The music had stopped. The silence was broken by the sound of an elderly woman’s voice coming from the back of the room. “That was really beautiful,” she said. She had waited for her moment and was heard by everyone in the room. The carer sitting next to the woman was overwhelmed. They were the first words she had spoken for nearly three years.
When I arrived at the aged care home with my harp that day, the residents were all seated in a semi-circle, waiting for the music to start. They were all visually impaired and many had dementia. The mood in the room was sombre, as usual. As a person with low vision, I understood that. It’s common for people with low vision and blindness to suffer depression and anxiety.
My job was to lift their spirits – and for the most part, it worked. As soon as I started playing, people hummed, while others danced, sang, clapped and smiled. Some even laughed and cried. Everyone reacted in different ways. That is, except for one woman, who always seemed to be frozen in time in her wheelchair.
The power of music
Volunteering my time at the home, once a week, was never a chore. As a harpist, I have always enjoyed the privilege of being able to share my music with others. The harp seems to make people feel uplifted, which is testament to the well-documented healing properties of harp music. But that day, witnessing someone speak for the first time in years was profound.
My mother understood the power of music. During her long battle with terminal illness, she found solace in listening to it. Her mood was elevated when I was able to play my harp for her, but her favourite genre was classical piano. On the afternoon she passed away, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 – Strauss, was playing softly in the background. Mum took her last breath at the precise moment the music stopped. I remember the oncologist telling us that people can hear right up until the moment of death. That was certainly proof of that. Mum did not want to miss a single note before her departure.
Music has always been an integral part of my life. As a child I grew up surrounded by music in its various forms. I was exposed to a variety of musical instruments and encouraged to listen to diverse genres of music. My first experience of learning to play a musical instrument was, like many Australians, the recorder when I was in Grade 5. A few years later, my family acquired a piano.
After years of studying the piano, my eyesight had deteriorated. I had not planned for a future without sight. Up until then, I’d been relying on my eyesight to read music rather than developing memorising techniques. But that changed after I discovered an unloved harp at my local market going cheap. I began accepting my vision loss and started learning to play this instrument as a blind person.
Hints for vision impaired people when learning to play an instrument
If you’re keen to learn a musical instrument and, like me, have low vision, you might find the following tips helpful. Start learning simple pieces to develop your memory. If you want to improvise, it’s important to know some basic music theory about chord progressions. Think about the shape of the chords and the spacing of the fingers. Learn small chunks and sequences and simplify the music if possible. Short practice sessions twice a day help to develop muscle memory and, most important of all, don’t let disability get in the way of your goal.
Annette Purton is legally blind, but hasn’t allowed her disability to get in the way of her goals. When she’s not teaching English online to adult migrant students, she’s reading stories to her young grandchildren. She also enjoys writing and started a blog during the first covid lockdown in Victoria. Annette is passionate about music and has started playing the harp again after a long break. Her ultimate goal is to be able to share her music with others, as she has in the past.
An opinion piece by Annette Purton published in Hireup, a disability support agency on 21st September, 2021
Photo by Richard Margolis