by Peter Altschul
Since 1985, I have been a member of the American Council of the Blind (ACB for short), whose mission is to improve living conditions for people with visual impairments. Several years later, I joined Friends-in-Art (FIA), a small group of blind musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, and others who try to advance accessibility and opportunity for artists and audience members who are visually impaired. We encourage museums to become more blind-friendly and work with designers of popular music-related hardware and software to make their products more user-friendly for blind musicians. We also conduct several workshops at ACB's annual national conventions, as well as putting on a popular variety show known as The Showcase of the Performing Arts.
Over time, I became acquainted with Janiece Kent, a talented pianist/vocalist with a special affinity for show tunes and operetta arias; a gifted poet; a teacher of braille to blind students in the Washington, D.C. school system; a tireless advocate — and a founding member of FIA. She died peacefully last week after a year-long battle with cancer.
In the late 1990s, I moved to an apartment in Washington, D.C., about a mile from Janiece. My guide dogs and I spent many happy afternoons and evenings with her and Gordon, her future husband, in their apartment. She was a gracious and unassuming host with kind words, a listening ear, and a sense of humor that often caught me by surprise. She also sang the women's parts when I recorded demos of my music in Gordon's studio, often singing them correctly on the first take despite not having the time to review the material beforehand.
Janiece played a pivotal role in my courtship of my wife, Lisa. I sang to Lisa and others attending a FIA showcase Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" with her accompanying on the piano. Lisa and I heard her perform several times at the Old Europe, a German restaurant near my D.C. apartment. And she teamed with Gordon to sing two Broadway show tunes at our wedding, causing many people to turn in their seats expecting a recording but seeing live performers instead.
However, I will especially remember Janiece's unique approach to making herself heard during meetings. She was no longer FIA's president when I joined the board, but she was always present with perceptive comments and wise suggestions … if we gave her the space.
And giving her that space took some practice, especially when we were under pressure to create a program for the annual Showcase in 90 minutes after listening to auditions over a three-hour period. Her quiet but distinct "excuse me," coupled with her clearing her throat, would attempt to change the tone of the rapid, impatient conversation in which the rest of us were engaged. If we didn't give her the chance to speak, she might or might not try to interrupt us again several seconds later. If she got our attention, she would clear her throat again, pause, and then make her comment in a quiet, slow voice. If she didn't get our attention, we lost the benefit of her wisdom. Over time, I learned to listen for her gentle but insistent cue that she wanted to say something.
This unique approach to getting heard has assisted me to become better at running meetings and workshops, especially when the tone becomes contentious. I have tried to do a better job of picking up cues from people with quieter voices so that they can have their say. When people's agitation causes them to talk past each other, I have consciously slowed down my rate of speech, often resulting in others following my lead and more productive work getting done.
So thanks, Janiece, for your gracious hospitality. Thanks for your wonderful music, your love of poetry, and your enthusiasm for everything artistic. Thanks for your efforts to make museums, concerts, and films more friendly to us blind people. Thanks for doing such a terrific job teaching braille to blind kids in the wildly dysfunctional D.C. public school system. Thanks for assisting me to become a better teacher and leader. And thanks for showing us that friendship can produce not just great art but also positive change in the world around us.