Sunday, October 13 marks Disability Awareness Sunday in my church denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Since 2013, I have been volunteering through a ministry called Disability Concerns, which is also a part of the RCA. Typically, when Disability Awareness Sunday appears on my calendar each year, I seek to educate and remind my congregation about matters relating to people with disabilities and encouraging welcome in our house of worship. I plan to recognize Disability Awareness Sunday in some capacity sometime this October within the context of Sunday morning worship, but I wanted to go one step further and utilize the space in this blog to also create some awareness.
After a few recent conversations with friends and co-workers, it has been brought to my attention that perhaps I have not shared my entire “disability story.” What I mean by this is simply that I don’t often make a pointed effort to connect my vocation as a worship leader with the nature of my visual impairment. I have come to realize that my visual impairment is so common and typical for me that I have a hard time feeling as if it is anything less than normal. But the truth is, the way I live, work, and create music is all impacted by the presence of my disability.
The ladies in OneVoice and the Praise Team who serve beside me each week are truly remarkable, servant-hearted musicians. They have adapted to my unique way of leading worship and have excelled in singing and crafting arrangements in a way that I can only describe as being in sync. Almost from the beginning when I was first hired, I hardly had to explain my methods; we simply found a way to make music together that didn’t rely on sheet music and chord charts. We simply sang and “figured it out.” Practice and intentional focus on building community as a group helped us to evolve into something that just clicked. Almost eight years later, I am marveling at God’s goodness in bringing these ladies into our worship and music department. I truly get to work with the best of the best, and I’m not just saying that! I have truly been blessed.
Sometimes, I get questions from congregation members on how I am able to lead the team without any music in front of me. The fast and easy way to answer that question is that I simply memorize. Really, I have no choice but to memorize because no matter what method I try to utilize, I still wouldn’t be able to see the music on the music rack. I only have vision in my left eye, so my field of vision is very narrow. When I was young, we had music enlarged by the copy machine, and although it helped somewhat to be able to see the music, the pages were flopping all over the place, they had to be taped to piece them together, and I was turning pages constantly. Most often, I would listen to my piano teacher play a song and simply try to replicate it. At home when I would practice, my mom would often call out to me, “You’re playing it wrong!” I knew I was playing it wrong because I just couldn’t remember how the song was suppose to go. I would try to read the music to find my place, but frustration would take hold and I would just give up on practicing.
Eventually, my piano teacher gave me the basics on playing chords and playing “by heart.” I started writing music in third grade because as my piano teacher would often remind me, “If you write a song, you’ll never play it wrong because you wrote it that way.” In time, I would gradually move to playing simple renditions of hymns and praise songs— anthems that I could pick up easily and didn’t have too many difficult chord progressions. When I was in high school, my mother and I would share Sunday evening services; she would accompany the congregational hymns on the organ and I would play for the prelude or during the offertory.
When I started leading worship in 2009, I only knew how to play a few songs. I would play the basic chords in my left hand and embellish a little with my right hand. I would “fake” it, so to speak, because I wasn’t really playing full accompaniment or anything close to what would be visible on sheet music. I carried the congregational worship with my singing and played minimally on the piano. “Here I am to Worship” and “My Jesus, I Love Thee” were some of my first songs.
Now, ten years later, my way of playing piano is still the same. I have increased my repertoire considerably, and I keep track of what songs I know how to play with a list in Microsoft Word. After each song title, I make sure I include what key(s) I typically play the songs. When I’m working on learning a new song, I first listen to it over and over, eventually determining what key I should play it in. Sometimes, I play the original artist recording on my phone or tablet and play along with it on the piano simultaneously. This helps me hear if I am on-point with the chord progression and if I can add anything on the piano that I hadn’t noticed before when just listening. Then I simply keep listening and playing until the song is memorized and I can play and sing it fairly confidently.
Once I have crafted an arrangement and have it memorized, I record a blank practice video. Since I don’t have a tripod or fancy recording equipment, I place my camera face-down on a surface near the piano and press “record.” I play and sing the song— sometimes having to do multiple takes because of mistakes or interference (the phone rings, doorbell, or other background noise). Once the video is recorded, I upload it to Facebook as an OPV (OneVoice Practice Video). My team members can listen to these videos and become familiar with my arrangements so that our practice times are not taken up with me teaching the songs. Those who sing harmonies can practice their part by singing along with my video. This proves helpful when I have to change the key of a song so it is easier to sing for a female vocalist. If I play a Chris Tomlin song, the melody line and harmonies will often be in a different range than the original artist recording. It’s important that I have a way to demonstrate my arrangement, not only so my singers know what to do but so that I can remember how I arranged the song. I have often used my own videos to jog my memory when we haven’t sung a song in a long while and I need a refresher.
Everything is in my head. Occasionally, I will glance at a print-out or ask Google to show me song lyrics, but most everything is logged in my memory bank. I have often joked that just like computers and phones can have external hard-drives for more memory space, I need that too. If there would ever be a way to add any memory to my cluttered brain, that would be brilliant!
Sometimes, mental fatigue can set in when I’ve led worship for several weeks in a row. It’s not just physical fatigue. It goes beyond getting up early to lead worship on a Sunday morning. It goes beyond sleepless nights when I can’t shut my mind down because I’m thinking about the Sunday morning just over the horizon. It goes beyond sound check and the service itself. It all centers in the week of preparation leading up to a service: crafting arrangements, listening to the songs, memorizing them, recording, leading practices, and then finally bringing everything together on a Sunday morning. Although the work is rewarding, it’s very taxing mentally.
I have often said that if I were not visually impaired, most of this preparation time wouldn’t be a factor. If I could see better, perhaps I could rely on sheet music and chord charts. I wouldn’t have to memorize all of the music unless I wanted to. My practice time wouldn’t be as extensive and maybe I would be able to introduce new music without as much preparation.
But the truth is, I can’t think about what could have been if I didn’t have my visual impairment. My reality is that I am a visually impaired worship leader and musician, and I need to work with what I have been given. Although playing piano is not my strength, I know I can sing well, and I make sure I am a good steward of my voice by memorizing lyrics and singing with as much passion as I can put forward. Yes, I may have to put in extra hours of work that a sighted person might find tedious and unnecessary. But although the work is challenging and sometimes difficult, I truly believe it has made me a stronger musician.
Since the music is all in my head, it doesn’t take long to recall a song we have played in the past and bring it back into use; yes, I need to practice and recall it to mind again, but it isn’t as difficult as starting from the beginning with memorizing and crafting the arrangement. Once a song is ingrained in my memory, it frees me up to focus on transitions and communicating with my team. Sometimes, I get lost in my piano playing and forget to cue the singers in, but for the most part, the memorizing helps me stay focused.
Connecting with the congregation has always been harder for me than interacting with my team. My lack of peripheral vision has always prevented me from truly seeing out into the sanctuary. Recently, we switched the piano from one side of the stage to the other. The hope was that by having my sighted eye face toward the congregation, it might help me connect with the crowd. I was anticipating that I might be able to see the deacons taking the offering or individuals coming forward to pray or share announcements, but the reality was that the piano’s positioning didn’t help with this. But one good thing materialized from the moving of the piano; I am now able to access the entrance to the stage that doesn’t require me to walk up and down the stairs to the platform. I can take the stairs in the alcove, which is hidden from the sanctuary’s view; I can take my time and hold on to the railing without worrying about the rest of the team coming up behind me or others watching my halting progress.
I share all of this, not so you can extend sympathy for the challenges I face. I also don’t share this as a form of inspiration. I share this because I want to educate and make others aware; I am a worship leader who happens to be blind. Yes, challenges come with the territory, but it is my reality and I am doing my best to fulfill my job role and calling with these circumstances in place. I am grateful for my team members who just seem to “get it.” I so appreciate their willingness to make music with me even though it looks different than the average worship team structure and technique. I love what I do, and in many ways, I am grateful for my challenges because they push me to be a more competent and well-rounded musician.
Maybe I could benefit from more sleep and that extra memory boost, but I am striving on and making music because I can’t imagine life without creating, writing, and leading in worship. Thank you for reading and sharing in the description of my process.