Seeing black, feeling color: Music education student overcomes disability to express art

Freshman music education student Shane Dittmar has a genetic disease called leber congenital amaurosis that has left him blind since birth. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.
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Dittmar learned to play piano by ear because he said he finds it too difficult to read piano music in braille. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

Dittmar learned to play piano by ear because he said he finds it too difficult to read piano music in braille. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

Tucked in the stage right corner of Elon University’s Yeager Recital Hall, an accompanist sits at his keyboard.

As the movement on stage shifts and performers enter and exit, the booming notes from the keyboard continue.

The accompanist’s rapidly moving hands on the keyboard spark curiosity about the source of the prominent piano line. But curiosity may linger for those that notice he is not using sheet music.

The pianist is Shane Dittmar, a freshman music education major, accompanying the Department of Performing Arts’ production “It Gets Better” last October.

For more than four hours, Dittmar played an entirely memorized piano part in the back-to-back productions. And for 18 years, Dittmar has been living with a disability.

Dittmar is blind.

Being a person, not a “blind person” 

Diagnosed with a genetic disease called leber congenital amaurosis, Dittmar and his twin brother Derek have been blind since birth.

Just like Dittmar had to memorize music measures for “It Gets Better,” he has had to memorize innumerable daily methods in order to adjust to life being blind.

Coincidentally, Dittmar’s adjustment to his disability and his exposure to music happened almost simultaneously.

“I got a keyboard for Christmas when I was three,” he said, remembering the gift from his parents. “They were sick of me hitting the upright piano and they figured a keyboard would work better because it had a volume knob.”

He said singing has played an equally substantial role in his life.

“I’ve basically been singing since I was born,” he said. “I just started crying and then I didn’t shut up and there were notes.”

Of the 15 years Dittmar has been playing piano, he spent 12 learning to play by ear. He credits the latter for his possession of a unique talent — perfect pitch.

Dittmar said music has helped him achieve a level of comfort with his disability. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

Dittmar said music has helped him achieve a level of comfort with his disability. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

“I’m thinking that it’s aptitude that I’ve developed into this skill,” he said. “Some people say you’re either born with it or you’re not. I think it’s just a lot of practice and I got the practice at the right time where I was developing. Eventually you just start to recognize that the note you’re hearing is an A.”

Dittmar said he disagrees with many of the stereotypes surrounding blindness.

“There’s this fairly perpetuating myth that says being blind increases your other senses, and that’s not physiologically true,” he said. “It is true in that to not use one sense means you rely extra upon the others. In that way I guess I have better hearing only because I practice using it more and it’s more fine tuned.”

But above all, Dittmar doesn’t want to be defined by his disability.

“My goal in life is sort of not so much be the person who is blind as to be a person,” he said.

Living in the pursuit of art

Freshman Emma Hughes, a hallmate of Dittmar’s in the fine arts learning community, said a fellow hallmate once needed Dittmar to accompany him for an upcoming audition. According to Hughes, Dittmar heard the audition song once and could automatically play it on the piano.

“He’s so talented,” Hughes said. “Amazingly talented.”

In middle school, Dittmar learned to read braille music, where the rule system used in typical music theory is abandoned and replaced by a more complex system.

“Piano music is atrociously hard to read in braille,” Dittmar said.

Challenges aside, he auditioned and was accepted to all three of Elon’s chorale groups — university chorale, camerata and élan, all of which require reading music.

Through music, Dittmar said he has surpassed fundamental obstacles to reach a level of comfort with his disability.

“Music is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

If given a choice, Dittmar said there is no question he would pursue a career in music theater. His commitment and partiality to theater came in high school, but not without hesitation.

Dittmar is currently majoring in music education but would eventually like to pursue a career in music theater. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

Dittmar is currently majoring in music education but would eventually like to pursue a career in music theater. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

“I can’t dance,” he said. “I shouldn’t be doing musicals. I know nothing about theater or acting or dancing, and all of those things are things that mean I shouldn’t do musicals.”

But a teacher convinced him otherwise when he was young and he performed in his first show, “Annie.”

“I started listening to every musical on the planet, falling in love with the theater and loving acting,” Dittmar said. “The show opened and it was wonderful and it was the best night of my life. Then the show closed and it was the worst night of my life and I was like, ‘When do I get to do another one of these?’”

Throughout the course of his high school career, Dittmar immersed himself in music and music theater, winning best actor of the year at his high school.

Still, there are limitations inflicted by his disability that Dittmar finds jarring.

“I think being blind has meant I can’t find as much beauty in visual art or film,” he said. “I can’t find an artistic medium in which I find really true beauty, so that’s something I have to do with music.”

Freshman Caitlyn Balkcum, a music education major, described Dittmar as “more talented than anyone I’ve ever met” and said his disability does not impede his success.

“He can sing just as well as anyone and he plays better than most people, so I don’t think it’s really hindered his musicianship at all,” Balkcum said.

Overcoming challenges

Dittmar is certainly able to look at his disability lightheartedly.

“It is impossible to ignore the fact that I walk around with a huge stick and hit people and run into bushes a lot,” he said. “It’s a thing that happens. I think it’s just as embarrassing to use the wrong form of ‘there’ or ‘their’ on Facebook as it is to run into a bush.”

Dittmar and freshman Emma Hughes both live in the fine arts learning community and spend time rehearsing together. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

Dittmar and freshman Emma Hughes both live in the fine arts learning community and spend time rehearsing together. Photo by Marijo Saulon, staff photographer.

But Dittmar understands the goals he wants to accomplish in life.

“Everyone has a challenge in their lives and a basic goal in life,” he said. “The point of being alive and being here is figuring out how to overcome your challenge and not let it define who you are. You have to find ways to live the life you want to live regardless of what’s in your way.”

In regards to what music means to him, Dittmar finds it better to show something he has written down because he feels he can’t adequately express it verbally.

“Music is amazing for so many reasons,” he wrote. “I think perhaps the best part of it is the ability it has to replace, to act as a substitution. It can replace the feelings, the thoughts and the words you cannot say with something expressible.”

But there’s one thing about music Dittmar believes above all.

“Music is absolute, undeniable truth,” he said. “It’s the expression of your thoughts in colors as black and white as the keys.”

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