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Interview with Rebecca Kragnes, August 2003
Interview with Rebecca Kragnes, image 1
Rebecca Kragnes was born Rebecca Rupp on April 25, 1972 in Cherokee, Iowa. Her parents own a farm, and raised their three daughters there. Rebecca’s mom was a teacher for two years before starting her family, and her dad ran the farm. He is also a full-time rural mail carrier. Rebecca has one sister who is eighteen months older and one who is five years younger. Both sisters sing in church, but neither is professional. When they were younger, they had a vocal trio, with Becky accompanying on the piano. Becky started piano lessons at the age of five, and continued to study music through her undergraduate degree at 24. From preschool through the sixth grade, Becky attended a school for the blind; junior high through high school were at the local public school. She played clarinet in the school band from sixth through the 12th grade, and played piano and keyboard in jazz bands in high school; she also sang in the choir. She entered competitions in vocal and instrumental music while in school, and won several gold cups and other awards. She was three years old when she started improvising at the piano, and thinks she was about nine when she started composing. Blind since birth, Becky can see colors that are up close or bright, but cannot make out shapes. Her husband, Phil, is also blind, and they each have a guide dog to help keep them safer and more independent. Becky will be bringing Wynell, her current guide dog, when she comes to California this month, and talks more about her experiences with the dogs in this interview. Phil and Becky met on the Internet, and were married in August 1996 with each of their guide dogs at their sides. Becky has recorded three solo piano albums to date: “Golden,” “Joyful Noel,” and “Surrender,” and David Lanz has acted as executive producer as well as mentor and advisor on all three. It was David who introduced us via email about three years ago. Here is Rebecca Kragnes’ story so far:

KP: Did you study music in college?

Kragnes: Music was my minor. As a music major, I would have had to deal with Braille music. Some blind people love the Braille system for music, but I am not one of them. If I have to memorize and play something, I prefer to learn it by ear. I see very little advantage in using that system. Unlike print music where one can play and read at the same time, this isn't possible on the piano with Braille music. The fingers have to be reading or playing but not both. It’s different if you want to be a classical musician, but I knew that this wasn't my goal.

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teachers?

Kragnes: With my first teacher, absolutely not! I remember one day when she stepped out of the room, and I was supposed to be practicing some little song with two black keys. She had such a nice piano, and I couldn't help myself - I just had to try it out! I heard about my transgression as she came back into the room! My second piano teacher recognized the importance of improvising and composing in my life. There were pieces where the dynamics on the printed music didn’t fit with how I felt when I played the music, and she let me enter competitions with my own interpretations. She would coach me with music as I was composing it, and supported me when I entered composition competitions for the blind. My college teacher tried to be supportive, but I just don't think he knew how to be. He was an excellent pianist but was so involved in the classical part of piano that we just didn't speak the same musical language.

KP: At what point in your life did you know or decide that you were going to be a professional musician?

Kragnes: When I was very young, I aspired to be a musician of some sort, but my family felt I would never be able to do it if I didn't do things exactly the way my piano teachers said to, and especially if I didn't learn Braille music. This attitude and the college music program I was in discouraged me from pursuing music professionally, and I decided to get a master's degree in counseling so I could have a "real job." Another factor in all of this was my blindness. I had blind friends who were brilliant musicians, but they lived in their small towns and had limited resources for traveling and touring. One wanted to be an opera star but wouldn't move to New York. A second friend saw her music as a ministry and would tour by Greyhound bus because that's all she could afford. This picture also discouraged me. There were also many blind non-musicians who said that music was a stereotypical blind profession, and I could do so much better. It really scared me to think that I might not be successful as a musician, so I put it out of my mind as I went through graduate school. After earning my masters degree, I went out and tried to find a counseling job. What a joke! Minnesota doesn't have counselor licensure, so my degree didn't really mean anything. The only positions I was even considered for were social work where I'd be on call at night. I'd have to hire a driver to take me to solve crises in rough neighborhoods. After two years of this job search, I decided it just wasn't to be. During the last year of that job, my husband, Phil, had been laid off from his job. This was right after our first wedding anniversary. He encouraged me to consider music again. One day over lunch, Phil and I wondered whether David Lanz had a web site, because both of us really liked his music. It turned out David was coming to Minneapolis for a workshop for piano teachers a couple of months later. I knew I had to be there and had a friend drive me. (My grandmother, who was a brilliant pianist, died on August 10th, 1988, and ten years later, to the day, was when the workshop was scheduled. I like to think that she was smiling down on me that day.) I found my confidence building during the workshop as I understood exactly what David was saying to the piano teachers who seemed pretty lost. My friend looked at David's hands on the video screen, and watched me playing air piano on my legs - a habit my mother had tried to stop. My friend told me our hands were doing the same things. I almost didn't take a cassette tape of my music with me to the workshop, but did so when Phil insisted. I was on cloud nine when David took the tape and said he'd get back to me with feedback in six to eight weeks. Two days later he called and told me that it was some of the best unsolicited work he had ever received. This was sort of the turning point, because, with his backing, I made my first CD "Golden." His executive producing and advice have been just as valuable on my other two albums. The die was truly cast after Phil got his current job, which he loves. With his steady income, I finally felt I could do music as a career.

KP: When did you start playing professionally?

Kragnes: I guess I consider my first trips to the recording studio my first professional gigs. I didn't know I was professional at the time, because I thought "Golden" was simply going to be a demo CD for record executives. Instead, after it was finished, David encouraged me to have copies professionally made and sell them.

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

Kragnes: Of course David Lanz is in the piano category without question, but I listen to a lot of different new age musicians - especially with heavy piano, other keyboards, and orchestral involvement. Examples are Ray Lynch, David Arkenstone, Davol, Suzanne Ciani, and the exotic instrumentation of Andreas Vollenweider and Mannheim Steamroller. Classically, I like Debussy, Gershwin, and Copland. Then I love the smooth jazz pianists like Keiko Matsui and David Benoit. I also really enjoy a lot of pop music - especially some of the music from the 70's and 80's which is when I grew up. My parents' generation of music also had an influence. Most of the pop stuff I enjoy has an R&B flare, great harmony, or both. A lot of people say this music is fluff, but music is a bit like food. I like the meat, fruits and vegetables, but I also am not shy about saying I love dessert!

KP: What inspired you to start composing your own music?

Kragnes: I felt somewhat inhibited at first - especially when I discovered that I didn't want to do songs with lyrics. Finding instrumentalists like Mannheim Steamroller and David Lanz helped me figure out where I fit, but it was my Dad who really made me compose. I say this because one summer when I was a teenager, I wanted to get a summer job in town and didn't comprehend a lot of the possible problems with people taking advantage of my blindness. Dad told me that if I won a taped composing competition for the blind, I would get to spend that money however I wanted. It’s funny how money inspires at that age. It isn't what drives me today though, as a lot of my songs are either from life experiences or just fall into my lap from Heaven.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

Kragnes: I'm going to have to pick two. Meeting and working with David Lanz is one. It was also fun to go home this summer to do a performance for the folks who knew me as a shy little blind girl and show them how I have developed into an adult both as a person and as a musician.

KP: Who are your favorite composers?

Kragnes: David Lanz of course, Debussy, and Michael Jackson.

KP: When did you get your first Guide Dog?

Kragnes:I got Tanner June 23, 1996, about two months before I was to be married. Up to that point, I had worked with a cane, and that was fine in a small town or on relatively small campuses with little traffic, but even then, there were days when snow covered many of my landmarks, and I would get lost. When we became engaged, Phil asked me to apply to The Seeing Eye. I didn’t think I could work with a dog because I was very afraid of dogs and doubted my dog handling abilities. I didn’t know how I could ever love and trust a dog I was afraid of. When I got to The Seeing Eye, I told my instructor of my fears, and told him that people had recommended that I get a Golden Retriever because of their gentle temperament. On the day I was to meet my dog, I was a mess. Everyone else was excited, but I was just plain scared. My instructor told me to say, “Tanner, come,” and, in a quivery voice, I did. I heard the panting and reached out to feel a soft, wagging tail. We spent about an hour alone together, getting acquainted, and I spent the time talking to him and petting him. I tried to be brave when he licked my face, but he was very calm, and I felt myself connecting to him within that first hour. We had four wonderful years together. Tragically, he developed a sudden and irreversible kidney disease at the age of six, and had to be euthanized, but he passed on some very important lessons about love and trust that I will always remember. I worked with my second dog, Shelly, for only nine months before returning her to the school to see if she could be retrained to work with someone else. The work and the environment were overwhelming for her, and if ever there was doggy depression, this sweet little girl had it. The school provided ten days of home training for me and my third dog, Wynell. She and I clicked instantly, and have been together for about a year and a half.

KP: How long has Phil had his dog?

Kragnes: Just as I've had three guides who are Golden Retrievers, Phil has had three German Shepherds. He got Orlon in 1984. I met Phil about a year after he got his second guide, a 72 pound black German Shepherd named Andy. He got his current dainty little 46 pound German Shepherd named Wanetta in 1999. Andy had to be retired because of Phil's new work situation. Wanetta is high energy and absolutely loves to play fetch! She was especially good to me when I was dogless, and "Wanetta's Gift" on "Surrender" is about her.

KP: What kind of work does Phil do?

Kragnes: Phil works at the University of Minnesota as their Adaptive Technology Specialist. Basically, Adaptive Technology is anything that helps people with disabilities in their work. He helps students, staff, and faculty find Adaptive Technology to make their work easier. He runs five labs across campus with various Adaptive Technology in the labs. Adaptive Technology might be a program where someone talks into a mike to dictate instead of typing on the computer. Some people need print to be bigger on their screens or to print their work out in Braille. Phil also teaches seminars and workshops on and off campus on web site accessibility.

KP: I read that Phil became blind at 17 as the result of diabetes. Is this correct?

Kragnes: Yes.

KP: Are most of his health problems related to diabetes as well?

Kragnes: Yes. Phil had to have his first kidney transplant at age 23. His dad gave him a kidney that only worked for approximately four years. Then he had seven months of dialysis between when his kidney stopped functioning and when he got the transplant. On the day that he decided he couldn't take any more dialysis and he was going to let himself die, a transplant from a five year old accident victim came through. I feel this was God at work. He's had some issues with heart disease as a result of diabetes (which he's had since age two), and had to have bypass surgery earlier this year and a stint procedure last month. We think now that he is finally on the list for his next transplant, which he is going to need fairly soon.

KP: Some of your pieces have been about your dogs. How do they inspire you?

Kragnes: It's difficult to describe the relationship between me and my dogs. If I would have been told years ago that I would feel as I do toward my dogs, I would have laughed. I'm with them 24/7, and it's like they're a part of me. Tanner taught me the ropes of loving a dog, and I was so grateful that I wanted him to have a song and album dedicated to him. His death and Shelly's departure were highly emotional events in my life, because truly when a guide dog dies or leaves, it feels like a piece of my heart is torn away too. That grief is what the song "Surrender" is all about. Wanetta and Wynell have been very positive influences in my life, and I felt I wanted to try to express how I feel in music in a way that I just can't in words.

KP: You spend a lot of time on your computer. How does that work for a blind person?

Kragnes: I have a piece of software called a screen reader. This software in conjunction with a speech synthesizer reads the screen for me. In layman's terms, I have a talking computer. Email and the net have opened new horizons for me. Unlike people who can read and write with almost anyone who speaks the same language, this wasn't true for me for a long time. If someone who wrote to me didn't know Braille, I'd have to have my letters read to me. Before using a computer, I would also have to type on a manual typewriter. With e-mail, I can receive letters from family, friends, and associates who don't have to know Braille. I can also correct spelling errors with a spell checker instead of using correction tape or some other antiquated method. I know there are a lot of critics of computers who say they have made life a lot less private. For me and other blind people, we've been able to handle our affairs with more privacy. Phil and I still have to have someone read our mail for us, but we try to do as much as we can ourselves using the computer.

KP: How are you doing after being hit by a car this past February?

Kragnes: First, I’d like to tell a little bit about what happened. When I cross streets with my guide dogs, I listen to traffic and judge when it's safe to go. There's something called intelligent disobedience where if my dog doesn't think it's safe to go, he/she can disobey my command to go forward. On the day I got hit, I listened to traffic carefully. Four witnesses saw that I started to cross when the light turned green. Wynell thought it was safe to go, or she wouldn't have taken me into the street. When Wynell and I were partially across the street, a car turned in front of us and knocked me unconscious. Wynell tried to back me up, but a car is quicker than a dog. If she hadn't been there, I probably would have been more seriously hurt. When I woke up and heard I had been hit by a car, I automatically assumed I was at fault - so do most people when I tell them I was hit. In reality, it was the driver who was at fault. He apparently didn't see us because of sun glare. I just want to reinforce that whenever a blind person is crossing the street, we have the right of way. We try to listen and follow the light patterns, but we don't always judge correctly or exit the street right when the light is out of our favor. The accident had me dizzy for a month, and I was in physical therapy for my shoulders for about six months. I don't think I'll ever be able to carry the weight on my shoulders I once could, but it has gotten a lot better. For a while, I couldn't play the piano, and that was devastating. It certainly slowed down prospects for the next album!

KP: Do you have any hobbies?

Kragnes: I like to swim, although I need to be more consistent about it. I also really like to read.

KP: What do you like to do in your free time, or do you have any?

Kragnes: As strange as it sounds, I really like being a part of organizations involving blindness, disability, guide dogs, and Golden Retrievers. Also, even after eight years of using it, I am still enthralled with e-mail and the internet. So much opened up for me as a blind person when e-mail and the net came along. That's how I met my husband, and it's just widened my horizons from there.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

1. A home with more than one bedroom, a swimming pool, and someone else willing to take responsibility for snow-shoveling and maintenance.
2. At least one quality Clavinova, fully accessible to me with multi-track sequencer and the option to add any sounds I wanted.
3. The right match of a kidney/pancreas for my husband, so he can live a quality life and grow old with me.
To learn more about Rebecca, visit her website or her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com
Kathy Parsons
August 2003