World's First Symphonic Band of Blind Musicians Shines Light

Wind, string and percussion instruments playing in harmony and in total darkness – it could only be the concerts played by the only Symphonic Band in the world performed by blind musicians.

These talented, yet sight-challenged musicians perform at the National Institute of Musicology of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Inside, the notes of Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos float through the halls.

In the large rehearsal room, 62 musicians of the National Symphony Blind Band "Maestro Pascual Grisolía", founded 72 years ago under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, rehearse their next concert.

We study the scores transcribed into braille and practice at home about three hours a day to memorize them, because you cannot read Braille and play at the same time

— pianist Susana Morelo

There are no music stands. There are no scores. The musicians play the notes from memory and know the astonishing repertoire of more than 250 pieces by heart. Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven, not to mention a few Baroque composers, and Piazzolla, one of the greatest Argentine composers, live in their memory.

“We study the scores transcribed into braille and practice at home about three hours a day to memorize them, because you cannot read Braille and play at the same time,” pianist Susana Morelo told Fox News Latino. “That’s why our scores are so different from the musical notations of sighted persons. For instance, we don’t handle the bass/treble clef, but the octaves. Then, three times a week, we attend to the rehearsals and when the conductor assembles every piece there is this wonder of classical music.”

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Morelo has been a member of the Symphonic Band for 26 years. She adores Romantic composers such as Chopin, Schubert and Liszt, and dreams about performing a solo concert or international tour with the band.

Today, at 51, she plays other percussion instruments and just co-starred in the documentary film, “El ultimo hombre (The Last Man)”, directed by Marcelo Rest and produced by Tiempo Beta.

“The last man tells the story of this exceptional Orchestra, which began when a group of blind children, boarders at the Home-School Manuel Belgrano, were summoned to learn classical music. It started with 11 kids shortly after President Roberto M. Ortiz went blind,” the film director said.

The main character of the film, that “last man”, is Basilio Givavicius, the only one of the original 11 children who remains linked to the band. He no longer plays in concerts as a clarinetist, but, at 84, he contributes to the scores’ proofreading.

Marcelo Rest met the Symphonic Band by chance and Givavicius made a deep impression on him when he told the director: “Music includes us in the world, and how lucky was I to go blind instead of deaf!”

The Band, awarded by UNESCO, “is like a family plenty of stories of men and women with a great desire for self-improvement who create art and try to be happy. It fulfills us and is a source of proper work,” Morelo said.

Like most of her colleagues, Morelo is completely blind; others keep less than 30 percent of the sight – they need enlarged scores to be able to read them about a foot away from their eyes.

“The challenge for the conductor is to establish an efficient communication of the musical act. Today, we achieve this challenge thinking the music together and, regarding the technique to beat time, I gently beat the baton on my music stand,” said the band’s new conductor, José Luis Cladera.

“But in order to keep the spirit of the compositions and not distort them with the beats we are studying new techniques, such as an infrared baton… or a magnetic ring that emits vibrations. Now we are practicing the technique of guiding the band with my breathing,” tells the maestro, who feels “proud” of the role he performs in the one Symphonic Blind Band in the world.

It’s hardly surprising that Marcelo Rest, the 62 musicians and the band conductor say this is an experience that brings them to a “new and enriching reality.”

Many people with vision close their eyes to enjoy the music. But these blind musicians come into a bright world listening and playing music.

Yolanda Yebra is a freelance journalist in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

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