Introducing my guide dog to the world of classical music

October 14, 2014
Emily Michael and York
Emily Michael and York
Southeastern Guide Dogs

It's Tuesday evening, and after a four-week hiatus, I'm finally attending chorus rehearsal again — but I haven't assumed my usual place on the risers. I'm seated toward the back of the hall, awaiting a cue from my director and trying to curtail the explorations of my new companion: an 18-month-old black Labrador.

One month earlier, I left Jacksonville Harmony Chorus for a 28-day training program at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla. I met my pup, York, on the second day of training, not knowing how many challenges we would face together. Solidly bonded to his former trainer, York dispelled my fantasies of our first meeting: no wagging tail or innumerable kisses.

I sat in a stiff desk chair, clinging to the end of a leather leash while York curled into a ball and moaned. I tried to soothe him the way I soothe my infant niece and nephew: I began a quiet verse of "Over the Rainbow." But my singing worked no magic — and I wondered if he disliked music as well as me.

Now, York and I have started to understand each other, and it's time to integrate him into my musical life.

When my director calls me forward, I introduce York to the 60 women of my chorus. I stress the importance of service dog protocol, reminding my fellow singers not to pet or speak to York when he's in harness: these behaviors will distract him from his work. Then I tie York's leash around a table in the front of the hall and step into my place.

But York will not lie contentedly under the table. He wants to be on the risers; he declares a preference for my left side, where he was trained for guide work. My director readily moves me to the left side of the chorus, where York climbs up beside me and leans against my legs.

Now, as I sing, I feel my attention divided. I listen for my place in the chord — and for my dog's place on the risers. As I concentrate on tuning, rhythm, and resonance, I hear the subtle jingling of York's collar. Short jingling bursts mean that he's scratching, slow prolonged jingling means he's shifting position, and the lower-pitched metallic rattling of his harness means that he's wandering around near the riser's edge. Silently, I recall him to his place, using hand commands for "sit," "down," "stay." My fellow singers are wonderfully supportive — "He gets better every week!" — but we have a long way to go before York will be happy and quiet off the risers.

In addition to chorus rehearsals, York is receiving a classical music education at the Jacksonville Symphony. Prior to the season opener on Sept. 26, York and I were allowed to attend an orchestra rehearsal where he could encounter the sound and the space before guiding me at the first concert. My first symphony rehearsal with York was also the orchestra's first rehearsal with the new music director designate, Courtney Lewis.

When we arrived at Jacoby Hall in downtown Jacksonville, symphony employees helped me orient York to the building. I introduced him to the lobby and worked him up and down the theater's challenging center aisle: a narrow staircase of shallow steps divided by an incongruous railing. We chose seats several rows away from the stage, and I put York in a down-stay.

Lewis began rehearsal with the fourth movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and I positioned my hand over York's head, ready to calm him with a stroke if he didn't like the initial chords. To my surprise, York lifted his head, his ears back and his face alert. As the movement progressed, he continued to focus on the music, dropping his head with an audible grunt each time Lewis cut the musicians off. At the actual concert, York relinquished his sounds of disapproval and relaxed into the music.

York helps me move in these musical communities, and his presence centers me. Beside him, I cannot deny the need — in music or mobility — for heartfelt collaboration.

Emily Michael is a writer, musician, and English instructor living in Jacksonville, Florida. When she's not involved in academic pursuits, she works with blind and visually impaired people and their families, teaching self-advocacy and independent living skills.

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