planning and thought, and I’m constantly thinking of dates. My minds like a calendar, and sometimes all that thinking can get exhausting. So what i learned today made a lot of sense.
And right now, I couldn’t be more relaxed if i tried.