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Volume 25 Issue 6 - March 2020

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FEATURED: Music & Health writer Vivien Fellegi explores music, blindness & the plasticity of perception; David Jaeger digs into Gustavo Gimeno's plans for new music in his upcoming first season as music director at TSO; pianist James Rhodes, here for an early March recital, speaks his mind in a Q&A with Paul Ennis; and Lydia Perovic talks music and more with rising Turkish-Canadian mezzo Beste Kalender. Also, among our columns, Peggy Baker Dance Projects headlines Wende Bartley's In with the New; Steve Wallace's Jazz Notes rushes in definitionally where many fear to tread; ... and more.

Michael Arnowitt PHOTO

Michael Arnowitt PHOTO COURTESY AMI This affiliation has now been thoroughly documented. One of the first researchers to link the two qualities was Adam Ockelford, professor of music at England’s Roehampton University. Ockelford found that an astonishing 40 percent of the blind children in his studies had perfect pitch, (compared to only one in 10,000 people in the regular population). This capacity springs from the youngsters’ lifelong reliance on auditory data to make sense of their world, says Ockelford. Right from birth, the blind children paid more attention to everyday noises than their sighted peers, and their attunement to aural input reinforced their sensitivity to sound. Ockelford’s theory of brain adaptation has been validated by a host of evidence. The hearing of blind people surpasses that of the sighted in in several modalities – they are better at discriminating between different pitches, localizing sounds in space, and processing speech. Their sense of touch is also more refined and they’re able to detect finer-grained differences in the feel of objects. The brain’s ability to compensate for visual loss with enhanced perception in other domains, is adaptive, says McGill University’s research associate Patrice Voss. If you’re born without vision, or you lose it early in life (when the brain is especially mouldable), the sight-processing centre in the brain (the visual cortex), does not receive input from the eyes. In response to these absent signals, the unused visual cortex gets repurposed to process sound and touch stimuli instead. Anatomical changes accompany this transformation. Imaging studies have shown that the visual cortex is thicker than normal among those who become blind early in life. This growth results from new pathways springing from the sound and touch processing centres, connecting these to the transformed visual cortex, reorganized to interpret signals from the ears and skin. While amplified sound sensitivity is more prominent amongst those who are born blind or lose their sight early on, recent research shows that the brain can adjust to vision loss at any stage in life. In one study, mice were blinded temporarily after being shut in the dark. Afterwards, researchers played tones of varying frequencies and measured the electrical activity of cells in their brains’ sound processing centre (auditory cortex). After just one week of light deprivation, these cells fired faster and more powerfully, enabling the blind mice to detect quieter noises and distinguish between pitches much better than the sighted mice. Lead researcher Hey-Kyoung Lee, professor of neuroscience at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, attributes these impressive results to strengthened connections between nerve cells carrying sound data from the environment and those neurons which translate the signals into conscious sound experience in the auditory cortex. These alterations dial up the volume of external sound to increase its impact in the brain, says Lee, who was surprised by the extent of the animals’ adaptation. “We didn’t expect that level of change…(it) was pretty amazing.” Violinist McCleary illustrates this plasticity of perception. She was born with Leber’s congenital amaurosis, which damages the lightsensing tissue in the eyes (the retina). But the fiddler makes up in her hearing what she lacks in vision. She can detect noises at lower volumes than her sighted friends. “If someone’s phone’s going off I can hear that better than anyone else,” she says. McCleary also has perfect pitch, which enables her to transform everyday noises, from a beeping microwave to a fork hitting the table, into musical notes. Those without sight depend on An astonishing 40 percent of the blind children in [Adam Ockelford’s] studies had perfect pitch (compared to only one in 10,000 people in the regular population). their acoustic acumen for survival, says Voss. Their supranormal ability to map space using sound helps them get around. “They can’t rely on sight to cross the street, and need to (depend) ... on hearing to recognize where traffic is,” he says. The same faculty is also critical for conversing, says registered psychotherapist and neurologic music therapist Amy Di Nino, who runs her own business, ADD Music Wellness (, in Cambridge, Ontario. The timbre of a particular voice identifies the speaker, while qualities such as tone, rhythm, and pitch convey nuances of meaning. In the absence of visual cues like body language, the blind draw on their listening skills to intuit emotions in others – a rapid pace of speech can signal anxiety, while loudness can convey anger, for example. McCleary has always depended on her heightened hearing to make sense of her world. The sound of a television in a familiar house guides her to the living room, while a squeaky noise signals the washroom door in her home. She’s also adept at extracting information from voices, and readily picks up on her mother’s feelings. “If she freaks out about something…she changes to a high voice,” says her daughter. McCleary’s exceptional ear ultimately led to her career as a violinist. The musician showed an affinity for tunes right from infancy. “(Music) was a way in,” says her mother, a pianist and music professor, who calmed her daughter with soothing Renaissance polyphony. “She was 20 | March 2020

attentive, she wouldn’t fuss or cry when music was going on.” For as far back as she can remember, McCleary yearned to play an instrument. But teachers at her school for the blind in England, who favoured the partially sighted students, underestimated her talent and discouraged her from learning the violin. “(They) … didn’t think I could do anything,” says McCleary. But this injustice only made her try harder. “They had a false view of me – I (was) forced to prove (them) wrong,” says McCleary. Her mother ignored the staff’s pessimism and found a private music teacher who taught her daughter the Suzuki method of learning by ear. Buoyed by his encouragement, McCleary logged up to four hours of practice a day, progressing rapidly and making her debut at church when she was only 11. Her auditory acuity helped her internalize different rhythms and master diverse musical styles, including classical violin, traditional fiddling, klezmer and Celtic. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music from McMaster University, she began performing regularly at family events, nursing homes and English country dances. McCleary’s determination is typical of those who lose their vision early in life, says Di Nino, who has taught at the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario. These students are pros at tackling obstacles. “(When) you’re in a sighted world and you’re not visual, almost everything you do is a bit of a challenge,” she says. Di Nino has witnessed an extraordinary drive amongst her pupils, which has propelled them past hurdles. “Constantly needing to be on top of your game…create(s) a strong resilience,” says Di Nino. This toughness is a useful asset for aspiring musicians facing relentless competition and critique. McCleary’s investment in music has paid off both personally and professionally. Because of her visual impairment, she has few distractions to enjoy during her down time, and feels at loose ends when she has nothing concrete on her agenda. Music fills the gaps during these moments. “It...gets the day going, (and) makes the time go fast,” says McCleary. Music also gives her solace. During tough times McCleary turns to her violin for comfort. “It … helps to relieve the stress,” she says. Practising and performing with her mother is also rewarding. “When we play together, and it goes well, it makes me feel good,” says McCleary. Like McCleary, pianist Michael Arnowitt has also battled vision loss and benefitted from it. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which causes cells in the retina to degenerate gradually. Endowed with perfect pitch and brought up in a home filled with music, Arnowitt naturally gravitated to the medium. He astonished his first piano teacher at their initial encounter, when the five-yearold boy ploughed through an entire volume of pieces at one go. “It was some sign of prodigy talent,” he says. He was hooked from that moment on, developing an almost mystical convergence between himself and his chosen instrument. “There’s this magical, quicker connection …the thought can become a sound,” he says. His sound was praised by critics ever since his debut as a solo pianist at age 12. Later, his gift won him a seat at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. But Arnowitt was ill at ease in the fast pace and competitive atmosphere of NYC and relocated to the bucolic rural town of Montpelier in his early 20s. “Vermont gave a lot of freedom to create musical events and musical styles … without … the New York Times to say ‘You suck,’” says Arnowitt. He began collaborating with a variety of artists, developing multimedia shows combining piano music with spoken commentary, live painting and even food. Just as Arnowitt’s creativity and career were taking off, his failing eyesight forced him to make adjustments. When night blindness obscured the backstage area, Arnowitt positioned stagehands in the wings to guide him back there at the end of his concerts. Then his narrowing tunnel vision compromised his reading ability and he had to magnify his sheet music and increase the illumination onstage to enable him to play. After his vision closed off entirely a decade ago, he turned to a computer program to articulate new pieces. Playing one note at a time, the system tells you its placement in the measure, pitch, length, etc. While Arnowitt is grateful for the software, which allows him to keep learning, he’s frustrated by the tediousness of the continues to page 92 presents CANADIAN DEBUT RECITAL Two unforgettable evenings with one of classical music’s most extraordinary pianists “aching tenderness ... and glorious triumph” – The Guardian JAMES RHODES, PIANO THE BEETHOVEN REVOLUTION THURS, MARCH 5, 8PM Koerner Hall at the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor St. West, Toronto TICKETS FROM -0 RCM Box Office (416) 408-0208 or on-line at: ALSO DON’T MISS: JAMES RHODES IN CONVERSATION WED, MARCH 4, 7:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West TICKETS: $25 – order on-line at: “performances of such natural ease and brilliance that no one can resist” – The Times (UK) The Glenn Gould Foundation gratefully acknowledges the support of: March 2020 | 21

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