Ella Yu runs into the waiting room of the Langley Community Music School with her arms stretched out, feeling every object in front of her — a chair, a table, a pencil, a camera bag.
“What’s this?” she asks, as she runs her tiny hands over a tripod before sitting down in a stiff black chair.
Ella’s curiosity is uncontrollable. Having been blind since birth, the nine-year-old must know every detail about everything around her.
“Do you write on the back of your pages in your notebook?” she asks, after hearing the page of a notepad turn.
“Do you skip a line or do you just keep it on one line? Do you keep it spaced out or do you do it in paragraph format, without needing to line space?”
It’s minute details that she asks about, and yet these are very important for her to be able to visualize the world she lives in.
Ella was born premature and had difficulties breathing. She was sent to the neonatal intensive care unit where doctors put her in an induced sleep for three weeks, and pumped her with medicine and oxygen to ensure her survival. But it wasn’t until she gradually recovered and was about to be sent home that doctors noticed there was something wrong with her eyes. They soon discovered that her retinas were detached. She was blind.
It isn’t known if this happened before she was born or during her treatment after birth. At first, she had light reception in both eyes, but over the years, her left eye has worsened and has lost all sense of sight, though she can still see light through her right eye.
But Ella doesn’t let this hinder her from doing all the activities other nine-year-olds do. In fact, in some areas, such as music, she is far more advanced than average kids her age.
Ella, who calls North Delta home, has been attending the Langley Community Music school for two years. She began playing the piano when she was four, and when her teacher moved to Scotland, came to Langley to continue her lessons. At this time she took up the violin as well.
For her, playing music is all about feeling and sound.
“The piano is quite thick and then the violin is quite thin,” she said, comparing the two instruments. “The piano might seem thicker than any other instrument because it rings quite a bit. If you play piano in certain places it would ring a lot. And the violin (rings) only when you’re in a really big room and there’s tons of echoes.
“I think the violin is more interesting. I can do more things with the violin than the piano. There can by melody, voices can be shifted and could be made different and there can be many different tones played.”
Because she cannot read sheet music, Ella has been taught to play through the Suzuki program, which concentrates on mimicking sounds. It is known as the mother-tongue method, following the idea that if every child knows how to speak their mother’s language, then when they listen to music they can pick up the sounds the same way they do when listening to people speak around them.
Ella also has help from the computer system Musitek SmartScore. Her mom can scan in sheet music, change it to a PDF and the computer will convert it to an audio midi file. Ella then has the ability to listen to the piece over and over again at home, separate the left hand from the right hand in piano pieces, and even speed up or slow down the tempo.
“As the pieces get more and more difficult, it’s hard for her to get every note just by listening to it,” Ella’s mother Wendy explained. “So I have to scan the music, change it to PDF file and the software turns it to a midi. Of course the teacher can teach her but in that way it takes a long time. Sometimes she just learns it by herself, it’s just easier for her. And she can listen to the difficult parts again and again. It’s very helpful. She learns almost all of her piano pieces like this.”
Learning to play music has not only been challenging for Ella, but for her piano and violin instructors as well. Neither had taught a blind student before.
In piano, the greatest issue to overcome was teaching Ella to know instinctively where each key is. When she had to jump from note to note, she would physically stop playing and follow the pattern of the black keys with her fingers to find the correct key.
“That was her first frustrating time because she wasn’t sure how to keep the music going, but not miss the notes,” said her piano instructor Michelle Chattaway.
“At first we started with her playing the first note before a jump and I would put my hand beside the key and she would hop there. That was okay at first and then we realized that wasn’t enough information, she needed two dimensions. She could feel the arc better. So then it became arcs. We would literally slowly feel the shape of each arc every time she had to jump somewhere.”
A lot also has to do with natural talent, her violin teacher Luiza Nelepcu said.
“The violin is a lot of feeling. You feel the instrument more than the piano on the tip of your fingers. So in that respect I think it’s the right instrument for Ella,” she said.
“And she’s very talented. We really don’t need to teach her the notes, she picks them all up by ear. It’s really just the art of holding the bow. That was a bit of a challenge for her to feel that.
“I thought teaching her would be more challenging, but not when she has such talent. She just has the feel and the understanding of music way beyond other kids.”
Music is just one of Ella’s many passions. She also loves to learn math and spelling at school and ride her bike with friends.
“Sometimes on sunny days I go outside and play with my friends and go biking and have fun,” she said. “Even though I’m blind I still bike. It’s quite fun. I use mostly the right eye, and I can see by the reflection. My face reflects things and I can feel it in my face bones.
“Before we continue this interview I have a question,” she suddenly says mid-thought. “Where do you live? What kind of house? Is it like an apartment? How many people are in your family? Do you have any musical stuff around you in your place?”
This is just the way Ella is. Her thirst for knowledge is incredible, Chattaway said.
“Whenever I give her a nugget of information that she hasn’t heard before she actually bounces, she gets so excited,” she said.
“She’s hungry for input. A very curious person.
“She’s pretty fearless.”