The Gift of Giving: My CoachArt Story, and How You Can Help Replicate It

“That’s a great idea!” came my professor’s ecstatic voice from across the room.

It was December of 2015, and after a long and difficult semester I found myself in my last lesson with Dr. Jacqueline Salas before the fall juries. After putting the finishing touches on the pieces I’d be presenting to a panel of professors from the piano department, we fell into our usual chatter as we packed up. I had just expressed interest in applying to be a volunteer instructor with CoachArt and had asked Dr. Salas if I could use her as a reference on my application, to her delight. A lesson with Dr. Salas was often as much a therapy session as a learning opportunity, so I had no problem saying what came next.

“I don’t know if I’m good enough to teach, though,” I admitted. Thanks to a lifetime of insecurities due to my disability, the imposter’s syndrome was most definitely strong with this one.

After a moment, Dr. Salas said words that I didn’t quite believe, but like all her pieces of advice, rang true loud and clear later on. “Even if you don’t believe you’re good enough, these children deserve a role model who can show them that it’s possible to make it out the other side through music, and there’s no one more qualified than you to do that.”

Where It All Began

To understand the significance of CoachArt in my life, it’s necessary to go back nearly ten years to one of my annual follow-ups with my pediatric oncologist. I lost my vision to bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that primarily affects infants, and which carries with it one of the highest risks of recurrence and secondary cancers throughout the life of the survivor. It was not uncommon to go through these appointments accompanied by our family counselor Dr. Nancy Mansfield, director of the Institute for Families at the CHLA Vision Center. This was one such appointment, and it came at a time where I was starting to consider a career in music.

Up until then, I had been self-taught for the most part. As the child of immigrants, money had always been tight. This was even more so, with a relapse in my cancer in 2005 leading to more medical bills that we struggled to afford. I had participated in the rare beginner group music class that my parents managed to enroll me in here and there, but I was at a point where I could only dream of more comprehensive music education. And just like in countless other instances, the wonderful Dr. Mansfield swooped in with an answer in the form of a referral to CoachArt, a nonprofit that provides free arts and athletics education to children impacted by chronic illness.

CoachArt’s goals are based around the interests of the child. It is not strictly academic, but in my case that is exactly what I wanted. Between its volunteers and its relationships with local organizations, CoachArt is able to meet the needs of its students in an inclusive, supportive environment. My particular interests led to a scholarship with the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, where I was able to take weekly private lessons under an experienced instructor. Needless to say, I loved every second of it.

My lessons gave me the confidence to become more involved with music-related extracurricular activities in school and in the community. During my last two years of high school, I was accepted into CAPSA, a summer arts program run by CalArts, one of the nation’s leading visual and performing arts colleges. There, I had the courage and confidence to thrive in an environment of like-minded high school students despite the disabilities caused by my diagnoses. I took part in my high school’s battle of the bands, which eventually led me to performing at the iconic Greek Theatre during my senior year. As my time with CoachArt came to an end, my CoachArt instructor was the one who helped me prepare for my college entrance auditions and placement exams. Thanks to all his guidance, I was able to get into the music program at the university that was my first choice, and led me to test out of the first year and a half of the college level musicianship courses.

The Long and Winding Road

I didn’t apply to teach with CoachArt after that conversation with Dr. Salas. As December came to an end, the new year brought me to the most difficult period of my life so far. The details are a story for another time, but suffice it to say I quickly became trapped in the endless cycle of “I’ll do it tomorrow” that is all too familiar to anyone who has struggled with chronic depression. I hit rock bottom, and it scared me enough to finally accept the offers of help that had seemed too much trouble to my perpetually exhausted mind. With the help of the leader of my adolescent/young adult survivor support group, I began regular therapy by the year’s end. I agreed to try medication, despite its stigma when it comes to mental health among traditional Mexican culture. I was at a place where I could finally focus on something other than just staying afloat, but something was still missing. I was alive, but I wasn’t living.

All that changed nearly a year to the day after that conversation with Dr. Salas. A community service group project for one of my classes led me to performing at a retirement home. It was my first experience of volunteering in a way that encorporated my love of music. As I stood there along with my classmates, guitar in hand as we led the room in a sing-along of “Over the Rainbow,” something broke through the numbness that I had felt for so long. I sat in my room that night, my guitar clutched to my chest, feeling dazed. All I could think was, “we did good today.”

I knew I wanted to keep that feeling, and I knew what I needed to do. By the end of that week, my application was in to teach with CoachArt.

From Student, to Teacher, to Student

The application process was a slow start. I submitted just in time for the holiday break, so I missed the December training sessions. However, once the new year came around, it was full steam ahead. On a cold and rainy January evening, I found myself scrambling for the cover of the building where the CoachArt office was located. A couple hours later, my training was done, and I was officially ready to teach. Within a couple weeks, I got a call from my program manager with the news that she had a student she thought would be a good match for me. And a couple weeks after that, I found myself next to my first student.

My time with CoachArt can best be described by the words of one of my former CoachArt instructors, who upon hearing the news of my joining said to me, “Congratulations. You’re about to learn more from your students than you ever learned from me.”

I’ve learned to hear music with new ears; to be intrigued by something that a student finds interesting about a piece I thought I knew like the back of my hand. I’ve learned the joy of watching a student have a lightbulb moment, that magical instant where something he or she has been struggling with finally clicks. I’ve learned to loosen up; to let down the facade I’ve learned to keep in hopes that those I interact with will see a competent adult instead of my disability. I’ve learned that I can surprise myself with what I’d do for my students, including trying to run a 5K. (Cue my relief I couldn’t find any photos from that day to include in this post!)

Words of Wisdom

The most important lesson came shortly after starting my work with CoachArt. I signed up to assist with one of the group lessons, and I came across a child that reminded me so much of myself at his age. He was incredibly shy, but he was a little sponge for anything musical. One week while working in the smaller groups that each instructor led before bringing the whole group together, I found myself with him and another child who was struggling to keep up. I decided to spend a few minutes working one on one with the child who was struggling, and without thinking asked my little prodigy to lead the rest of the group in running through the song we were learning a few times. After all, I knew of all people he would be the one who knew the song well enough to do so. As I worked with the other student, it struck me how much my little assistant had changed. He was speaking louder and more confidently than I’d ever heard him before. He had come out of his shell, and I was so, so proud.

As students and teachers mingled during the last lesson for the group, the little prodigy came up to say goodbye. he thanked me and said he hoped he would see me teaching another group lesson, and asked if he could give me a hug. As a person with a disability who has had to rely on others for many things over the years, for the first time in my life I legitimately felt needed. And as I reached out for that hug, I couldn’t help but hear Dr. Salas’ words in my head. The sentiment grew stronger as I moved on, and got to speak with one of the students who was nervous about going to college as someone with a visible disability. I got to share with her how positive my personal college experience was, including all the instances where my disability and the perspective it gave me were even considered an asset.

How You Can Help

CoachArt currently has headquarters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego that cover California. This Giving Tuesday, CoachArt is launching a fundraising campaign to help set up programs outside of California. By working with local hospitals and organizations, they hope to spread the positive impact that CoachArt has had on myself and every other student they have served so far to cities across the country. To help them in their mission, please consider donating in support of this campaign. Be it through a donation or your time in sharing this campaign, you can help make a difference in a child’s life. Click the link below to visit my fundraising page to donate or learn more.

Click Here to Support CoachArt

The Beginning

Well, here we are! The beginning of what is bound to be one wild journey. I say “we” because as I’ve prepared to launch this project, I have been so touched at how many people have stepped up to help in some way. And of course, that includes you, who is reading this. Whether you’re reading these words the day I post them or you’ve come across me in the middle of my journey, thank you for your interest and support!

What This Is

Some people find fulfillment in accomplishing a major challenge such as a marathon or other goal that requires such dedication and commitment. Often, a decision to participate in such a challenge is a means by which someone can prove to themselves that they can overcome what they set their mind to. Though the challenge may seem physical on the surface, it (and its rewards) are certain to be anything but merely physical.

My name is Hector, and I’m a totally blind musician. My blindness was caused by bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that primarily affects infants. I was first diagnosed at eleven months old, and in a way I was lucky to remember little to nothing of my treatment. Despite this, my diagnosis remains a constant demon that will stay with me for life, with survivors of my type of cancer being at significant risk of developing certain secondary cancers throughout the rest of their lives.

My diagnosis and its related long-term effects have made life extremely difficult at times, and it was during one such time that this project came to life. I struggle to this day with issues from my diagnosis and treatment that make it unlikely that I’ll complete anything that’s physically rigorous for the time being. I haven’t ruled it out, and I will continue to work toward bettering myself to hopefully reach that point some day, but for now I’ve set my sights on a goal that’s a little more realistic, but still challenging.

This period in my life began to turn around when I wrote out a bucket list of goals and experiences I believed would help me out of my situation, and at the very top of that list went the item that kicked all this off: memorize and perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in its entirety. This iconic book of classical keyboard literature spans two volumes of 48 pieces each, which make up approximately four hours of music in total. A musical marathon, if you will.

Each book is broken down into pairs of pieces, one prelude and one fugue, with 24 pairs per book. Each book contains a pair of pieces, one prelude and one fugue, in each of the major and minor keys. I plan to film and share each pair as I learn it, leading up to perform the work as a whole. Along the way, I hope to share my experiences with the music and my connection to certain pieces and why they are significant to me, in hopes that through my story I can make this music more accessible to those who may not immediately connect to music that is now nearly 300 years old. In between those posts, I hope to share some of my experiences as a disabled musician and music professional trying to make it in the L.A. music scene, and go beyond the “inspirational” facade that is what seems to capture attention the most. (If you think it’s impressive that I can put one foot in front of another or that I can pour myself a glass of water, wait till you hear about the time I traveled away from home on my own to an unfamiliar area and got lost near some train tracks, just as I heard a train coming!)

As I wrap up this post, I wanted to share a few words on the first pair of pieces, the Prelude and Fugue in C. The prelude is an extremely well-known piece, which is often one of the first pieces every knew classical pianist learns. It’s simplicity with it’s constant rhythm stretched across each arpeggiated chord gives it an openness that to me feels like a blank canvas just waiting to be filled. The rest of the book does exactly that, adding the color of each new key. The fugue that follows feels like such a perfect introduction for such a monumental work. It’s melody feels almost like a trumpet call, heralding the arrival of the music that has just begun.

I hope you enjoy the video which is included below, and thank you for joining me on this journey!