Playing his way through blindness


Orlando Fiol, a graduate music student at Penn, has been completely blind since birth


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Orlando Fiol plays the piano in the living room of his West Philadelphia home. In addition to finishing up his doctoral degree in music theory at Penn, Fiol is a well-known performer throughout Philadelphia, largely specializing in different forms of Latin piano and percussion.

Photo by Stephanie Nam


It’s late on a Wednesday night, and Orlando Fiol is sitting on a couch upstairs in the music room of his cluttered West Philadelphia home.

He’s paging through the score of Claude Debussy’s Preludes for Piano, attempting to make sense of a piece some musicians have spent a lifetime trying to master.

After a few minutes, Orlando is satisfied. Slowly, he gets up, feels his way to the door and begins to make the trip down a flight of stairs to his living room. Sitting down at his most prized possession in the room — his piano — he begins to play.

Orlando starts with excerpts from some classical pieces, then moves quickly into a set of inspired, improvised Latin music. His long, slender fingers jump from end to end of the piano almost effortlessly. Even to the musical outsider, one thing is clear: Orlando is no ordinary performer.

VIDEO: Sitting down with Orlando Fiol

***

Orlando, a doctoral student in Penn’s Department of Music, has been completely blind since birth.

He was born three months prematurely in 1972 in Brooklyn, and when his doctors exposed him to excessive amounts of oxygen, it took away his eyesight for life.

One of Orlando’s eyes has been completely removed, the other still intact. When he’s out in public, a pair of dark glasses shields his eyes from the world, while a white walking stick with a rolling tip guides his every move.

Now 40, he knows his surroundings through sound, touch, smell and taste — senses he says the rest of us take for granted.

“There’s something to be said for the things we don’t have to see,” he says in a clear New York accent that holds traces of his Latin heritage. “We live in an ocular-centric culture. That I can get past the appearance of things and deal with them on a human level has almost been a blessing in disguise.”

In spite of his condition, Orlando is an accomplished professional when it comes to more than 10 different musical instruments and genres — from the Latin congas to the Indian tabla, with much in between.

He has absolute pitch — an ability through which he can recognize and produce any musical note without a point of reference.

He also speaks seven languages, is a skilled chef and holds a degree from Columbia University.

Orlando believes that those who look at blindness as a handicap hold themselves back.

“I don’t resent the fact that I can’t read printed music on a page,” he says. “If you ascribe value to sight and denigrate the other senses, you’re missing out on a lot of valuable things. I’ve made it a point to live as a blind person proactively rather than reactively to the world around me, and that’s how I’ve matured.”

***

Orlando’s parents knew from a young age that their son had the ability to make a name for himself in music.

His mother, Laura Vidal, recalled a time when, while feeding Orlando, she began singing the French nursing melody “Frère Jacques” to him.

“Just like that, at barely ten months old, he started humming the song back to me,” she said. “I thought I was hearing things, but it was really happening.”

Orlando developed most of his earliest musical talents with the help of his father, Henry Fiol, a well-known Latin performer and composer.

By age 3, Henry was already working with Orlando to teach him how to play formal, structured rhythms on a set of miniature congas.

Henry believes he is a better person — and musician — for having Orlando in his life.

When Orlando was born, “it was a traumatic blow,” he said. “You’re looking forward to this beautiful experience of having a baby, and it was a big blow. It’s remarkable to have watched him overcome all these obstacles that God’s placed in his path.”

Henry made it a point to expose Orlando to live music as often as possible, bringing him along to clubs at night to play with his band and allowing him to participate in “rumbas” — folkloric Cuban gatherings that feature percussion, vocals and dance.

“He could come perform with me, but I didn’t really like having him in the recording studio when I was singing my vocals,” Henry joked of Orlando’s absolute pitch. “His ear is so finely tuned that whenever something was a hair sharp or flat he’d say, ‘No, you need to do that over.’”

It was at his father’s events that Orlando began to develop his proclivity for improvisation — a talent he’s used to make a name for himself in some of Philadelphia’s most well-known Latin music clubs today.

Orlando began studying piano formally when he was around 6 years old, spending time at the Lighthouse Music School, a nationally recognized center for blind or visually impaired youth. Here, he also learned quickly how to read and write literary and mathematical Braille.

Years later, Orlando enrolled at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York, one of the premier performing arts high schools in the country. In 1987, the school arranged two performances with Orlando and Stevie Wonder, in which they played a duet in front of the student body.

The pair excited the audience with a rendition of Wonder’s hit, “Part-Time Lover.”

“We met just a few minutes before going on stage,” Orlando said. “We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play. We just went out there and let it happen.”

***

As Orlando reflects upon his musical journey, he is rocking back and forth on the couch, his infectious smile and laugh coloring every story he is telling.

It’s clear that Orlando has never had it easy, but even through spending just five minutes with him, one can’t help but marvel at his ability to bring the best light out of any situation.

Much of this outlook on life, Orlando says, was forged after high school, when he studied at Columbia. He spent time at the prestigious New York university from 1991 to 1996, earning a bachelor’s degree in music and learning about a mix of other subjects through the school’s core curriculum.

It was during this time and afterwards that he began struggling to find his musical identity in the competitive world of New York performance.

He tried his hand at all sorts of musical genres: jam bands, neo-soul and country music, among others.

“I was trying to find my musical voice through all of this,” he said. “At the end of the day, I just didn’t have the connections to make it where I wanted to be.”

Around 2000, Orlando chose to move to Philadelphia to become “a bigger fish in a smaller pond.” After a few years of performing and traveling, he decided that he wanted to give it a shot in academia.

He applied to Penn’s graduate music program in 2007, deciding that he wanted a smaller academic community rather than a large, conservatory-like music experience. Today, he’s working on finishing his doctoral degree in music theory.

Orlando is a hard sight to miss on Penn’s campus. When he goes out, he usually wears a set of bold “kurtas” — traditional, loose-fitting Indian garb that falls just below the knees. He has all sorts of kurtas for different occasions, he explains: a relaxed orange set for lounging around at home, a jet black pair for performances in darker venues. The numerous Buddha statues scattered throughout his home at 48th Street in West Philadelphia — which he lives in with a mix of old friends and housemates he met through Craigslist — are further evidence of the influence Indian culture has had on his life.

Though he’s enjoyed his time at Penn, it hasn’t come without its difficulties.

Early on, Orlando said he occasionally clashed with his department leaders over the course of his education.

The main cleavages, he explained, stemmed from the fact that Orlando’s primary interests centered around the performance and auditory aspects of music, while the department emphasized a more scholarly, academic approach.

“When I first came to Penn, I and they began wondering whether it was really a good fit,” he said. “It’s an Ivy League institution, so while it’s going to be very prestigious, it’s also a somewhat ideologically conservative experience.”

Director of Performance Michael Ketner, who has worked with Orlando through the Blutt College House Music Program, acknowledged the potential difficulties in someone like Orlando enrolling at Penn.

“I think what a school like Penn can offer Orlando, who has an impressive performance background, is to combine that experience with academic expertise,” he said. “That’s going to create a musician who’s really well-versed in exactly what he’s doing.”

***

Outside of his ongoing struggle to reconcile the differences between his and Penn’s musical focuses, Orlando has also faced other difficulties fitting in with the Penn community.

“The one thing at Penn that I find appalling is that I could be standing anywhere, anytime and dozens of students will walk by me without so much as asking if I need any help,” he said. “I have never been at a colder place in terms of students.”

Though he said the University’s Student Disabilities Services has been accommodating to him in a legal sense, “the folks over there can’t do everything.”

“It doesn’t occur to 100 students in a room with me here at Penn that I can’t just go up to someone and start a conversation,” he said. “You can put something into law, but you can’t legislate people’s hearts. It’s an indifference disease for which there is no current treatment.”

SDS Director Susan Shapiro said in an email that “it concerns me to hear that some students have not felt accepted by the Penn community.” She added that, last school year, 13 students with visual impairments received services from the University.

Orlando doesn’t regret his decision to come to Penn, but acknowledges that his life would be very different had he chosen another path.

For years, Orlando said he has faced hardship because of his blindness. He’s had women cancel dates on him after learning he was blind, and he’s been rejected from bookings by club owners who doubt his musical abilities.

While Orlando was once hyper-concerned about fitting in with sighted people, he says he’s now content to go about his day-to-day life without acting like someone he’s not.

“I think he’s increasingly been able to become part of the ‘real world’ while not changing the person he is,” said Arnaldo Vargas, a childhood friend of Orlando’s who is also legally blind. “It’s taken some time, but he’s taught us all a lot there.”

***

Though Orlando’s life is far from normal, he does what he can to maintain a regular schedule.

When he has performances or appointments, he’s able to get around Philadelphia largely with the assistance of the Penn Accessible Transit service.

Aaron Spence, a Liberal and Professional Studies graduate student who works as a driver for Penn Transit, said that in his experiences driving Orlando throughout the city, “anything goes in our 15-20 minute ride.”

“We talk about love, philosophy, religion, culture — but most of the time, a lot of the conversation ties back into music,” said Spence, an amateur Jamaican-American jazz musician himself.

To read books at home, Orlando has a special stand-alone machine that scans and reads the text aloud to him. Whenever he receives an email, his computer provides an audible alert informing him that he has a new message.

Reading Braille music is a bit more complicated. At Penn, he uses software like GOODFEEL to transcribe written music into Braille. For a complicated score that includes multiple instruments, key changes and rhythmic patterns, it can sometimes take Orlando upwards of a week or two to read, interpret and memorize the music.

As his fingers slide gracefully across the Debussy score — which consists of tiny white dots that appear as nothing more than insignificant protrusions to the sighted person — he says that the piece is a complicated one. He questions how accurately the music was transcribed into Braille, explaining that there still isn’t a perfect way for the blind to read music at the same level as others. It’s what’s largely led him to the world of improvisation in his performance, he says.

His challenges in reading music aside, Orlando has found a way to make a living performing on the Philadelphia music scene. In addition to regular appearances at a number of Latin clubs and restaurants in the area — including frequent Saturday night gigs at Isla Verde on North American Street — he also teaches and plays occasional private functions.

“There’s never been a point sitting with Orlando when I’ve thought to myself that I’d be better off with someone who wasn’t blind,” said Eric Aldrich, who takes advanced piano lessons from Orlando. “He’s a true professional.”

***

Now finished with his Latin improvisation on piano, Orlando stands up and walks out onto his porch.

Soon, he says, he’ll be finished with his dissertation. He’s hoping to use his degree as an entry point into teaching at the collegiate level, as well a starting block to publishing academic books on music.

To many around Orlando, there remains a degree of awe over the fact that he’s been able to achieve the degree of success he has. How does he memorize piece after piece of classical music? How does he know instantly upon sitting down at a piano where his fingers are supposed to go? How does he keep up with the doctoral-level coursework at a school like Penn?

“I just do it,” he answers casually. “I’ve been doing it for years. Whenever you’ve been doing something for that long, it just becomes a part of you. This is a huge part of me.”

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