Donna Yasenchok likes to sing so much she is a member of five different choral groups — and they’re happy to have her: She has a desirable alto-soprano vocal range that would be the envy of choral singers anywhere.
But from birth, Donna was challenged with cataracts in both eyes and, despite several operations, the resulting nerve damage left her unable to achieve sharp focus. This qualifies her as legally blind, and that can be a problem if you want to sing in a choir. Besides having a voice that blends well with others, choral singing requires reading and memorizing complex musical scores plus being able to follow a director’s instructions during rehearsals and performances.
Such a challenge might persuade many visually-impaired musicians to do most of their singing in the shower.
Not Ms. Yasenchok. She makes finding ways to adapt and conquer her visual limitations sound simple. “I just have to know my surroundings better and be more vigilant about where I am,” she says. She also works closely with her section leaders and is not shy about asking for help if she needs it. “You have to be assertive.”
Already a member of the Cathedral Choir at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena in Allentown, the Allentown Diocesan Choir and two smaller groups, the Living Word and Angelorum, Donna will perform with the Allentown Symphony Chorus in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” April 9-10, 2016, at Miller Symphony Hall.
Donna says her disability frequently gets in the way of what she wants to do. She recalls spending weeks preparing for auditions to sing the principal role of Anna in a Parkland High School production of “The King and I” and being told she couldn’t even try out.
“I knew the part inside and out but they said ‘absolutely not.’ They were worried that I would be a liability,” she said. “They just dismissed me right away and didn’t care about what I had to say.” Although she ended up with a small role in the show, it was a major disappointment; it also may have been the birth of a lifelong stubborn streak that propels Donna forward in tackling every kind of challenge.
If someone overlooks her simply because of her limitations, she works that much harder. She says she would tell anyone involved with the disabled to at least allow them to compete even if they ultimately don’t get the job. “Everybody deserves a chance,” she says.
Donna encourages others with disabilities to “get out there and try. You have nothing to lose,” she says. “Even if you don’t make it the first time, you don’t know until you try. We need to encourage each other – that’s really the name of the game.”
It also helps to have a mentor, she says, who can be in your corner to explain to others what you’re capable of.
Choral directors and voice teachers have fulfilled that role by allowing Donna to use a lighted LED magnifier both during rehearsals and performances. She sometimes records rehearsals to help remember the conductor’s instructions and gets assistance negotiating the risers from other choir members . Her section leaders try to seat her in the most practical positions. “I feel that having a solid communication base us so important – no matter if it is the director, choir member or section leader,” she says. Donna simply doesn’t allow her disability keep her down. She’s a participant with the Allentown Blind Bowlers group that plays at Jordan Lanes on Friday nights. To help guide the bowlers in their approach, temporary guide rails are set up from the ball return to the foul line.
Donna studied voice while at West Chester University and plans to continue vocal work at Community Music School.
She also is a member of the Lehigh Valley Saturday Morning Lions Club that works with blind or visually impaired children. They bowl at Mountainville Bowling Center in South Allentown, hold holiday parties and fundraisers, and take the kids on field trips.
Until recently, she did data input for Cedarbrook Nursing Home in Fountain Hill where she also participated in the Dream Catchers program that helps senior residents realize special wishes. When a resident said she’d like to visit Disney World, the group recreated a Disney parade. For another, they produced a “Queen for a Day” event.
Despite her vision challenge, Donna nourishes an inborn optimism that she says came from supportive parents, siblings and friends. “I have so many people who have touched my life,” she says. “Everything works to bring you to this moment . What you do in this moment is the key.”
“Carmina Burana” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 3 p.m. April 10 at Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. 6th St., Allentown. Box Office: 610-432-6715.
by Kathy McAuley, Lehigh Valley Arts Council Member