Blind Baltimore students tell their stories through song

Making friends is tough enough for the average teenager. For 18-year-old Tatyanna Ditzenberger, being blind makes things more complicated.

Ditzenberger, who lost her sight at age 7, recalls a time when a classmate befriended her after a teacher offered extra credit to students who assisted her. It didn’t last long, she said — the girl ignored her when the academic benefit was gone.

“It went on for a couple weeks before I gave up,” said Ditzenberger, now a sophomore at the Maryland School for the Blind in Northeast Baltimore.

She channeled her feelings into a poem, which now has become a song called “Not With My Eyes” thanks to the work of instructor Valerie Smalkin and a group of blind and visually impaired students from the Baltimore area.

“You want to be a hero / Pretend you’re my friend / I know you think I'm zero / Worth nothing in the end / So, I take a deep breath, count to three / Pretend your pretense doesn't bother me / Yes, the truth of your lies isn’t easy to hide / I see your truth / But, not with my eyes,” sang the students in unison at a recent Saturday afternoon rehearsal.

The students — including 16-year-old Raiven Everett, a colorblind clarinetist; Julia Stockburger, a 12-year-old with perfect pitch; 17-year-old pianist Alex Kern and 12-year-old Andrew Roads, who Smalkin said sings like an angel — have worked with Smalkin on three songs as a part of Seeing Through Music, a program designed to help them self-advocate and share their experiences of being blind with the world.

Smalkin helped launch the program, funded through a subsidiary of the nonprofit Theatre Arts Festival for Youth, with a two-hour songwriting workshop in 2016. Six students were recruited through the School for the Blind’s statewide outreach program, and an anonymous donor sponsored additional workshops and recording sessions for an album that Smalkin hopes to submit to the Grammy Awards, she said.

The students have worked for months, perfecting lyrics while Smalkin composes many of the melodies. The collaborative process has been an “emotional roller coaster,” Smalkin said, with students often brainstorming and recounting experiences in which they felt depressed or undermined because of their visual impairments, or out of place because of their walking sticks, Smalkin said.

But in “Dance of Freedom,” using a melody created by Jimmy Hammer and Dave Kinnon, the students embrace their differences and how they see their world despite their impairments. The song, Smalkin said, has become their “fight song:”

“I feel your distant stare / I know that you are there / Please come and talk with me / Let's try things differently / We like to say we are, we are not blind,/ We see with our hearts, our souls, our minds / Our ears work overtime, you see / We hear and see things differently.”

Like many visually impaired people, some of the Seeing Through Music students report a heightened sense of hearing that makes them especially attuned to music.

Smalkin said Julia and Alex can quickly identify the notes they hear, and Ditzenberger said she is often stunned by her own ability to hear and identify the tiniest of sounds. She noted that it’s likely because she relies on her ears more than a sighted person, which has been an asset to the program, according to Smalkin.

“If I wrote it in one key and played it in another key, it really bothers them. They hear everything,” Smalkin said, adding that the students sang “Dance of Freedom” song perfectly during their first rehearsal. “The way that I gave it to them on the page was exactly how they sang it, which is very rare.”

Smalkin said students have graciously deterred her from using visual cues during lessons, and she has learned to be specific about whom in the group she is addressing. The students, in turn, have learned how to create music alongside peers with similar interests and experiences.

Jessica Kern, 36, of Rockville has witnessed the growing excitement of her son, Alex, who is often the only blind person in most environments outside school, she said.

“I think he appreciates being part of the majority. In that group, everybody has some disability of blindness or visual impairment, but it’s something that he can share with all the students,” said Jessica Kern, adding that her son has become fascinated with sound engineering. “It’s been a really neat exposure to those types of jobs.”

“I liked that I got to write the lyrics to songs and actually record them for the first time in my life,” Alex said. “I love all the changes we got to go through.”

Raiven said she hopes that the music gives listeners "a better understanding of what people are going through, and that it's not black and white."

"Overall, we're not that much different than the normal public," she said. “Rather, we just see differently. [We have] a different perspective, and we're not as fragile as we look."

The group is still working on their album — Smalkin hopes it will be finished by the end of the year — but donors and musicians who’ve listened to “Dance of Freedom” have reacted positively, she said.

“It might not be the most state-of-the-art music, but it's so moving to know that this is what these kids said about being blind. ... One cannot help but be moved by it.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

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