Santa Cruz musician, Veronica Elsea, reconciles sight and sound
Last Christmas, Veronica Elsea was strolling down Pacific Avenue when she heard the ear-splitting screech of a busker wailing on a guitar. Without hesitation, she walked over to the musician and said, “I’ll give you 10 bucks if you let me tune your guitar.” The performer obliged, Elsea altered the strings, and she walked away.
Elsea, an accomplished music composer and former member of the Santa Cruz County Symphony, was born blind. She and her twin sister—who is also visually impaired—were delivered prematurely and laid in incubators for the first two months of their lives.
When the girls were three, their mother bought a piano, and it wasn’t long before they proved they were musically inclined. “I was always terrified of the idea that you take a blind kid and plop them in front of a piano and they’re this incredible musician,” laughs Elsea, who used to pull all-nighters memorizing sheet music for the symphony. “But [music] was always something that came fairly easy to us.”
Without the ability to see, the girls had to dedicate a great deal of time to developing their hearing so they could cross the street, and maneuver their way around people and objects. “If we heard the radio when we were young, we weren’t looking out the window, we were really listening,” says Elsea.
She quickly picked up the violin, and later—after realizing that “35 gazillion kids play violin and no kids play the viola”—she moved on to the latter instrument. Eventually, she went on to get her bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles and her master’s degree from the University of Iowa, both in viola and music composition.
It was during her time in graduate school that she met the love of her life, Peter Elsea, director of Electronic Music Studios at UC Santa Cruz. “I went to introduce myself to the professor and I could just tell, he was thinking, ‘Oh no! The blind girl!’” says Elsea. “So he pawned me off on the TA (Peter)—I was like, ‘Thank you!’”
Happily married for 34 years, the pair has two recording studios built into their home near UCSC, where there is never a dull moment. The couple has one ongoing joke, wherein Veronica teases Peter if he does something ridiculous by saying, “Oh you poor thing—65 percent of your brain is busy interpreting what your eyes can see.” As is obvious from her lighthearted sense of humor, her disability hardly gets her down. “I’ve never known anything different,” she says.
Today, she spends her days crafting songs for her private music production company, Laurel Creek Music Designs, which she has owned and operated out of her home since 1997. With her guide dog Tai, a black lab whose name means “eagle” in Swahili, by her side, Elsea uses four computers, two music keyboards, a harmonizer, a sequencer and a handy-dandy Braille Lite—a portable word-processor/note taker with a refreshable Braille display and an adjustable speech synthesizer—to craft original music.
As she presses the buttons on her computer keyboard, a robotic voice, which she dubbed “Perfect Paul,” says the command back to her. To jot down lyrics, she swipes her fingers across the Braille display on the Braille Lite, and, soon, music is made.
But don’t think for a second, that Elsea’s music is like that of Stevie Wonder—or any other musician for that matter. “When you’re onstage playing Beethoven, people are waiting for you to mess up,” says Elsea. “So I use my talent and passion to produce something unique.”
That might be the understatement of the year, when you consider that one of her most popular albums is We Woof You A Merry Christmas, featuring The Guide Dog Glee Club: 513 real-life guide dog sounds recorded by Elsea and then rearranged and harmonized into 16 barking versions of your favorite Christmas hits.
Her canine chorus—an idea that developed while Elsea was retiring one of her guide dogs—has also contributed to two other albums, Guide Dogs First Hand and The Guide Dog Glee Club, both of which have gained popularity in the blind community and dog-lover circles.
“I’d set a tape recorder in the room while the dogs played,” says Elsea, who jokes, “I should go into the dog training business, ’cause the best way to quiet a dog is to turn on a tape recorder—you wouldn’t believe how many tapes I have with no sound.”
Now, every one of the keys on her keyboard makes a different dog noise (and, yes, she can identify each dog by its bark), and the animals determine the tempo of each song. “What you hear in my stuff is absolute, unadulterated, raw dog,” she says.
The market for such music is rather large, too. Customers give rave reviews about her guide dog CDs—there was even a request to translate one album into Norwegian.
Her success with The Guide Dog Glee Club, encouraged her to release Diabetes Melodious, an album about the (often frustrating, but rarely talked about) realities of the disease, that uses the sounds of insulin pumps, blood glucose meters, and the like, in place of instruments. “I wanted to get people to loosen up about diabetes,” she says. “I’m not telling you what to do, but I’m saying what you’re all thinking.”
It’s been a long road to get to where Elsea is today—she had to re-learn how to use her hands after a fall debilitated her a few years ago, and arthritis forced her to stop playing viola—but, she couldn’t be happier.
Her biggest challenge at the moment is figuring out how to adapt to a music industry that has become increasingly visual, with the creation of things like YouTube and Facebook, but she says that the number of opportunities for blind musicians has increased.
“The playing field is a lot more level now—you can be making music with someone and they might not know you’re blind,” she says. “Until recently you couldn’t get a Mac [computer] to speak, and now there are more university programs, and blind people who run music studios, etc.”
Elsea’s physical limitation might not be ordinary, but it is certainly not a crutch in her life. “You’re not going to get bonus points just because you have to memorize [music],” she says. “You don’t want to compete on the basis of your disability. Buy a lot of Kleenex, ’cause you’re gonna fuss, you’re gonna cuss; but be yourself, know what you want, and go for it.”
For more information about Veronica Elsea and Laurel Creek Music Designs, or to purchase one of her albums, visit laurelcreekmusic.com.