Disability

Great Balls Of Fire

Born legally blind and with severe hearing loss, Jennifer Castellano's unscratchable itch for making music has carried her far.

The first thing to know about Jennifer Castellano isn’t that she’s legally blind, nor it it her severe hearing loss: It’s that she absolutely kills when performing “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. That Jennifer can enjoy music at all—much less become a versatile composer and classical pianist—is testament to her remarkable spirit and talent.

Born with corneal opacities in both eyes, Jennifer has been legally blind since birth. Corneal transplants as a teenager helped, but with corrective lenses maxing out her vision at 20/300, she was still very near-sighted. She also has nystagmus, a condition which makes her eyes make involuntary rapid movements.

Perhaps because her vision problems were so bad, her hearing issues escaped scrutiny for many years. 

Jennifer Castellano performing.

By the age of three and still not speaking, a speech therapist told Jennifer’s parents that she was just a late bloomer “No one considered that I night have a hearing loss because they were so focused on my vision issues,” she remarks with a sigh. Jennifer’s speech delay and a lack of social skills meant her education got a late start. Teachers thought she was spacy and sat her in the front . She was given large type books and a closed-circuit television for blowing up text so she could read it But since her hearing issues were undiagnosed, she struggled to hear what her teachers or classmates said. 

At age eight, Jennifer was finally diagnosed with a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and received her first hearing aids. Soon after, she first realized she wanted to be a musician. 

“I always felt like I had something to prove: that I was not intellectually deficient, or that I could be cool despite having a hearing and visual impairment.”

Even before she discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, “I simply wanted to play like my mother,” Jennifer says. Her mother studied piano and played in their home, exposing her three daughters to music at an early age.

Nevertheless, as the youngest of three, “I had to beg for lessons, as my two older sisters got first dibs.” Her mother was firm: “If you wanted to study piano,you have to stick with it.” 

Jennifer did. 

In second grade, Jennifer began formal piano lessons.  but because of her vision, did not learn to read music until two years later. It remains a challenge for her to this day. “I’ve never been a very good sight reader,” she admits. “Fortunately, I’m able to identify individual pitches when played on the piano, and I have a very good memory, so I’m able to pick up tunes by ear.” 

After high school, where she was active in the school choir, Jennifer began composing music seriously and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BA in Music Performance from Manhattanville College. Her first original classical pieces appeared: a flute solo, a clarinet duo, a song for mezzo soprano, several piano pieces, and later, a piece for oboe and clarinet as well as a flute duo. Since then, she has earned an MA in classical composition, completed new work for percussion and string quartet and for symphonic brass ensemble, and became active as a chamber musician participating in summer music festivals. 

Jennifer and her two parrots, Nikki and Sunny.

Jennifer’s compositional influences are eclectic, she says, ranging from artists like Paul Klee and Ellsworth Kelly. Even birds have inspired her music: her beloved parrots, Nikki and Sunny, had a piece written for them in oboe, flute, clarinet, and piano. 

Jennifer has performed in a duo and as featured soloist, soloist, and chamber musician in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC and Cape Cod, MA for major concert series. She composed music for the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra and in 2012 was selected to be the Commissioned Composer by the New Jersey Music Teachers Association. Recorded performances of her works have been featured on weekly radio programs along the east coast and in Canada.

“I assume that I play the same way that people who do not wear hearing aids play,” she tells me.

Given her visual and hearing challenges, it’s natural to ask how Jennifer manages the demands of a prolific composer. The truth is, Jennifer doesn’t really know.  “I assume that I play the same way that people who do not wear hearing aids play,” she tells me. “I never had normal hearing, so I’m not unsettled by how things sound with hearing aids as many people who wear them can be.”    

But she persists with a singular drive. “I always felt like I had something to prove: that I was not intellectually deficient, or that I could be cool despite having a hearing and visual impairment,” she says. But at the end of the day, she emphasizes, she has no choice but to be a musician, despite her disabilities. “Music is just an itch that just has to be scratched or I’ll go nuts.”