By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Sightless teen excels in beautiful sounds

Photos by Chuck Kirman / Star staff: Rachel Flowers, 14, a blind flutist and pianist, plays the flute during a recent rehearsal with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Teen rises above challenges to play concerts

Ventura County Star/May 11 2008

Born 15 weeks prematurely, Rachel Flowers was 3 months old when she developed an eye disease that took away her sight.

Now 14, the jazz pianist and flutist says being blind has nothing to do with her accomplishments as a musician.

"In some ways it has made it more difficult," said the eighth-grader at E.O. Green Middle School, who performs with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic and has won numerous music awards over the years.

Though she has perfect pitch and can play by ear, Rachel's blindness has forced her to take extra steps to hone her skills. For instance, she had to learn how to read Braille music code to learn classical pieces and pass certificate of merit exams. Her music also has to be specially Brailled for her, "and that takes time," said the Oxnard teen, who also plays with the Ventura County Middle School Honor Band.

"Sometimes my teacher wants to show me something, and being blind makes it harder for me to understand what she wants to show me and how some things are done," she explained. "Also, in order for me to play with the school band, I have to have an aide to give me cues since I can't see the conductor."

One advantage of being blind, she said, is that she can focus on the music during a performance and not be distracted by the audience, "but that should be true of any good musician."

She performed onstage Friday with six other young artists at the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic's Opus 21 Concert at Camarillo Methodist Church; the young artists will perform again at 2:30 p.m. today at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Edward Francis, founder and executive director of the philharmonic, said he is naturally affected by Rachel's musical abilities, which are impressive.

"When one adds her vision impairment to any evaluation of her musical abilities, the results are astounding," said Francis of Thousand Oaks. "I have heard her play a variety of styles of classical music, and all are done with panache and a rhythmic integrity that is outstanding."

Rachel discovered the piano at age 2 when her mom took her hands and showed her how to play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" in an effort to stop her from banging on the keys with her toys.

Rachel was soon playing the song in octaves, and then in harmony. Within a week she was playing every song she heard. And by the time she was 3, her repertoire included such classics as "Für Elise" and "Moonlight Sonata."

Rachel's interest in flute music sparked at age 8, when she heard some jazz flute players on the radio but didn't know their names.

"At first I wasn't interested in their names; I was only interested in the flute playing," recalled Rachel, whose favorite flutists include Hubert Laws, Dave Valentin, Herbie Mann, Nestor Torres, Justo Almario and James Galway.

"When I started hearing the flute, I really loved the sound and wanted to learn to play it," she said.

Rachel was planning to take up flute lessons at school when she was 8, "but then we moved to a different town and my new school didn't offer it," she said. "I spent the next two years playing flute music on soprano and alto recorders and on penny whistles until I was finally able to get a flute and start taking lessons when I was 10."

As both a pianist and flutist, Rachel has performed in numerous recitals, festivals and competitions with continuing success.

She has been a Young Musicians Foundation scholarship recipient in support of her flute studies for the past two years and, through the support of noted philanthropists Lou and Kelly Gonda, her piano studies are now being augmented by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where she works with Dr. J.B. Dyas and institute alumnus Yoon-Seung Cho.

Over the years, her talent has put her in touch with a variety of musical luminaries. She played for Ray Charles, shared the stage with Burt Bacharach at a benefit for the Center for the Partially Sighted at Skirball Museum, and was the featured performer at a private fundraiser for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz hosted by Quincy Jones and honoring Herbie Hancock.

She enjoys the flute because "I can play all kinds of dynamics," she said. "I can play a lot of different styles — jazz, classical, popular music. It's a beautiful sound, and I can take my flute anywhere to play it."

Rachel and all of her peers in serious music study are great examples of youthful role models, Francis said.

"Granted, Rachel's challenges are enhanced because of her lack of sight, but I am inspired by her drive to achieve such a high level in music," he said.

When Rachel auditioned for the orchestra concerto appearance, "I remember the judges commenting that they were most immediately struck by her level of confidence and her rhythmic vitality and security," Francis said. "These are things that make an immediate impression on judges. She displayed all of these qualities, and it was quite organic in her performance. It was impressive."

Rachel hopes her accomplishments as a musician convey a positive message to other youths.

"Don't be afraid to work hard at something you really love, and don't let obstacles get in your way," she said. "Don't be discouraged when things don't go your way; just keep working hard at it."

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