By Sue Botos
Bryan McGucken has never let his sight impairment stand in the way of his dreams.
“I look at it not as a disability, but as a minor annoyance,” the Lakewood resident, who has been nearly blind since birth, said in a recent interview. Despite his thick eyeglasses, it is easy to forget about McGucken’s lack of sight as he talks about his job with the IRS, excitement over expecting his first child with wife Elisabeth Canfield, driving a golf cart and singing the title role in the upcoming West Shore Chorale production of Handel’s “Samson.”
Born with cataracts in 1976, surgery at 6 months of age left McGucken with glaucoma that robbed him of most of his sight. “I was supposed to be totally blind 30 years ago and I’m grateful to all of the ophthalmologists that have helped me,” said McGucken of the doctors in both his native Connecticut and at the Cleveland Clinic. Presently, he said he has light perception in his right eye, and can see shapes and vivid colors with the left.
Although visually limited, McGucken said that his mother insisted he attend regular classes in school. “They told my family, ‘He needs to be with other blind children.’ My mom laughed at them and said, ‘He lives in a sighted world, he needs to be with sighted people,’” McGucken recalled.
McGucken credits his mother for fostering his fierce independence as well as his love of music. “When I was little, my mom always played the piano and guitar. At age 5 I started taking piano and took lessons for 10 years,” McGucken said, adding that he did not enroll in voice classes until his college years at Southern Connecticut State University, where he met Canfield during a “disabilities awareness day.” His wife, a flutist, has partial hearing loss.
After graduation, McGucken’s job brought the couple to the Cleveland area, where the tenor said he “fell out of music” for five years. It was a discussion in 2006 with a co-worker with a degree in music therapy that struck a note with McGucken. “One day, totally randomly, I said, ‘You know, Jean, I’d really like to get back to singing,'” he recalled. She suggested that he check out the West Shore Chorale.
Using a computer search (McGucken uses JAWS – Job Access With Speech – a screen reader computer program that allows the blind to read the screen with text to speech output or a braille display), McGucken found the chorale’s website and checked over the audition requirements. “I kind of shied away for a second, but e-mailed (conductor) John (Drotleff) and scheduled an appointment. Then I went to Educator’s Music and bought a copy of ‘America the Beautiful.’ The rest is history,” he recalled.
McGucken receives his musical scores in print, then Canfield, or other chorale members, reads them to him and he translates the words and music to braille. As his fingers effortlessly traced through the score for “Samson,” the singer noted that musical braille is more difficult because the same symbol can stand for different things. Canfield noted that she learned braille during the couple’s college years so they could communicate by letters during a summer apart.
McGucken’s interest in soloing was piqued after the group performed Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2. “I remember listening (to the regular soloists) and I thought, ‘That’s where I want to be,’” he said, adding that he let Drotleff know.
The conductor kept McGucken’s offer in mind. After an October 2011 fundraising performance, McGucken said Drotleff asked him to do the “Samson” role. “I have the perfect haircut for the role,” said the singer, patting his balding head, referring to the Biblical story in which Samson’s hair is cut by Delilah.
While his independence has opened many doors for McGucken, he admitted that it sometimes “goes too far.”
“What holds me back is people wanting to help me,” he said, recalling a time when he missed a step while navigating a curb. “You get people who grab you, and that offends me. They assume because you have a disability, you need help,” he stated. Aside from his music, McGucken said he enjoys PlayStation games and swimming at the Lakewood YMCA.
As for the golf cart, McGucken laughed at the memory of joining his father and brother on a golf course. “They did some navigating and I only ran over a tee marker and not a person.”
McGucken thought for a while before giving advice to others who are dealing with disabilities. “You have got to persevere. You have to work a little harder if you have a disability to convince people that you are competent.”
SIDEBAR: The West Shore Chorale and Orchestra will present Handel’s “Samson” on May 5 at 7:30 p.m. at the Magnificat Center for the Performing Arts, 20770 Hilliard Blvd. in Rocky River. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the door, online at westshorechorale.org or by calling 216-373-7773.