Abstract

This narrative essay explores a blind singer's experience with church singing, a cappella competitions, and Sacred Harp singing. In it, Emily K. Michael maps the conflicts between pervasive disability narratives and audience expectations, as well as the evolving challenges of each genre. Michael discovers that audiences carry the alluring myth of a cure across genres and venues. She comes to privilege the cooperative power of Sacred Harp singing, where personal talent and conventional rehearsal give way to immediacy and welcome. Sacred Harp singing helps Michael transform her own destructive beliefs and the problematic stories of blindness she has encountered.

On a crisp December evening, I stand outside the church, its heavy doors propped ajar. The wind buffets my thin chorus dress. Despite my eighteen years, I am a child tonight — the youngest member of the choir with the highest voice. I will lead our procession into the darkened church, my white cane in one hand and a lit candle in the other. I will take echoing steps down the center aisle beneath the vaulted ceiling.

Moving forward, I begin the first verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and my voice rings alone in the huge space. I glide across the tile, enveloped in the aromas of incense and evergreens.

The song I lead is the first in a series of nine carols and Scripture readings. The choir follows me down the center aisle and around the pews as we walk to the pit. Tucked against the left side of the sanctuary, the pit sits lower than the rest of the church. Three tiers of seats lead down to the bottom level, which harbors the glossy bulk of the grand piano. Our director sits at the bench, her hands poised over the white keys.

The pit steps are not easy for me to navigate. Because the steps are made of the same pale tile that covers the church floor, I cannot see the changes in depth. I rely on my cane as I move forward, slowly measuring my descent. If my cane misses a step, I will, too — and the moment's charm will be shattered.

Happily, I've spent many years in this choir pit under the guidance of several directors. The small alcove is as familiar as the larger space of the church. I know how to fill this edifice with my voice. I know which notes will throw crisp echoes into the high ceiling. I have served as the cantor for countless Masses, Ash Wednesday services, Christmas celebrations, funerals. I have arrived an hour early, scheduled to sing, my lyrics printed in bold 24-point font. But I have also been drafted from the pew unexpectedly when other singers fail to show up — no enlarged lyrics, no preparation. In these hectic moments, the director and I leaf through the huge hymn books, finding the songs I've learned by heart. We know that the small faded font of the general hymn book will be illegible to me.

Intellectually I recognize singing as an intricate choreography of mind and body, but I feel purely voice in the choir pit. My folded cane occupies the seat beside me. My hands rest at my side. My ribcage is lifted, my knees slightly bent. As I sing, leg and belly muscles remember the old habits. I take inventory of my body while I sing. Yet what matters to the congregation is my voice. When they hear the initial notes of an entrance hymn, I doubt whether they need to see who stands behind the piano. My voice is familiar, one of the few young voices to lead liturgical services: a high, clear soprano.

Of course I cannot cantor every Mass. When I don't occupy the choir pit, I stand with my family, still on the left side of the church. As a member of the congregation, undesignated by a special musical place, I continue to sing, but I cannot ignore the deliberate lack of music in this new position. Though most of my family sings, most of the congregation does not. Unlike the choir pit, where I am often surrounded with brazen voices, the congregation offers its hymns with reticence, as though singing is some shameful act.

Here in the pew, I cannot navigate the hymn book independently, so my parents and siblings hurry to offer me the book, opened to the correct hymn. My father especially takes great pride in providing this service; he flips pages and hands me the book, well before the hymn's opening chords. When I stand beside him, I am grateful for this expedient access — and for his rich crooner's voice, confidently working its way around the hymns.

Today it is not my turn to cantor Mass, so I stand with my family in our usual place, a few feet from the sanctuary. The priest begins the Gospel, and my face heats up as Jesus heals the blind man. I imagine several heads turning in my direction, though I have no visual evidence to collect. I am the only blind person here. I feel the iconic spotlight casting me as the edifying picture of blindness, like the sacred depictions on church walls and windows.

My fellow parishioners have watched this picture of blindness change. They have seen me grow from a child with big glasses who holds her mother's arm to a teenager with dark sunglasses who walks with a white cane. For them, these emblems of disability signal degeneration, not self-acceptance. I am the sole blind woman in the room. So the metaphorical healing represented in Scripture, the emphasis on Jesus's compassion and the blind man's faith, must be embossed on my body, my life.

As a visibly disabled woman, I carried the story of a cure into the world every time I came under a stranger's gaze. Even if this story was not one I accepted, even if the cure was not what I prayed for, it remained a stubborn part of the disability mythology I was born into. Strangers often stopped me in the grocery store, the coffee shop, or the library to offer their prayers for healing. On one such occasion, a man prayed over me, and as he walked away, he called over his shoulder, "See any difference yet?"

I could not reconcile my self-worth — reinforced by family, friends, and teachers — with the version of me that needed to be cured. It broke my heart to think that my anatomy doomed me in strangers' eyes, and that their faith commanded them to minister to such a fallen creature. My blindness signified for them my spiritual ineptitude, for if my faith was whole and perfect, a sighted self would accompany it. In their prayers for healing, these believers tore at my private feelings of wonder and respect for my Creator. Because they spoke in God's name and came in such numbers, I felt overpowered by their authority. I was in the minority: I loved my blind self and lived a joyful life. But the curing story saves no place for my joy.

While standing on the cold tiles of the choir pit, I am impervious to the curing story the priest reads. My musical authority offers refuge from this narrative pressure.

* * *

I wait in the hotel lobby, my guide dog's harness in one hand and my overstuffed duffle bag in the other. Beside me, the other members of my a cappella quartet are similarly laden. After two days of intense regional competition, we are all ready to go home.

While we watch for the valet with our car, a woman calls to us: "Ladies, you were wonderful yesterday! Congratulations on your first time competing!"

We thank her and feel some of the fatigue melt away. For the past few days, our fellow singers have showered us with friendly advice and commiserated about the stress of competition. This contest brings together female barbershop singers from all over Florida and Georgia, and the strangers are just as willing to offer a kind word as the women from our home chorus.

The unknown woman steps closer to me, pulling her rolling suitcase. "You were great onstage," she says, "I just can't get over it! I mean, you're blind — and you were up there, doing everything with the quartet! I was so impressed!"

With one comment, the woman reveals a key difference I find in performing sacred and secular music. Perhaps the blind man in the Bible is doing me a service after all, because no one at church seems surprised to find me in the choir pit. But every time I step onto a secular stage, I defy audience expectations. Despite the success of well-known blind musicians across genres, most people consider a singer atypical when she walks onstage with a white cane or guide dog.

To counter the woman's surprise, I long to demonstrate how being blind has helped me develop as a musician. I want to remind this unbelieving woman that music is an auditory system where I – a blind person who performs many activities by ear – have an advantage. I want to add that I have perfect pitch, which is a common trait among blind people who received early musical training. I want to explain that I have learned to memorize quickly because I couldn't read my music onstage. I want to show how I stand with excellent posture because I don't need to hold my music.

This woman's surprise operates parallel to the curing myth: both responses leave me feeling that I must defend my present circumstances and my place in the world. I once auditioned for a solo in my college chorus, only to have the director dissolve into tears as soon as I was done. I hoped that my singing had motivated this reaction, but I quickly found out that I was wrong. She left the podium, put an arm around me, and tearfully addressed the ensemble: "Emily memorized that solo, and she is visually impaired!"

For a long time, I was troubled by the fact that my impaired eyes would wring more tears than my trained voice. But as with the church choir directors who believed in my skills and challenged me to improve, I learned to distinguish between the people who wept for art and those who wept for anatomy.

I want to be challenged and respected alongside nondisabled musicians. But I must acknowledge that such respect and professional treatment will not emerge out of a vacuum. I must commit to the change.

* * *

The battered hymn book rests long and heavy on my lap, its shape unlike any book I have ever used. Unopened, the book is a wide rectangle that barely balances atop my legs; opened, it requires both hands to maneuver. As I bring the wide book close enough to read, I worry that its prominent corners will jab the singers on either side of me — and I must hold the book very close, about two inches from my face.

Like every other songbook I have handled, this one offers cramped rows of notes and text, but the notes here are especially difficult for me to read. This book is The Sacred Harp, a 600-page collection of nineteenth-century Christian hymns written in the shape-note style. Unlike the Italianate system of musical notation, which is dominated by squat ovals, shape notes come in triangles, squares, diamonds, and ovals, and each shape corresponds to different places on the musical scale. So I must not only determine where a note sits on the musical staff and whether it is filled in or hollow, but I must also squint at the tiny shapes to guess what they are. There is no large print edition of The Sacred Harp. Though the hymns themselves are almost illegible, I am determined to stick it out.

The genre of Sacred Harp singing, for which the book is named, emphasizes the raw power of music-making: hymns are sung wholeheartedly and rarely rehearsed. The group will sing a hymn first on its syllables, the names given to each note on the scale, and then on its lyrics — and immediately move on to the next hymn. There is no practice, there is no refinement. Sacred Harp is about the chance to pour everything I have into the hymn of the moment.

If I can't read notes and words at the same time, it does not matter here. Most people in our beginners' group are singing loudly, regardless of tunefulness or training. It is a genre that debunks the miraculous powers attributed to repetitive practice and the hope of perfection.

There is no perfection. There is only the hymn in the now. And though this is my first time singing this style, I can already tell that Sacred Harp will help cure me of my need to overcompensate or defend my abilities. We have no time to be perfect when we only sing each hymn once or twice.

I throw my voice into the hymn. I learn to let myself sing the notes and words wrong.

I have passed through many musical genres before coming to Sacred Harp Singing. As a toddler, I was placed at the piano because an eye specialist told my parents that playing piano would prepare me for typing. Though I played by ear, I could not sight-read piano music. As my pieces grew more complex, practicing became a chore: in one hand, I held the sheet music close to my face while the other hand played its part. With little patience for this routine, I concentrated only on singing, where I could hold the music as close as I needed and still use my instrument.

I spent my school years singing in church choirs and school plays — at opposite ends of a sacred-to-secular spectrum. My Catholic family attended early Mass on Sunday mornings, and I became a fixture in the choir pit — preferring to lead the singing rather than sit demurely in my pew. My choir director would select hymns I knew fairly well, so I did not need to struggle with the small print of the hymnal. When familiarity was not an option, I learned the tune and typed the lyrics in a bold 24-point font, each verse covering a separate sheet of paper. Beneath the church's overhead lights, reading these enlarged sheets could still be a challenge. I blessed the evening services because they offered no added sunlight from high windows. I blessed the vigils and the winter services, where liturgical tradition and seasonal darkness lessened the glare. If I had my way, the whole church would have been kept in the glorious dim of a classy Italian restaurant — but such a gloom would never win over a sighted congregation.

Church singing offered me a sanctuary of exponential dimensions. The experience itself was transcendent, an alchemical haven for my ill-defined spiritual leanings. While I was singing a hymn, doctrine did not matter. I believed in a benevolence that made music possible. I pursued a beauty that would enhance the spirituality of any listener.

Our church music directors were eager to work with me, and they treated me with professional respect. I desperately needed such encouragement as a teenager. I was the only blind student at a Catholic high school of 1500 peers, where most students viewed my white cane and strong academic record as incongruous. Some did not understand why I used the cane while others insisted that the cane must be some ploy to get attention and privileges.

I gathered my confidence from the praise of my choir directors and the joy of singing my favorite hymns. When I stepped up out of the choir pit, I was met by family and friends who offered kind words about my singing. When I cantored Mass, they never mentioned a cure. Had the desire for spiritual transformation descended between my blindness and others' pity? Or was my music seen as a divine compensation for an earthly trial?

I was always too focused during sacred singing — and too joyful after — to wonder why no one lamented my vision aloud. In a house of prayer, where we invoked stories of miraculous healing, no one repeated these stories to me.

Now I know that the energy of contribution defies the insistent pressure of a cure. In a clumsy way, the woman who voiced surprise at the a cappella competition was observing what she had rarely witnessed: a singer whose blindness did not bar her from meaningful inclusion. It is difficult to carry in the mind these competing stories: the disabled person who awaits a cure in order to live, and the disabled person who moves into the world, unrepentant of their body.

The middle-ground of disability is equally disconcerting. That a person may live with their disability, exert their own agency, and still struggle fills me with unease. I want the situation to stabilize — to know what challenges and privileges will emerge on every stage. I find myself making a new archetype: an impossibly competent musician who handles each obstacle with poise and skill.

I must revise myself with the heart of Sacred Harp singing, the musical exuberance that bats away these philosophies. The book is heavy, and the text is small. The tune is new. Not all voices are melodious. But each singer is made welcome, offered a place. Shared enthusiasm reroutes judgment. And the blind singer — leaning close to cramped and faded lyrics — learns how to belong.

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Copyright (c) 2018 Emily K. Michael

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