News Column

Through music, Rachel Flowers moves beyond blindness

August 21, 2014

By Brett Johnson, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Aug. 21--OXNARD, Calif. -- In the bedroom that is often her sanctuary, Rachel Flowers pounded the piano keys with great fury.

Life has thrown a lot of hard reality at her, chiefly the blindness that has darkened her world since she was an infant. But in her bedroom in her family's modest Oxnard home, seated before the ebony and ivory, there was nothing stopping this girl. The light flowing from her brain, imagination and fingers is quite bright.

Those fingers moved like lightning across the board, sometimes in a blur, other times in fits or spurts, or in great leaps and bounds to chase down the right note like a big cat pouncing on prey. The piano shook in the manic frenzy as her mother, Jeanie, grabbed one end to steady it, but the sound was beautiful and brilliant.

Rachel Flowers

The 20-year-old Oxnard musician makes her solo concert debut with a free show at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. The concert will include jazz, classical and progressive rock, as well as several of her original compositions, and is being filmed for the upcoming movie "Rachel Flowers -- Hearing is Believing." For more, see libbeybowl.org or call 646-3117.

Director-producer Lorenzo DeStefano, a Ventura filmmaker, has launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to help get the film out there. Visit http://tinyurl.com/rachelflowers.

For more information, visit rachelflowersfilm.com or rachelflowersmusic.com.

Watch the YouTube video "RACHEL FLOWERS-HEARING IS BELIEVING" Excerpt

This was no finger novice's search and destroy mission, nor a drunken saloon piano ramble. The 20-year-old phenom was playing a cadenza from Sergei Rachmaninoff's legendary Piano Concerto No. 3. The "Rach 3," as it's called in classical slang, is renowned as being one of the most technically difficult piano pieces, but Rachel dispatched the cadenza and its ferocious climaxes with no bumps. "It's a hard piece," she had begrudgingly allowed earlier.

"Her hands are absolutely amazing," said Lorenzo DeStefano, a Ventura filmmaker.

It was one of the first things he noticed about her after seeing her play for the first time in January at Squashed Grapes on Main Street in Ventura. Soon, DeStefano knew he had to make a feature documentary about her.

Those two life forces will collide Sunday night at Libbey Bowl in Ojai, when Flowers gives her solo concert debut. It's a free show, and DeStefano will be filming it; he wants willing participants in the seats.

"We hope to fill the bowl with fans," he said. "It may end up being the climax of the film."

DeStefano hopes to get the film, titled "Rachel Flowers -- Hearing is Believing," out sometime in 2015. Shooting began in earnest in April.

He wants to recapture that original "wow" moment from January.

"It was sort of jaw-dropping," he recalled. "Even now, it's something I can't quite verbalize."

There's a lot of that going around.

"She plays a lot with guys who are 20 or 30 years older than she is," DeStefano observed, "and they are all gobsmacked by her talent and her musical ear."

'Rach' and roll

Flowers, who's lived in Oxnard for the past 10 years, plays in a jazz trio, a piano trio and other groups. Her musical interests fall along jazz, classical and progressive rock lines -- all of which will be on display Sunday night at Libbey Bowl. She'll be on piano, flute and electronic keyboards. She's bringing her Nord piano; they're renting a grand piano for the show.

No other musicians, just her. She'll have none of that butterflies talk.

"I don't get nervous," she averred. "Live, I hear the crowd, I can feel the energy."

Her mother, Jeanie, agreed, adding, "With other people, it scares them, but she just feeds off it."

Rachel said she'll play John Coltrane's "Naima" on piano; maybe she'll throw in something from the famed jazz pianist-composer Bill Evans. She'll also play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, or the "Rach 2" if you will.

She's a huge prog rock fan, an extended jam style of music popular in the 1960s-'70s that featured keyboards and guitars in long, dense instrumental sonic stews wrapped in musical themes. She likes Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

With that, she launched into a bridge suite from Emerson's "High Level Fugue" -- a lively, jaunty piece that's also on Sunday night's playlist.

Her mother looked up and smiled, adding, "She just plays all the time -- it's what she does." Joked Rachel, "I also eat and sleep."

The concert also will feature several of her original compositions. She has more than 50 in all; some are fully realized, some she's still dabbling with in development.

"Sometimes, I hear them in dreams," Rachel said. "It's hard to explain."

She's hardly in the minority there -- who can fully explain that bizarre world?

"Her artistic karma comes from a strange place," filmmaker DeStefano offered, "but we are not going to try to explain the forensics of that in the film. We're going to leave that as a thing of mystery."

Someday, Rachel would love to hear her ideas played with a full-on 70-piece orchestra -- "I want to compose all kinds of stuff."

She was asked about the attraction of music, got quiet for a moment and said, "It's the first thing I remember hearing."

A little star twinkles

It was her mom and dad, Dan, singing "Summertime," the old George Gershwin tune from "Porgy and Bess."

Rachel spent the first three months of her life at Children's Hospital in San Diego. She was severely premature, born 15 weeks early, and also badly underweight at just 1 pound, 5 ounces.

In one of life's cruelties, just before she was discharged she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, a disorder that can lead to lifelong blindness. It occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout the retina, the tissue that lines the back of the eye.

These abnormal vessels can leak, scar the retina and pull it out of position, causing a retinal detachment that can lead to blindness, the National Eye Institute says. Premature and underweight babies are susceptible to ROP.

Despite many operations, Rachel was left blind for life. Her parents, both musicians, found it difficult to interact with their infant daughter, save for music. They found it calmed and soothed Rachel.

Something kicked in. By age 2, Rachel was playing piano. When Jeanie showed her how to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," Rachel knew the melody immediately -- "She could barely reach the keys," mom recalled -- and worked out the song. Soon was playing songs by ear and "has just never stopped."

Her mother has called Rachel's musical talents a gift from God.

At age 4, she was a student at the Southern California Conservatory of Music. There, she learned Braille music code -- like sheet music, only in Braille, with dots denoting octaves and such -- to read classical music, and also studied adaptive computer music applications.

She added flute to her piano repertoire in middle school, and played with the Hueneme High School band. She's also played with the Ventura County Concert Band. She won a student jazz competition at the Ventura Music Festival in 2011 and regional music honors at the Junior Bach Festival and the Southwestern Youth Music Festival.

Rachel still wings it; she'll listen to original and bootleg recordings of an ELP song, say, and "I'll just figure it out, and I'll improvise in sections." She claims she can distinguish between the sound of a Nord or Steinway or BÖsendorfer piano, just from one playing.

Life notes

Hollywood, DeStefano said, likes to take small things and blow them up, a la the Kardashians. With this Rachel biopic, "we are celebrating the great that already exists in the small."

The film's subject doesn't mind her star turn.

"It's pretty exciting," Rachel said before adding with a laugh, "He's got a ton of stuff."

Thus far, DeStefano and crew have filmed Rachel on 18 days. They shot her playing gigs, at home and at the Braille Institute in Santa Barbara, where Rachel takes classes and goes on kayaking and camping trips. She's learned computers, self-defense, the ukulele and how to use an iPhone -- "I enjoy that one," she said.

A cooking class drew a mild complaint from Rachel, who said, "That one's a little hard for me. There's a lot of people in it, so it's not one on one."

She graduated from Hueneme High School with the help of an aide. Her mother guides her occasionally as she walks from room to room. Near interview's end, Rachel accidentally walked into this writer.

"She has all this talent, but she has obstacles, too," DeStefano said. "She's like a child in an adult's world, bringing us joy."

Rachel allowed that she sometimes gets into little tiffs with her 13-year-old brother, Vaughan, who will be in eighth grade this fall at E.O. Junior High School in Oxnard.

Rachel wows Herbie

Rachel has hobnobbed with some big names. At age 9, she played for Ray Charles and met Stevie Wonder, two inspirations. She's been on "60 Minutes" twice for pieces on the Music Academy for the Blind in Los Angeles (they showed her reading music on a computer, for instance).

She also played for and met Herbie Hancock during a tribute at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles in 2007. She played "Dolphin Dance," a fine piece from Hancock's storied 1960s Blue Note days.

"There's one part of it that no one gets right," Rachel recalled, "and Herbie Hancock told me, 'You are the first person who got that part right.' "

High praise, indeed. "Oh yeah," Rachel cooed with a smile, delighted at the memory. To top it off, Hancock thought she was a student at the institute.

With that, she launched into "Dolphin Dance," after plopping a disc into a computer and waiting for it to download. She can now reprogram keyboards by herself without help from a sighted person, she explained.

It's a pretty-sounding piece, softer and more contemplative than the "Rach 3."

Asked if she nailed "Dolphin Dance," Rachel laughed, smiled, spun in her chair and wiggled her arms excitedly, as if they were wet spaghetti noodles.

Nothing could touch her in that moment. She's taking up guitar; who knows where that will lead, what other great fields of imagination await. Rachel Flowers is probably already there, in fervent dreams that swing toward no compass.

___

(c)2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Ventura County Star (CA)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters