Discover how pianist Kirsty Hill, who was born with the genetic condition Fraser Syndrome, worked with her lifelong teacher to fulfil her musical potential.
“I enjoy the sense of freedom that I get from playing the piano – I can sit down after a stressful day and just lose myself in a piece of music. When I play my disabilities and challenges don’t exist.”
For 25-year-old Kirsty, from the village of Glyncorrwg in South Wales, making music is an immensely important part of life which she currently fits around work on her Psychology PhD at Swansea University. Passing her Grade 8 Piano with merit last year was the culmination of many years of learning and practising. So how did Kirsty achieve this goal?
Watch and listen as Kirsty performs Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor:
Having Fraser Syndrome means that Kirsty is registered deaf and blind, and while she has some hearing from using hearing aids, she is unable to read music. It also meant that Kirsty was born with webbed fingers and during her first three years was in and out of hospital having surgery on her hands. “I needed a lot of therapy when I was younger to strengthen my hands,” explains Kirsty, “and even now I still struggle with tasks involving grip and lifting.”
The first signs of Kirsty’s musical talent came early. “I remember tapping out rhythms on our radiators at home, feeling the vibrations,” says Kirsty. “Then when I was about a year and a half old, I broke my leg. To keep me occupied, my dad bought me a mini electric keyboard to play with and after a while my family noticed that I was trying to play nursery rhymes. I would listen to songs and copy them on the keyboard.”
It was while attending a school for children who are deaf-blind that a teacher spotted Kirsty’s musical potential. “One of my teachers noticed that I seemed to come alive whenever there was music playing. She tried very hard to find a teacher who would be able to teach me music, and that’s how I met Ruth.”
Ability not disability
Her new teacher was Ruth Tucker. Ruth had experience of teaching a student with cerebral palsy, but working with someone registered deaf and blind and unable to read music was something completely new. Ruth was determined to find a way to help the four-year old Kirsty and they haven’t looked back since.
“From the moment I met Kirsty,” reflects Ruth, “I believed that for every challenge there would be a solution. Above all, I concentrated on her ability and not her disability”. During lessons, Ruth would play a piece phrase by phrase and Kirsty would listen and attempt to play it back, focusing on just one or two phrases in each lesson. This approach set the pattern for the coming years.
“I tend to first focus on getting to grips with the melody and right hand,” explains Kirsty. “Then I learn the accompaniment in the left hand. I also often listen to recordings of my lessons and the pieces, which helps to familiarise me with the music and strengthen my memory.”
Kirsty’s limited dexterity presented another challenge. “Sometimes we have to be creative,” Kirsty admits. “I have to play parts of the accompaniment with my right hand as well as the melody, to compensate for my weaker left hand.” Once Kirsty could reach the pedals, this helped as it meant she could achieve the legato sound that she couldn’t produce with her fingers alone.
“I love music with a lot of expression,” explains Kirsty, “and I always try to select pieces where I can show off the mood. I also really enjoy playing popular music, particularly rock, where I love adding my own twist to a piece.
“As well as playing solo, I love the sense of belonging and connectedness that I get from playing with other people and performing. Ruth and I have played duets together over the years and Neath College, where Ruth taught, hosted a concert every summer and I was always invited to play. I think my first performance was at five years old!”
In a way, Ruth’s story is no less remarkable. She began teaching the piano as a teenager. Her career then took her in a different direction until personal tragedy prompted Ruth to return to music. “My first love was music and teaching, so after the devastating loss of my baby daughter I threw myself into what I loved, gaining diplomas in piano teaching and performance. Music was a source of comfort to me and helped me through a very difficult time.”
Teaching Kirsty gave Ruth the confidence to believe that no challenge is insurmountable and she went on to teach a profoundly deaf student using sign language and has adapted her teaching for students with autism and Down Syndrome.
“Every lesson is a learning experience for me,” says Ruth, “and it’s a great privilege to share with others something you have a great passion for. The enjoyment of seeing another person develop a love for music, have fun learning and grow in confidence is priceless.”
The secrets of motivation
For Kirsty, enjoyment is key to staying motivated. ”It’s what gives me the motivation to learn new music, especially when the piece is particularly challenging.” Exams have also played a part. Kirsty has taken all her Piano Practical Grades, as well as Practical Musicianship exams up to Grade 5, and particularly values the discipline of learning scales, which boost her confidence and help to strengthen her fingers.
“Each time I succeeded in another grade that gave me the determination to keep going onto the next stage! As someone learning music purely for the love of it, it means the absolute world to complete my Grade 8.”
In the end though it’s Ruth’s teaching that Kirsty comes back to. “I get most of my inspiration from my teacher. Her love of teaching, along with all her hard work in making music possible for me over the years has strengthened my own love of music, and my motivation to progress.”
And what’s next for Kirsty? “Music is so diverse, ever-changing and inspiring in itself, there is always something new to learn. My next goal is to achieve my diploma in performing, and continue learning along the way.”
Support for learners with specific needs
Thank you to Kirsty and Ruth for sharing their musical journey with us. Each year, we examine candidates with a wide range of disabilities, health conditions and specific needs, and we have a number of access arrangements and reasonable adjustments we can put in place for candidates taking our exams. You can find out more in our Fair Access Guidelines, or contact our Access Coordinator if you have any questions: [email protected]