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Sound and Vision

He can't see a baton, but multi-instrumentalist Ben Peters knows the score.

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It's Saturday night in Evanston, and beneath the undimmed lights at Cafe Mozart, surrounded by spindly plants and a few elderly women in clogs, a jazz trio launches into Coltrane's "Moment's Notice." The bassist is performing in front of her grandfather's trembling camcorder; the drummer's baby blue shirt is buttoned up to his neck. Heading up the group on saxophone is Ben Peters, a round-faced, smiling 28-year-old in billowy black pants. As he solos his eyes stay wide and unblinking behind thick glasses. By the end of the second set the small audience has gravitated toward him and is listening intently.

Peters is legally blind. His mentor, longtime Chicago Symphony oboist Ray Still, calls him "a phenomenon," a symphonic musician with a jazz musician's fluidity, a jazz player with a classical musician's precision, and in any genre "an amazingly gifted, sensitive player." Peters's master's from Northwestern is in oboe performance, but he's also a skilled guitarist, pianist, bassist, percussionist, flutist, cellist, vocalist, saxophonist, and trumpet player--his small rented house in Evanston holds more instruments than furniture.

Disassembling his sax stand after the set, Peters laughs. "I don't discriminate about who I play for," he says, stashing the pieces in a canvas bag. "It's all a blast, really."

Peters was born with juvenile retinoschesis, a sex-linked genetic condition in which cysts lead to retinal tears that permanently impair vision. Many born with this rare disease--it's estimated that one in every 15,000 to 25,000 newborn males has it--go completely blind. Peters was luckier. Born without sight, by four he was able to discern light from shadow. Gradually shapes emerged and colors became saturated. One morning he woke up on his parents' bed and recognized the room around him. Now his condition has stabilized, and he still has use of his peripheral vision. His eyes wander to the left to see what's in front of him.

In high school and as an undergraduate at Northwestern, Peters would enlarge his sheet music with a copier and hold it inches from his face, reading it over and over until he had it memorized. Since then he's worked with physicians to develop tools to help him: glasses with a two-inch monocular mounted inside that allow him to read music without bending over the page, a double-sided clip that holds a magnifying glass over a slice of wood so he can shape the reeds for his oboe. He dreams up even more devices, like a pair of glasses with cameras on the outside and LCD screens inside that could show him the world an inch from his retina.

"I decided when I was much younger that I want to take care of these issues, but I don't want to focus on them," Peters says. "My mom said it to me very well. She said, 'Your brothers have bad gums, so they have to take extra care of their gums. You have good gums, but you have to take extra care of your eyes.'"

When Peters was six, his family moved from Boston to a suburb of Honolulu. His father is a headmaster at a private elementary school; his mother teaches German, Latin, English, and Spanish and is, he says, "a fiery Portuguese woman, holy cow." They had him playing the recorder as a toddler, took him to trumpet lessons at four, gave him a violin when he turned six.

The Hawaiian summers forced Peters into a dark room with crippling migraines, but he kept playing music. As a freshman he played the oboe at Carnegie Hall with his high school orchestra. The next year he performed Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto in C Minor with the Honolulu Symphony. His high school band director inspired him: "He was the first person I heard play soprano sax that made you think heaven was on earth, the way he played that thing," he says.

Peters had a strong academic record and knew he wanted a college with a good music program and excellent academics--his interest in languages eventually developed into a German minor. When he visited Northwestern, he says, he was "suckered in" by the lake, the sunset, the rainstorms. Once here, he'd sit outside with friends when "it was raining cats and dogs and fish and birds and bees and everything, every animal, and drops like this"--Peters swooshes his arms out to the sides--"ffshoopow!"

Ray Still and Peters knew each other before they ever spoke. Still, who retired last winter, heard Peters's audition tape and telephoned him with preclass requirements, eager to start teaching his new student. Peters had been listening to Still's solo oboe recordings for years.

Still is a tall man in his mid-80s who speaks in a voice so low it sounds like it's playing at the wrong speed. When we met he asked me whether my tape recorder picks up sound waves parallel to or directed at the microphone.

I didn't know.

"That's why he and I get along so well, because sound is our thing, man," Peters says, laughing. "He and I are all over sound. It's sick. Like the two of us, when we start talking about Lester Young and his tone and what we like about it, that can go on for an hour--just that. So when we get together there's this feeling of two old guys who haven't seen each other for a while, and one asks the other, 'So what's going on down at the plant?' 'Oh, well, man, I got this...' And they can go on and on."

Peters imitates Still's voice with eerie accuracy. His Nigerian, Irish, and Scottish accents are in demand at parties, as are his Nicholson, Carson, and Reagan impressions--in Peters's own words, he's a human jukebox. Still picked up on this ability and encouraged him to use it to his advantage.

"I've always thought of notes as a necessary evil, in a way," Still says. "It would be better if the composer could sing the tune to you, and then when you wanted you could just do it by rote or by memory. But we can't do that, so the composer puts the notes on a page, and people tend to slavishly follow the notes too much, playing automatically instead of hearing the sounds. Ben didn't do that."

Still discovered and was encouraged by Peters's ability to memorize, his perfect pitch, his ideas about how music should sound. They both loved jazz, and the two spent long afternoons together listening to and talking about it.

"In jazz you just basically say, 'You wanna hear this, you do what it takes to get there,'" says Peters. "That's how Ray is, and I learned from Ray the way most jazzers learn from records. Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Paul Chambers's bass, Jimmy Cobb--anyone. But classical musicians don't learn that way. They may have one person they like and listen to, but mostly they go off and say, 'I have to define my own sound!'"

With Still's guidance, Peters worked on mastering the repertoire. He'd played in the school's orchestra from his freshman year on, but in his senior year he won a principal chair--a triumph, according to Still, because conductors don't like the idea that musicians can play well without being able to see the baton. By that time he'd also become an expert reed maker. While he was studying for his master's, in his fifth year at NU, he coached a few of Still's students.

"I became very fond of him, of his passion," Still says. "There are some students who are kind of insatiable about going to concerts....Ben was like that. You find...quite a few musicians who treat music as a business, who--well, they like music very much but they're not really in love with it."

After graduating, Peters peddled instruments at a saxophone store for a few years. In 1999 he became a faculty member at Zion Conservatory, part of Christ Community Church in Zion, and last spring he began teaching music at North Park University. He's also taught oboe privately for six years. One student is making him a desk in exchange for lessons.

Since 1997 Peters has been singing and playing bass, sax, and guitar with His Covenant Chorale, a multidenominational group of 16 or so that's affiliated with the Chinese Christian Fellowship Church in Wilmette. HCC has toured in Asia and Africa, and performs at venues all around Chicago--Cook County Jail, Pacific Garden Misssion. On his own, Peters plays at 15 area churches.

But he would still like to join a symphony. In 1998 he auditioned for three orchestras--one in Mexico, one in Michigan, and one in Honolulu--without success. In Mexico, Peters had trouble with the sight-reading portion of the audition. He sees emphasis on this skill as potentially actionable under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but says he understands the orchestras' position.

"In a way it's good that I haven't been cloistered in an orchestra, because I've been able to do many more things," he says, pulling $33 from the tip jar at Cafe Mozart and dividing it evenly among his trio. "Ray's career at CSO was from when he was 40 to 80, so what does it matter your time or your year? I'm ready to be part of an orchestra, but I'm not in a hurry." He picks up his bag. "You've seen some of me, but there's more coming."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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