With Sight and Hearing Gone, Alumna Pianist Remains Committed to Music

A yearslong collaboration among three alumni keeps Cydnie Breazeale, who is deaf and blind, connected to music—and to each other.

December 23, 2020

In 1994, just before Cydnie Breazeale ’18 began studying at Berklee, she could, with the help of powerful hearing aids, make out the notes she was playing on her piano. But two months before her first day of classes, her hearing suddenly and completely disappeared. 

It was the second sense to leave her. When she was a small child, what little vision she was born with went dark. She remembers that her favorite color was pink. 

Breazeale used steroids to regain some of her hearing, but much of it was gone for good. Still, she was determined to keep music in her life, and, at 19, went ahead and started Berklee. She took up to three classes a semester with the help of an assistant, spending hours preparing for each lesson by memorizing Braille lead sheets and practicing playing. 

She kept at it for three years, then another blow came: the remnants of her hearing vanished, this time permanently. She had no choice but to withdraw from Berklee.

As Breazeale and her mother, T.C. Breazeale, recounted this history earlier this month, they were seated next to an upright piano, the one Cydnie would play at her holiday concert on December 15 for her friends and colleagues at MAB Community Services (formerly Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired). In attendance, over Zoom, for the show was a Berklee professor and a Berklee alumnus who have worked with Cydnie over the years to make sure that music doesn’t recede from her life. 

“It’s just so important for her to play, because it's who she is. And without music, life would be very, very empty for her,” said Suzanna Sifter, the piano professor (and Berklee alumna) who has worked with Breazeale on a weekly basis for 20 years, beginning just before Breazeale returned to Berklee. 

People see somebody who has disabilities, and they discount them.... There's a living, breathing, loving, caring, musical human being inside that woman.

—Professor Suzanna Sifter

At 23, Breazeale had received a cochlear implant and started the process of learning to hear with it. The devices do not render sound the way the ear does. They are made to decipher speech, not to listen to music. “It was a long time before a piano sounded like a piano,” T.C. Breazeale said. A while after she received the implant, Cydnie returned to Berklee and, over the course of 17 years, earned a two-year certificate. The work over those years was so demanding that the Breazeales moved from Watertown to Boston to be closer to Berklee. 

Throughout that time she was studying with Sifter privately, and for many years with Mark McNeill B.M. ’08. These weekly sessions with Sifter and McNeill make life for Breazeale “not just bearable...but rich. A life worth living,” her mother said. While many Berklee graduates aim for big success, she said, “there are other reasons to study music,” including the endeavor to add meaning to one’s life, and the experience of working toward a goal that at first might seem unattainable: “One of the things that she definitely learned is that she can do difficult things and master them.” Another reason is, simply, to stir joy. “I feel happy when I play the piano,” Cydnie Breazeale said. 

Watch a clip from Cydnie Breazeale's dress rehearsal for the MAB Community Services concert:

“It's how she connects to the world,” Sifter said, adding that her own life has been enhanced by her connection to Cydnie Breazeale. Not only has she found a good friend, but she’s learned from her student. 

“People see somebody who has multiple disabilities, and they discount them—they are discounted in society, and it's BS. There's a living, breathing, loving, caring, musical human being inside that woman. And if I see somebody else that has a disability, I'm aware of that now,” Sifter said. 

Her work with Breazeale has also changed her as an educator. She’s learned to always leave room for her students to surprise her with their abilities. “You really don't want to shut the door on somebody...you never want to give somebody the vibe that they can't do something,” she said. 

Even after 20 years, Breazeale continues to amaze her. Up until the pandemic started, Sifter had been teaching Breazeale using the “hand over hand” method; Breazeale would place her hands over Sifters' while Sifter played. But when coronavirus forced the lessons to end, Sifter wasn’t sure that they could switch to remote learning and follow instruction without the tactile help. “But apparently, if I say [D] flat, she's just as good,” Sifter said, adding that Breazeale has a strong sense of rhythm and a well-developed knowledge of musical concepts such as chord scales and upper-structure triads. “There are many ways I can describe that I want her to do something,” she said.

It’s this reservoir of skills that Breazeale calls upon to play music, especially since she can’t match pitch. “If I play a note on the instrument she can’t find it; if I sing a note she can't sing it. So it's remarkable that she can remember these things. And she doesn’t forget them,” Sifter said. T.C. Breazeale estimates that her daughter has about 200 songs in her repertoire. 

She reads Braille music primarily with her left hand but can read with both. She switches from one to the other when learning a piece so that one hand is going over the Braille while the other plays the notes. 

Reconnecting with a Mentor

The success of Breazeale’s Zoom lessons with Sifter encouraged her to ask McNeill, the alumnus, to start tutoring her remotely. He had helped her with piano beginning in 2007, but their work together had to come to an end when he moved in 2014 to Berlin, Germany, where he’s a pianist for Komische Oper Berlin. 

McNeill’s initial role involved accompanying Breazeale to class, guiding her through buildings, and aiding her during lessons. “I would sit on her right side and make sure that she was getting what was going on,” including telling her what was written on the board (or playing it hand-over-hand with her), he said. He’d also help her prepare for class by working on assignments with her, but also by asking the teachers for the material ahead of time and then transcribing it into Braille music, a skill he learned so that he could support Breazeale. “Once she has [the material] in a format she can access, it’s incredible what she can do and what she’s capable of,” he said. 

Over the summer, McNeill continued private sessions with her, helping her with repertoire. After he graduated with his music production and engineering major, in 2008, he moved in with the Breazeales and continued to work with Cydnie on what T.C. calls a “barter system” until the move to Berlin. But McNeill and the Breazeales stayed close, so close that the three of them take annual multiday trips to Tanglewood together. 

Cydnie is truly remarkable...she is unstoppable.

-Mark McNeill B.M. '08

The pair resumed their work together—now over Zoom—in August with a couple of hours each week. “Cydnie is truly remarkable...the work we do is slow, but she is so consistent and determined to learn,” McNeill said. “It’s incredible what she can accomplish with slow and steady. In two hours, we average about four bars, and still, she is unstoppable.” Right now they are going through Debussy's Arabesque No. 1 in E major, a tune Breazeale has been so enthralled with that her mother organized to get an accurate Braille copy of it from the Library of Congress.

Though working on Arabesque was one of the main reasons Breazeale started remote sessions with McNeill, “I think maybe the second reason, which is just as important in my opinion, [is that] music was just kind of the way we connected,” he said. 

You know, people talk about networking at the college all the time,” Sifter said, explaining that these conversations are often about professional opportunities. “Yes, those are connections, and they're important, depending on what you want your life to be. But these connections that Cyd and I and Mark have are just as important to us...it’s a fulfilling thing to do, and a meaningful thing to do.” 

Still, Breazeale said she misses the in-person connection. “I wish I could touch her hands,” she said of the lessons with Sifter. At the end of her dress rehearsal for the holiday concert, Breazeale played “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” her favorite song. “I’ve been missing holding everybody’s hand,” she said before wishing her audience a happy holiday. 

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