My Life Through the Looking Glass

Written by Blake Martin, double bassist, as part of C Natural’s Breaking the Silence series.

I have retinoschisis.

It is a form of macular degeneration which usually goes unnoticed until one reaches their 70s or 80s.

I developed symptoms when I was three months old. Symptoms included loss of depth perception, near and far sightedness, astigmatism and most notably, severely reduced peripheral vision.

When I was young it didn’t matter so much to me. I wore it as a badge of honour and always tried to press on with optimism and some self-deprecating humour.  As time went on, I would notice that I would be picked last for sports and other kids laughed at me when I had to kneel in front of the chalkboard to take notes. I had a support specialist from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, but that drew even more negative attention from my peers.

My confidence waned and I became angry, frustrated and alone. I would turn to books and video games because they never walked away from me like when my classmates would on the playground. Still, these mediums are hardly a substitute for a game of tag or soccer. It came to the point where I saw a therapist for anger management and social ineptitudes. These forms of treatments would have little effect as they were not addressing the real issue: my vision.

In middle school, my situation improved. A friend wanted to start a cover band and they needed a bassist. Within a few months, I found I had a knack for it. Finally, I would be known for something other than my disability. It gave me new purpose and a renewed sense of self worth.

Eventually I auditioned for the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. We played the overture to Nabucco and Beethoven’s first symphony in my first orchestral performance. I immediately fell in love with the music.

It didn’t take long for my vision to start creating setbacks, though. I would struggle when we had to change bowings quickly or if we added any markings to our parts. Soon, my part became a cluttered mess, which was completely illegible. I figured out how to memorize my parts as a short-term solution. I was still relatively new at reading symphonic parts, so memorizing them all would stunt my growth as a musician for quite some time.

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Since that first concert experience, my goal was to be as self-sufficient as possible. I wouldn’t make use of assisted visual devices and I would never ask for help. I wanted to be like everyone else in the orchestra because my playing no longer defined my self worth. Everyone was at a high level and I had a lot of catching up to do. So in an effort to appear normal, I kept it all in. I would lie about getting a marking from the section leader or the conductor and instead watch them like a hawk to copy them.

I would continue to practice these bad orchestral habits during my studies in university. They would also be accompanied by a festering victim complex waiting to erupt at any moment. Luckily, my first teacher at the Univeristy of Ottawa provided some structure to help improve these issues. He took the time to see what my field of vision was like within an orchestral context. Luckily I passed his assessment and we made a plan to prepare for my bachelor’s degree audition in a year. I was to consistently blow up my music to 17×11-sized paper and I would sit at my own stand. I also prepared anything I performed in ‘fixed do’ solfège to further ingrain what I learned in lessons and the practice room.

These suggestions worked for a while. I did my best to stick with the program but I wanted more. I felt like I was not achieving my goal of being self-sufficient. I felt segregated on stage and it was obvious that I had special needs. I never played on first stand in the university orchestra. In addition, I was afraid to take any opportunities with the opera program due to the pit lighting. The thought of forming a chamber group was terrifying because I felt I couldn’t be seen in an intimate musical setting where people would see how inadequate I was.  

I ended up switching studios after my teacher went on sabbatical. This move was jarring because I went from a teacher who had a hyper-structured and disciplined style of teaching to someone who believed that the lesson should be driven by the student. I had to create my own structure, which ended up paying dividends down the road.

During this transition, I began to feel less secure about myself. I wouldn’t take good notes and I would stay quiet about the whole affair. One of my professors noticed my results declining so much that they notified the head of the bass department.

I was asked to come into their office one day. The discussion was brief.

“If we didn’t care about your future, we would let you walk out that door. Do you want to have a career in music or not?”

I answered that I did very much.

“Then show it.”

“Do it.”

I was brought back down to earth that day. After some careful thought, I made an appointment with my optometrist. I needed something to help me read music while sharing a stand. My new teacher came with me during beta tests to ensure it could be used in a performance. Within three months we developed a pair of glasses with a telescope infused into the left lens, which was my dominant eye.

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Telescope designed for Blake. Photo: Guillaume Coté.

I learned to sight read in my fourth year of university. I began participating in chamber music and I even sat on the first stand in our final concert. The telescope still needed some adjustments, though, as it still felt like wearing swimming goggles while reading music with one eye closed.

We refined it a bit further and now I can see my colleagues, as well as the music and the conductor. I got into a good school for my masters and took every chance I got to perform. I began attending summer sessions with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and National Academy Orchestra and I started taking professional orchestral auditions.

As I write this, I realise that it wasn’t the telescope that liberated me. It was my support system.

That system included all of my teachers at the University of Ottawa and the Manhattan School of Music, my family and friends, and music colleagues. I learned that I was the one pushing them away because every time I asked for help, I would feel guilty and ashamed.

My friend and colleague Max helped me over that last mental hump.

Through two seasons with the NYOC and one with the Brott Music Festival, he showed me that it was not only okay, but necessary, to ask for help and to accept it when offered. This was the key for me to create and maintain strong relationships. I needed to let others take part in my experience. I learned to accept assistance with gratitude and in time I would be in a position to help others in much the same way.

Today, I continue to practice gratitude wherever I can. If I don’t know something or if I need more light or bigger parts, etc., I ask for it. If I make a mistake? I laugh it off and try again. Some days are easier than others to stay positive. All we can do is be the best version of ourselves every ay. We will make mistakes. We will face adversity each and every day. All we can do is our best, and the rest is none of our business.

If you’re ever feeling alone or inadequate, let someone in. If you see a goal or a task, approach it with love, not fear. If you want to be something with all your heart:

Show it.

Do it.

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Blake is currently enjoying his second season with the National Academy Orchestra of Canada as part of the Boris Brott Music Festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. He is also actively pursuing a career in orchestral double bass and working to develop a video series featuring the bass on orchestral music, in hopes to inspire young players to play classical music.

C Natural’s Breaking the Silence series is a collection of musicians’ health experiences from musicians, music educators and researchers. With over 80% of professional musicians facing health issues related to their career throughout their lifetime, this series aims to provide strength in numbers and to initiate transparent dialogue surrounding musician’s health issues in our community. If you are interested in contributing your story, contact Claire Motyer here.

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