Music guides PSU blind violist on life’s path

Christina Ebersohl began losing her sight in 2012

Christina Ebersohl practices her viola at Portland State University, March 17, 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Like many musicians, Christina Ebersohl closes her eyes when she plays.

“I usually do. I don’t mean to, it just almost happens naturally,” the 29-year-old Portland State University student said. “I get so deep into the music and I kind of forget the outside world. I’m playing for everybody but at the same time I’m playing for myself and playing to honor the music.”

Christina Ebersohl practices her viola at Portland State University, March 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Christina Ebersohl practices her viola at Portland State University, March 17, 2017 (KOIN)

She’s an Army veteran now in her second year at PSU. But the multi-instrumentalist is a rare student in the PSU music program.

Christina Ebersohl is blind.

“So, everything is brand new for everybody,” she told KOIN 6 News.

Growing up, Christina learned more than a dozen instruments. In her early 20s, she studied at a community college, but going to music school was too expensive.

So she joined the Army. Not long after that, she began losing her vision, first in the left eye, and then her right.

Her disorder, neuromyelitis optica spectrum, attacks the optic nerves and spinal cord.

“I can’t really see much out of my left eye anymore but out of my right eye I can see colors and movements,” she said.

Christina Ebersohl, an Army veteran and viola player, seen in a screen grab from a Portland State University video
Christina Ebersohl, an Army veteran and viola player, seen in a screen grab from a Portland State University video

Christina said going blind “was terrifying” at first, but it’s “been an adventure both in a good and bad way.”

“I thought I would never be able to play music or read or work a cell phone or work a computer,” she said. She began relearning how to do simple things, like laundry and cooking for herself.

“And as I gained my independence and as the music started to come back to me I realized I don’t need to see anything.”

She admits she was depressed and consumed by the loss of her sight. But music brought her back.

“One day I was sitting and I tuned my phone on Pandora,” she said, and it just turned on to a classical station.

She listened to a Bach cello suite, one she knew how to play. “I picked up my viola and I was able to pull it out and play it a little bit. I was like, ‘I still know how to do this. I can still do this.'”

She began practicing, learned how to use a cane and read braille, and then enrolled in PSU’s Honors College as a music major. Christina also took advantage of their Disability Resource Center, which helps 1500 students each year to remove barriers to their progress.

Christina Ebersohl, an Army veteran and viola player, seen in a screen grab from a Portland State University video
Christina Ebersohl, an Army veteran and viola player, seen in a screen grab from a Portland State University video

She’s now in the PSU Orchestra, plus string and chamber music ensembles. Her rehearsals take a different route now since she can’t sight read her music.

“Now I get audio files or finale files months or weeks ahead if possible, and I listen,” she said. “I’m constantly listening to something.”

Christina also uses an app called “The Amazing Slow Downer,” which slows music down without changing the pitch, allowing her to listen and learn.

“In fall of 2015 I learned music Braille, so now they can convert my scores to Braille and I can go through and feel if I miss any details,” she told KOIN 6 News.

“But everything is memorized now. … Everything is catalogued and stored in my brain, memorized.”

The last 5 years, she said, taught her she’s “a much stronger person that I thought I was, and that the human spirit is strong.”

“You can’t change your life just by sitting there and feeling sorry for yourself,” Christina Ebersohl said. “I’m very happy. As long as I have my music, I’m happy.”

Christina Ebersohl practices her viola at Portland State University, March 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Christina Ebersohl practices her viola at Portland State University, March 17, 2017 (KOIN)