A brain rewired for sound

Blind musician thrives with sharp hearing

Posted 3/20/19

Although almost completely blind, Cliff Self has seen enough to be able to teach musicians their craft.

“I saw the world because of my music,” said Self, 63, who toured throughout North America and Asia with velvet-voiced pop singer Johnny Mathis and with the orchestra of Mantovani, the first million-seller of the stereo music age.

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A brain rewired for sound

Blind musician thrives with sharp hearing


Although almost completely blind, Cliff Self has seen enough to be able to teach musicians their craft.

“I saw the world because of my music,” said Self, 63, who toured throughout North America and Asia with velvet-voiced pop singer Johnny Mathis and with the orchestra of Mantovani, the first million-seller of the stereo music age.

The professional violinist and violist now teaches music to students in Port Townsend and occasionally performs with the Unknown Fiddlers, a string band that includes Sheriff Joe Nole.

“It is passing the torch,” Self said. “I carried the torch for a while and I was lucky to do so. Most teachers that I know didn’t have the opportunities that I had to play around the country and around the world.”

Since he cannot read sheet music any longer, Self has had to be creative in the way he teaches his students.

“I have to ask students to read notes to me, which is actually good for them because you’d be surprised by how many who read music can’t tell you what note they are looking at,” Self said. “They know what finger it is on the violin, but they don’t know the letter of the note.”

Kyle Marlantes, of Port Townsend, has been studying violin with Self for the past year.

“It definitely is a different dynamic,” he said. “(Self) said, ‘You could do sheet music if you want, but I’d rather you learn the music by ear because you learn differently if you learn by ear.’”

Now Marlantes said he prefers learning by ear.

“He has a method of how you can do that, how you can memorize things with the way you can break pieces of music down,” Marlantes said. “I think that has really influenced my playing — my learning — and I imagine a lot of that comes from his disability.”

Plus, Marlantes said, his teacher’s sense of pitch is extraordinary.

“He hears everything,” Marlantes said. “If I am a little out of tune, I may not notice but he notices right away. I think when you lose your eyesight, I imagine your hearing gets much more intense.”

In fact, it does. The Society for Neuroscience has published several studies indicating the brain, when deprived of data from one set of senses, will re-train those parts of the brain typically devoted to that sense to bolster the other senses. Those findings are part of the growing research into neuroplasticity, the ability of brains to change with new experiences.

But Self wouldn’t say hearing is his super-power.

”I have regular hearing, I just use it differently,” he said.

“In college, you have to take all kinds of ear training courses,” says the graduate of Stetson University’s music program. “I was somewhere in the middle of the class, maybe a little bit below par. Now I would be up near the top because of having to use it so much.”

A rough start

Self’s loss of eyesight has been gradual.

When he was a few weeks old, Self nearly died because of an obstruction in his pyloric sphincter, which acts as a valve between the stomach and upper intestine, he said.

His father, who worked for a NASA subcontractor on the Saturn V rocket program, needed to quickly come up with money to pay for the operation, and was able to get a spot on “The $64,000 Question,” a televised game show, Self said.

His father won $16,000, about enough to pay for the surgery, Self added.

“I nearly died on the table,” Self said. “It was horrible.”

Having survived, Self would later face the obstacle of slowly losing his vision.

“I was a regular kid, (but) I didn’t see well at night, and I had trouble with my peripheral vision. All my (childhood),” Self said. “Adults used to say, ‘Why don’t you watch where you are going?’I would trip over stuff and walk into walls and stuff like that.”

Self’s parents began taking him to eye doctors when he was about six years old, but he did not find out he was gradually going blind until he was in college.

At the age of 21, Self underwent a series of eye tests at a facility in Gainesville, Florida, near his college campus.

“I spent all day going through test after test after test,” he recalls. “At the end of the day, they said ‘You really fooled us because you do so well we had no idea your vision was so bad.’”

Self said he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.

When he was diagnosed, Self was a music major with an emphasis on orchestral performance.

“Music is a very visual pursuit because you do use your ears, but for classical music, you do use your eyes for everything to read the music,” he said. “On the stringed instrument, you have to watch the bows of the people around you so the bow is going in the same direction. You also have to watch the conductor.”

The problem was, Self couldn’t see the conductor.

“The conductor would stop conducting and everybody would stop except for me because I couldn’t see him,” he said. “I had some usable sight right at the corner of my eyes. I had tunnel vision out front, but then I had these islands of sight, so if I turned my chair just right I could see him out of the corner of my eye whereas most people could see him over the top of their music.”

Thinking Self couldn’t read sheet music very well before his diagnosis, his conductor recommended he switch from violin to viola. Viola has the same lower strings as a violin — A, D and G — but no high string and a C string instead on the other side, Self said.

The conductor “said it was because the notes move slower,” Self said. “I had trouble reading and we didn’t know why and she thought it was the way I was using my eyes, Self continued. “I just couldn’t see the music. Just plain couldn’t see it.”

A fork in the road

At the end of his four years in college, Self applied and was accepted into law school, but never enrolled.

“On the same day I got accepted into law school, I had these guys show up at my door from the Florida Department of Blind Services offering me a job with the National Park Service as a Ranger,” Self said.

Self immediately decided to accept the position.

“Everybody wants to be a park ranger,” he said. “That really defined my life, that one decision, because I never looked back at law school. I lived in a house on the beach at Cape Hatteras with a bunch of lifeguards. I would interpret the natural history and human history of the park.”

Next, Self said, he bounced between various odd jobs, including as a cook in a Mexican restaurant.

“Then I got a call out of the blue to play with Johnny Mathis,” Self said. “I went and I toured with him for six weeks. He had his own rhythm section, guitar, bass, drums, piana and a conductor. They would pick up strings and woodwinds to play along.”

With Mathis, Self toured throughout the Deep South.

“When that was done, I kept getting calls,” Self said. “I played with Andy Williams and Pat Boone, all these old 50’s guys.”

Later, Self got hired on as a musician for a music theater in Daytona Beach, Florida. He didn’t last more than one season.

“My eyes became a problem because you play in a pit in music theater and everything is pitch black,” Self said. “I couldn’t see the conductor and it was hard to see my music. I didn’t get rehired the next year.”

It turned out well for Self, however, because he was hired on by the Mantovani Orchestra.

“That was in a sense my really big break,” Self said. “We toured all over the United States. You can’t name a city that I haven’t played in. We played in east Asia a couple of times. We went to Japan for about 12 weeks total and Taiwan for about 10 weeks total.

Losing functional vision

As Self aged, his vision became worse.

“One of the problems with my condition is you develop cataracts,” he said. “I went and had some cataract surgery and that improved my vision for a short time. All of a sudden it took a steep dive. I couldn’t see my wife’s face anymore.’’

Now functionally blind, he looks up to orient himself by the lights in the ceiling.

At first, his wife though his eyes darting back and forth to the ceiling was an eye exercise.

“I catch myself doing that in grocery stores, and I think, ‘Oh man, I don’t look right when I do that,’” he said. “I try to look normal. I try not to misbehave.”

Self said there is new technology that he could wear above his eyes that would provide better sight, but that he “would rather be blind and look normal than look blind and see normal.”


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