This article was originally published in the summer 2018 issue of the Illinois Independent, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois.
Proving to myself and my orchestra conductor that I could play in an orchestra like any other musician meant the world to me.
On a Friday night in May 1985, excitement twirled inside me. I walked to my chair using a human guide with my stand partner, sat down, and got my cello into position. I was in third grade. I had started taking cello lessons in October 1984, and this was my first orchestra concert. I had memorized all four pieces from audio recordings made by the conductor weeks ago, and I felt well prepared. This was it.
A hush fell over the audience, and I knew the lights had dimmed; then there was silence. Before I knew it, we were playing the first notes of “French Folk Song.” Enthusiastic applause followed. We played our other three pieces: “Long, Long Ago,” “Chorale,” and “Ready, Steady, Go.” It was pure heaven playing these pieces with the group. I felt that my cello and I were one.
As the last piece came to a close, my stand partner gave me the verbal cue to rise. I stood up for the applause with the biggest smile on my face. We all sat down and stood up a few more times before the clapping faded. At last I put my cello down next to me, put in the endpin, and laid the bow on top as I was taught. We in the beginner orchestra had completed our performance with flying colors.
I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. Since I was the first blind person in the school district’s orchestra program, I felt that I had set a new trend. Proving to myself and my orchestra conductor that I could play in an orchestra like any other musician meant the world to me. With a little planning and teamwork, it could be done. As I sat listening to the performances of the other two orchestras, I knew that I wanted to continue with orchestral playing. In fact, performing in my first concert had gone so well that now I had a dream to pursue: that of participating in a professional symphony orchestra someday.
My orchestral studies continued from elementary school through college. I played with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Illinois Music Educators Association (IMEA) District and All-State Orchestras, Northern Illinois University Philharmonic, Aspen Festival Orchestra, and the New Eastman Symphony. While attending the Meadowmount School of Music in the summer of 2000, I fell in love with playing in a string quartet. In addition, I made sure to nurture my love of playing chamber music in graduate school and beyond.
On that day my dream of playing professionally in an orchestra was shattered.
After graduate school and completing coursework in music therapy in 2004, I decided it was time to start looking for a job. I started my first full-time job in 2004, but it was totally unrelated to music. Part of me was okay with having a job in a new field, because I felt that getting work experience was so important. However, another part of me felt unfulfilled, and I persuaded myself that I could both work and keep music as an important part of my life. How wrong I was! With commuting and working full-time, my days were long and busy. Practicing put me on such a high that afterward I couldn’t fall asleep. I felt that music as I knew it was slipping away from me.
In March 2004 I auditioned for an orchestra, thinking that my talent would keep me afloat. Instead, I totally messed up on the audition. The conductor’s comment that stood out most for me was that I was not dedicated enough to music. On that day my dream of playing professionally in an orchestra was shattered, and my life in music seemed to come to a devastating end.
When I got home from that audition, I wanted to run and hide. I was so distraught that I put my cello away for nine months and tried to block music from my life. However, I know now that I simply needed a break to reorganize. Slowly I got back into music, and it became a big part of my life again.
In 2005 I started singing with my church choir. I played for as many church services as I could. However, the missing part remained. After a couple of years I thought I’d audition for another community orchestra. However, as soon as I informed the principal cellist that I am blind, that was it. She was convinced that things would not work and absolutely refused to be educated about the alternative techniques I would use. In a way I was not surprised, but still, I was hurt and angry. I resigned myself to the fact that my professional orchestra dream was over.
When my son was born in 2010, I had no time for music for the next year-and-a-half. Yet I did a lot of soul searching to figure out what my next purpose would be. Through it all I still kept teaching. Teaching gave me hope and kept me going.
Here was someone who was willing to take on a new challenge with dignity and grace.
In 2015 I started getting a few gigs through the Chicago Cello Society and felt the familiar excitement returning. In 2017 I even had a gig with Eclectic Choral Artists and performed the “Holocaust Cantata.” As I was playing these gigs, I began to ask myself what would happen if I auditioned for our local orchestra, the Elmhurst Symphony. I consulted with a couple of contacts there and scheduled an audition for September 12, 2017. I got some excerpts transcribed into Braille and started practicing like crazy.
I called the conductor of the Elmhurst Symphony, Stephen Alltop, to inquire about sight reading. I mentioned that since I am totally blind and need both hands to read Braille music, sight reading while playing my cello is not possible. However, I explained that I have had experience sight reading in ear training and music theory classes in college. I waited to hear what would come next.
To my relief Stephen seemed very calm about my blindness and started asking questions. I felt that he was quite interested and wanted to know more. For once I did not feel that I had to be defensive.
Before the audition I did some role playing with a fellow Federationist, and we went through every kind of question I might be asked. My goal was to respond to each one calmly and directly. The most helpful advice I received was to let my cello playing speak for itself.
I decided to play my audition pieces at Oktoberfest, an annual fundraiser for the NFB of Illinois that draws a good-sized crowd. That was the weekend before my audition, and I figured Oktoberfest would be a good opportunity for me to get some feedback. I received positive comments from everyone who heard me play.
The day of the audition finally came, and I was nervous and excited, but I felt that I was ready. I had the most liberating feeling as my guide dog Gerry and I walked onto the stage and found the chair with minimal assistance. Stephen and I met in person for the first time, and then my audition began. Once again I felt that I was one with my cello, and I had the sense that the audition had gone well.
After I played, Stephen had a bunch of questions for me. They were all good questions, and I was able to answer them calmly and directly, just as I had practiced. I knew this was a time for me to explain how I could be an asset to the orchestra. It was also a time for Stephen to find out how I would learn my music and keep up with the ensemble.
Apparently my approach was successful, because Stephen told me he would like to give me a chance. I was shocked and excited. Here was someone who was willing to take on a new challenge with dignity and grace. Stephen acknowledged that this was new territory for him; he never had a blind person in his orchestra before. I responded that this was new territory for me, too. It was the first time I would be learning the material exclusively through the use of Braille music. We would be pioneering together.
The next day I went on some blindness listservs and asked questions about which alternative techniques I could use. Although I felt ready from a blindness standpoint, I had plenty of work cut out for me. I had to get my music transcribed, and then I had to memorize it.
Due to some health issues I couldn’t attend my first rehearsal until February, and the first concert was scheduled for March. I was a little anxious about the first rehearsal, but once I was in that musical moment with the other cellists, with my guide dog asleep next to my chair, all nervousness disappeared. I was one of the group. I felt that way during every rehearsal after that.
After thirteen years, my dream of performing in a professional orchestra has finally come true.
The first concert I played in was performed twice, on March 10 and 11, 2018. The piece was Verdi’s “Requiem,” the longest work I had ever memorized. Both performances went well.
As soon as the March concert was over, it was time to get cracking for the May concert. The second piece I was to play, Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” scared me to death. There were so many notes, and I had trouble keeping everything straight. At one point I thought I was going to have to back out and not play in the concert at all.
However, persistence and determination prevailed. I contacted another Federationist who plays classical music. I asked him if he had ever memorized a crazy twentieth-century piece and how he went about it. He advised me to memorize no more than four measures at a time and to put the sections together as I went along. I did a lot of listening and playing along with the recording. Little by little the Hindemith started to come together. I played in the last concert of the season, which took place on May 5, 2018. I am looking forward to next season, which starts in September. Stephen and I are in the process of getting next season’s music so I can have it transcribed into Braille.
So far I’ve written about playing in an orchestra from my perspective. I want to take things a step farther by sharing the conductor’s viewpoint. Here is what Stephen Alltop had to say:
Leslie Hamric auditioned for the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra in September of 2017 and showed fine skills and training as a cellist. She had studied with acclaimed teachers at excellent schools, and her playing reflects it. Leslie provided me with the names of two conductors who had worked with her in ensembles. Both of them gave rave reviews concerning her abilities to perform in a musical group.
The first work we performed together was Verdi’s “Requiem.” Leslie had memorized the cello part of this eighty-minute work, an incredible feat. There is no doubt that she came to the first rehearsal the best prepared member of the orchestra.
In rehearsals I found myself trying to indicate starting places not just by measure numbers but by notes and harmonies so Leslie could also know where we were. As I had been told, she does a great job of taking cues from my breathing and the breaths of her section mates, and she seems to play as well with her section as anyone.
Leslie has invested so much in the art of music. I am so happy that she has found a fine orchestra in which she can have a challenging and rewarding experience.
I am delighted that I have found an awesome orchestra and a conductor who challenges me all the time. After thirteen years, my dream of performing in a professional orchestra has finally come true. This time I feel it will stick around.
Before I close I would like to acknowledge the things for which I am grateful. First, I will always be grateful to my first orchestra conductor back in third grade, who inspired me to love music and gave me such a moving first opportunity. Second, I am grateful to those who supported me through all the years in between. Third, I am grateful to the two church choir directors who gave me the chance to participate in their groups. Finally, I am forever grateful to have found the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra.
My advice to other aspiring blind musicians is this: as early as you can, learn and use Braille music, develop strong self-advocacy skills, decide on a goal, and prepare a game plan to get there. Then, go for it! You absolutely can play or sing in a musical group of your choice. You can even take things a step farther and have music be your career. All it takes is some planning, teamwork, alternative techniques, and the willingness to take on something new.
I can happily say that today I am living the life I want. I am doing what I love: enjoying the art of being a musician and taking advantage of all the musical opportunities that come my way.