Lighthouse Singers Teach Chorus a Lesson
By Roberta Hershenson
Published December 12, 2008
“WATCH me!” is the choral conductor’s mantra, aimed at a harmonious blend. But what if a singer cannot watch the conductor? What if a singer is blind?
Students in the chorus at the Harvey School in Katonah, a private school for grades 6 through 12, recently learned first-hand how blind singers manage when they cannot see the hand motions or facial expressions of their conductor — the standard tools of a vocal director. What they discovered was that the experience is not so different from their own.
“There are no secrets to teaching the visually impaired,” said Dalia Sakas, conductor of the Lighthouse Vocal Ensemble at the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of Lighthouse International in Manhattan. “If you’re a musician, you’re a musician.”
She spoke in an interview after a concert that her chorus of blind and visually impaired adults had performed at the Lighthouse with the students from the Harvey School. The concert featured the New York premiere of “Lines From ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ ” a contemporary work by Elam Ray Sprenkle based on a poem by Walt Whitman. The concert will be repeated free and by candlelight on Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Harvey School’s Black Box Theater. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to donate a gift to the annual toy drive. For more information call (914) 232-3161, extension 42, or go to harveyschool.org (activities/black box theater/calendar).
The real challenge in conducting her chorus, Ms. Sakas said, was finding musical aids appropriate to the needs of each visually impaired singer. While some singers can read music printed large, she said, others rely on Braille music, or listen to MP3 players to learn works. Braille music is based on the same six-dot system as literary Braille.
During a rehearsal before the Lighthouse concert, time was devoted to the usual choral housekeeping of arranging singers by size onstage. Harvey School singers helped the Lighthouse singers negotiate the steps of the risers, guiding them to their places. Then Ms. Sakas and Kathryn Cushman, the director of music at the Harvey School’s upper school, alternated as conductor, using techniques like taking sharp intakes of breath to indicate an entrance at unaccompanied passages, or softly counting to three as a rhythm prompt.
“We prearrange all our details,” Ms. Sakas said. “I can’t work on a whim.”
At one point during the rehearsal a Lighthouse singer called out, “This is the hardest listening I’ve ever done!”
The result was what both conductors called a satisfying experience for both groups. Not only did several generations of sighted and unsighted singers meet under special circumstances, but also everyone had a chance to meet the composer, who was present to discuss the work with the audience. “The level of musicianship was very high,” Ms. Cushman said afterward in a phone interview.“We were talking a lot about issues of visual impairment, but there was some pretty intense music-making going on.”