The first time I listened to Blue O’Connell’s Choose The Sky, I marvelled at her guitar skills and her wonderfully unique voice. The more I listened to her sing, the more I thought she might be deaf, but I couldn’t reconcile that with her guitar playing and so I put the idea out of my head until she confirmed it in an email:
Many years ago I had a good friend who was studying composition at Northwestern University. He invited me over one night to hear his latest piece on the keyboard. After waiting for what seemed a long time, I finally asked, “When are you going to play me your new song?” He looked stunned and answered, “I just did. Didn’t you hear it?” I didn’t. That was how I learned that I had a severe hearing loss. I was 25 years old. It is believed my hearing loss was a result of a series of childhood fevers and a case of mononucleosis in my early 20s.
Like most people suffering a loss of hearing, O’Connell managed hers with hearing aids until it deteriorated to the point where they could no longer help.
At age 50 it was suggested that she consider surgery to install a cochlear implant. Worried that this technology would impair her musical abilities, she was skeptical at first, but eventually went ahead with the surgery in January of 2009. Due to her “ski slope” type of hearing loss she experienced a lot of noise during the first few months after the implant was activated. She continued to practice on her guitar but the sound was “not at all integrated.” When she struck one note on the guitar, “a series of sounds resulted that did not sound anything like music.”
Determined not to give up she began doing some ear training exercises with the help of a music teacher friend. They worked with tuning forks to aid in “feeling the vibrations of the pitches & frequencies of notes.”
In one exercise she quizzed me on interval recognition (an interval is a combination of two notes, or the distance between their pitches). She would play two notes in succession and I would listen to see if I could discern what interval it was . . . [The] first measure of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” has a perfect fifth, the intro to “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a major third, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” begins with an octave, and so on. The reason this is a significant exercise is because intervals are what make up a melody. The idea being that if you are able to distinguish pitches by isolating them as we did in the above exercise that can improve your ability to discern notes in a melody.
Other things we did were from a book called, “Sight Singing: Pitch, Interval, Rhythm” by Samuel Adler. In these exercises, we worked with the piano and guitar, sounding the notes of the intervals and then singing them a cappella. The goal of these exercises was pretty much the same as above, to be able to discern intervals and to also produce them by singing. In more advanced drills, we would start by singing a series of notes in a melody out loud and then read the notes in our head silently and at the last measure of the line, sing the notes out loud again and then check with the piano to see if we stayed on pitch. It was all a lot of fun and also very challenging. I believe that doing these exercises really helped me regain my musical perception.
Six months later she got a new digital hearing aid (Phonak Nadia) for her right ear:
It was then I really experienced a miracle for I could then hear every note on my guitar. Before my CI and HA I could hear up to the 7th fret but now I could hear every note, all the way to the 19th fret. The difference though was that my acoustic/nylon string guitar now sounded electric. I knew it would sound different and I was prepared to accept the difference even if I didn’t like it. But I was surprised that I did like the sound. Whew, what a relief and a blessing!
O’Connell now works full time as a professional musician. Employed at the University of Virginia Hospital as a Certified Music Practitioner, she plays therapeutic music at the bedside. She also works for VSA Arts in Charlottesville, an organization which promotes experiences in the arts for individuals with disabilities.
Over five years in the making (due to the rehab required for the implant), Choose the Sky is a small miracle and a testament to the potential of human achievement when people refuse to give up.
Joined by Peter Markush on cello, and Mary Gordon Hall on harmony vocals, Choose The Sky also features Jeff Romano on guitar on Innermission No 50 — a studio improvisation O’Connell performed on Native American flute as a CD bonus track to celebrate her 50th birthday.
O’Connell’s picking style and phrasings are typical of western classical, but it is the flow and emphasis in her playing that really makes her music shine and I am guessing that this has been inspired somewhat from the rehab she endured after her implant surgery. Re-learning how to hear with the aid of two cybernetic devices has perhaps given O’Connell a new appreciation for sound that most people simply take for granted.
The months she endured examining tonal relationships in detail has given her fresh insights on how they might best overlap in playing. Subtle changes in timing and emphasis can produce pronounced effects.
There is patience in the playing out of the many melodies on Choose The Sky. The music has space to breathe and the dynamics are both relaxing and refreshing.
The pensive instrumental, For The Lily Grows sets the mood for the introspective and waltzing How Will I Know. The emotional dynamics and use of harmonic punctuations in Remembrance are tell-tale signs of a truly brilliant player who knows her instrument well enough to relax and be in the moment — expressing even carefully planned arrangements as though they were being played for the very first time.
Choose The Sky is a stunning example of what spirit and dedication can produce. To order your copy, visit BlueOconnell.com.