Sandra Gayer is British and a highly accomplished soprano singer who sings at a wide variety of international venues. She has also been blind from early childhood. She is also an advocate for making the web more accessible and consults with website owners and designers on how they can make websites more user friendly for people with visual, hearing or dexterity impairments. She tells us about her story and how she got to where she is today.
Sandra: I’m a classically trained soprano singer, but I wasn’t always a soprano singer. I was a little kid with no friends like everyone else. The reason why I got into music was because it wasn’t particularly sporty. Everyone I knew was sporty and outdoorsy.
My parents always had tapes on, and I would sing in the car. It was a fun thing to do. My parents sent me to a few groups that got me into singing, and I had a great time then.
I went to a girls school in Ireland. There was no one there at the time to help me learn Braille music. I went back to England, then I went to the Royal College of Music as a junior. I did my A Levels at the same time. It was basically six days a week of school, but it was worth it. I trained as a soprano singer at the same time as learning Braille music. I studied a bit of piano and did composition.
After that, I worked with a singer from the English National Opera, and my technique progressed from there. But to go back to my story as to how I’m became blind, it’s basically cataracts. A simple operation went wrong, and there you go.That happened when I was a baby, so I don’t have too much visual memory to speak of. I do have light perception, and color, and so on, but not enough to use print or any of that. I’m a hard core Braillist, and I love it.
Jasper: You often hear stories about how hard it is to make it in the music industry. You haven’t really followed the traditional path in terms of a soprano singer in a lot of ways. Perhaps you could tell us how you got into the business side of what you do and how that came about in the first place.
Sandra: It came about as trial by fire. I was performing from a very young age. When I was very, very young, obviously I wasn’t singing opera. I was singing things from musicals and popular music when I was six or seven or what have you. I carried on singing in churches. That’s where my performing started. I still do that. I still sing in churches, and I make a point of singing in my local parish, at least, a few times a year just to really connect with everybody emotionally and spiritually. My singing really began in church.
I got parts on stage properly really when I left school. When I was in school, I was really focused on my grades and getting. Although I was performing at the end of term, et cetera, I wasn’t doing as much as I would have liked to, but then when I left school I was really able to focus on performing and getting paid to do that.
The traditional path for a soprano is go through school, go to a music college after that, do your degree, and get parts in operas. I actually have an opera coming up for me next year, which is exciting, because it’s celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. I’m going to be singing that in the Royal Albert Hall.
I went to the Royal College of Music as a junior student. I left when I was 20 because I’d done all my schooling and everything else. The plan was go to conservatoire now, get my degree, do a Master’s, get in the opera, do this, do that, and do the other.
I auditioned. You could have mock auditions for conservatoire, an audition to basically see how you would do if you did audition. I had one or two of those, and the professors basically told me that I had a good voice, go away, come back in two years, and then audition.
In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to work with Richard Stilgoe. He co-wrote “Phantom of the Opera.” I got parts in several of his musicals, and I really enjoyed doing that. One thing leads to another. I suppose that you could say it’s very hard to get work until you’ve already got some. It was at that stage that I realized that I didn’t need a degree to do what I loved to do. You could say that I got a life, really. I got my website built. I used the funds from some singing work that I’d already done to do that. I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be, because I probably wouldn’t have done it – it’s worse than building a house, building a website. My family has been absolutely amazing. I will say that your parents are your backbone. I couldn’t have done half the things I’ve done without their help.
But my website is my cake tasting table. It’s a place people can go to hear me sing. I’ve got lots to listen clips on there and various YouTube videos. I basically started getting into the YouTubia last year. I’ve got mixed views about it.
I think the most important thing is to be focused on what it is that you’re actually after, because it can be really hard when you’re trying to build a website, and you’re auditioning for parts, and people either want you because you sound a certain way, or they don’t want you because you’re disabled and they can’t see how you’re going to work well. You start talking about your skills, and all they can think about is how you’re going to get to and from the toilet without breaking your neck and suing them.
The thing I do there is basically answer before I’m asked. Don’t wait to be asked questions about your disability, because either people will ask just as a formality because they’ve written you off, or they won’t bother to ask because they’ve made up answers themselves. But basically I try and take all of the “no’s” as “No- not yet” and just keep going. I look back on some things and I think, “How did I actually do that, oh yeah, I just kept banging on doors, being persistent, and not going away.”
My website is basically a place where people can hear me sing. Some work comes through that. I have to say that when I first got my website started, most of my work came the old fashioned way. “Oh Sandra, I heard you sing at such a such a thing, will you sing at my thing?” A lot of my work still comes from that.
Jasper: One of the things that you do is in terms of teaching people how to make websites more accessible to blind people, I guess, or even deaf people.
Sandra: Not just blindness or deafness, but dexterity problems. You know yourself, I suppose, when you phone up for something and they say the address is blah, blah, blah, if your hands aren’t that quick on the uptake, by the time you’ve started writing the address you’ve been cut off. That happens to me, and I’m pretty dexterous.
Meredith: Yeah. I was going to say that has nothing to do with a disability at all.
Sandra: Yes, that’s something I do. I evaluate people’s websites. I give a really in-depth evaluation of the different pages. Another thing I do is I evaluate their free gift and some of their other products. I’ve seen loads of free gift situations where you sign up for something, let’s say it’s a PDF for the sake of argument. You can tell that the person has scanned the PDF as a photo from a web document, or from a Notepad, or whatever they’ve done. They’ve done it as a photo. It looks the same, but from a text to speech screen reader, which is what I use to navigate the computer, or a Braille display, say refreshable Braille, it’s not. It’ll just say “graphic – invalid graphic”. What I will do is I’ll click off, and I think “thank God I didn’t pay for that, that was a waste of space”, and leave.
With videos, try to label the graphics, or get your web designer to label the graphics. Instead of speech programs just hitting button “01, 02”, it’ll actually say “play” or “pause”. There’s a reason for labeling graphics. It’ll help with Google as well if you label your photos. If I take someone’s email newsletter, for example, if I’m reading that it’ll just say “graphic, infographic, infographic, infographic”. Someone else’s might say “photo shows, I don’t know, Meredith standing in a long dress looking, facing forward”. That can make all the difference to the reader’s experience. People can do that themselves. They can label their photos just basically giving them a nice filename rather than 0000.jpg or something. That doesn’t cost anything.
Jasper: How many people does this affect because I think a lot of businesses would think “well, there aren’t going to be that many people with disabilities accessing my site, I can’t be bothered”.
Sandra: There’s nearly 40 million people in the world who are blind. Disability is not a niche market. And I’m just talking about the people who are officially registered blind. There are a lot of people who have disabilities and who don’t actually register or report them, like “Oh, it’ll go way, it’s itching and sand in my eyes.” I’m just talking about the official figures there. I’ll stick to blind people, because they’re my subjects. But that adds up to a lot of people and a lot of potentially missed opportunities for that business.
Sandra’s love of classical music developed when she was thirteen and a natural soulful and spiritual voice was then enhanced, trained and developed into the soprano she is today. This was achieved at The Royal College of Music Junior Department where Sandra was a student for four years, achieving her grade eight singing qualification with distinction within eighteen months. Sandra has also written and performed her own compositions.
Born in Zambia and blind/visually impaired almost from birth, Sandra has learned to work exclusively in Braille, including of course, the use of Braille music. Sandra has appeared in a wide variety of arenas including; theatrical and classical productions, T.V. and radio broadcasts as well as a leading role in ‘Orpheus the Mythical’, a musical written and produced by Sir Richard Stilgoe. She is an award winning classical singer with a unique sound which appeals to a diverse audience. 2013 proved to be an exciting year for Sandra.
She made her international debut performing at the Enzo Ferrari Museum, Modena, Italy, on 09 May. Apart from her solo performances she had the opportunity to sing with members of the Pavarotti Foundation, directed by Maestro Paolo Andreoli of La Scala, Milan. Using her voice in every area of her career Sandra is a Broadcast Presenter and her Programme ‘Music Box’ on Insight Radio, won an Award at the New York Festivals Radio Programs and Promos Awards on 17 June. An exceptional achievement as she has been broadcasting for just one year. To complete a wonderful year, on 03 December, Sandra gave an outstanding performance at the House of Commons, Palace of Westminster, London.
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