Her Notes Calm the Passing Commotion

Inside the All Children's Hospital lobby, the lunch-hour pace has picked up on a recent afternoon. People pass through in all directions - staff and visitors heading in and out of the packed cafeteria, family members weighed down with concern over a sick child, doctors and nurses preoccupied with pressing appointments.

But something else accompanies the busy scene - a calming counterpoint to the roomful of motion and emotion.

On this day, as with many, the lobby pulses with its own musical soundtrack. The air is filled with soothing melodies from a nearby grand piano and the young woman who, at this particular moment, is playing it with such feeling. She is Jessica Tomlinson, one of an array of talented pianists who give their time each week for the popular Volunteer Services program.

Swaying at the keys, she plays a steady flow of instrumentals you would expect to find more in family room than the hospital's main thoroughfare - a blend of Disney's "Beauty and The Beast," Crystal Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," Celine Dion's "The Prayer," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," and more.

Many passersby new to the noon-time scene glance over and smile as they walk past, pleasantly surprised by the serenade. Others who have grown accustomed to the music take a few minutes to sit in the cushy leather seats, enjoying the welcome diversion before getting on with the day.

 "Phenomenal!" a man, who has come to visit his nephew, calls out to her after taking in a tune.

A little girl who has just been released after a five-day stay sidles over during a bouncy rendition of "Under the Sea" from the Little Mermaid. In moments, she's banging on keys alongside Jessica, who engages her new fan in conversation.

"Would you like to try it out?" she asks. The girl nods, and plunks on the keys as Jessica switches to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" - eliciting a grin from the young visitor and her delighted mother.

Unless you take a second look, you might miss that there is something special about the pianist beyond the engaging background tunes she performs.

Though Jessica can coax beautiful music from the keys, she can barely see them.

She was born 28 years ago with a condition called optic nerve hyperplasia. In essence, that meant her optic nerve was under-developed, leaving her only able to make out hazy images or large type held a few inches from her face.

Jessica plays every song on the piano by memory.
Jessica plays every song on the piano by memory.

"My nerves didn't develop all their fibers but my eyes themselves are normally developed," she says on a break from her two-hour playing session. "I always explain it to people like this: It's like having a good CD player and a good receiver, but a bad set of cables to connect them."

It makes sense that Jessica would use a music production metaphor to describe her visual impairment. Growing up in St. Petersburg, she was always drawn to the electronic side of sound. Mainstreamed in regular public school, she wasn't interested in the social activities that occupied many of her classmates. But sound engineering always intrigued her.

"I'm very fortunate - I wasn't teased or picked on growing up, mostly just people left me alone," she says. "I've always had trouble relating to people my own age, for some reason. I'm just not into most of what they're into. But I loved music from the start. I used to daydream about it, not playing it but producing it for other people. I'd draw pictures of mixing boards and patch bays."

At St. Petersburg High, she mixed the sound for the news announcements on the school intercom. And after graduating in 2004, her passion led her to Full Sail University in Orlando, where she began working on her degree in sound engineering and technical arts. She was having a blast learning the ins and outs of production, and her visual limitations didn't hold her back. She used a special magnifier to see the equipment and a program called Zoom Tech that allowed her to read type on the computer screen.

There was only one thing missing. Jessica discovered that she wanted to make music herself. So many of her production classmates played one instrument or another and she could tell how much enjoyment they got from it. The music theory class she was taking only served to fuel her desire to learn to play something.

So one day in 2005, she walked from her apartment complex next to the school to a Radio Shack a few blocks away. And she purchased a small Casio keyboard. It wasn't much of an instrument - more toy than actual keyboard - but it would change her life.

"I started playing only because I couldn't stand not to anymore," she says.

Jessica made small strides while completing her one-year degree at Full Sail, but a whole new world opened up to her when she moved back home to live with her parents, Jim and Yvonne. Their neighbor, a man named Jim Page, was
an experienced pianist. While he was raking leaves in his yard one afternoon, Jessica mentioned she was looking for a teacher. He explained apologetically that he was retired and no longer taught.

"But 10 minutes later, he was at our door and offered to give me lessons," she says.

The old teacher could sense Jessica's passion to learn, and was touched by her earnest nature. Over the next four years, he proceeded to give her a strong foundation both on the piano and pipe organ. She progressed to a new Casio keyboard with weighted keys as her skills grew. "It was a great relationship - he'd give me a lesson, and then put records on and talk to me about music," she says. "I learned so much."

More musical doors soon opened for Jessica. She enrolled in St. Petersburg College to earn a general teaching degree, but also spent several semesters studying classical and pop piano from two different instructors. She poured herself into those classes and took her playing to a new level. Often, she would hold a magnified sheet of music close to her face to study the chords, then listen to a recording of the song over and over - teaching herself the nuances that made the tune distinct.

Jessica graduated in 2010 and set out to put her teaching degree and music to use. For a while, her searches kept coming up empty. "I was really feeling down, because it seemed like nobody wanted my skills, and I felt like, 'What had all my studying come to?' " she recalls.

Then came a break. She landed a volunteer job at Great Explorations teaching a music class for young children. Soon after, a neighbor mentioned to her that All Children's was looking for volunteers to perform on the player piano in the lobby.
Jessica jumped at the opportunity and was added to the weekly rotation of young musicians a year ago.

She's been at it ever since. And she's even landed a paying job at Lighthouse of Pinellas, a rehab center for the visually impaired, teaching touch-typing and basic computer skills to adults. Getting around town can be a challenge, but her mom and dad help out, along with cab rides arranged through the D.A.R.T. (Demand Response Transportation) program of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

"She has a can-do attitude, is very creative and has a tremendous amount of courage," says her dad, Jim. "Life doesn't always come at you the way you think it should, but a positive outlook can orchestra a positive outcome in life. And over time, she's taught us far more than we've taught her."

Jessica doesn't dwell upon what life might have been like without limited vision. She's always been thankful for the opportunities she's had - like the one that rolls around on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with her volunteer shift at All Children's. Though her eyesight prevents her from seeing the reaction her music evokes, she feels a connection to the people moving around her.

"I really like the environment, and people interact with you sometimes," she says. "I think many people look at a hospital as a place of trauma. But I look at it as a place of rest and healing, and a place of care."

Jessica hopes her music helps add a few extra smiles or briefly lightens the load for people walking by. Having only played for seven years, she wants to keep improving her piano chops, and dreams of getting hired to play in a restaurant or hotel lounge in the next year or so. But she plans to keep All Children's part of her weekly performance calendar.

As her shift nears an end, Jessica switches gears from pop to classical and a rendition of "Moonlight Serenade." A doctor walking past takes notice and leans over her shoulder to offer his critique. "That's beautiful," says plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Gallant, an accomplished pianist who trained at Julliard.

On a raised platform along the wall, a little girl dances and twirls to the song as her mother beams. And all around, people head to various lunch-hour destinations -their days brightened just a little bit by a young pianist and the music in the lobby.