(photo by Nancy Nelson)
By Nancy Nelson, Staff Writer
Overcoming obstacles and climbing out of pitfalls can be overwhelming and many people may not take the challenges for what they are, a test of character and faith. For Rebecca Kragnes her whole life has been a challenge and she has overcome and dealt with them with all the grace and dignity of an angel.
Kragnes is the daughter of Howard and Beth Rupp of rural Cleghorn. For reasons unknown to doctors, she was born blind. From preschool age to sixth grade she attended school at the Iowa Braille and Sign Sight Saving School in Vinton. She returned home and finished Junior High and High School in Marcus graduating in 1990.
Kragnes went on to college and earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in music from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City. She then decided to continue with her education and earned her Masters of Science in community counseling from Mankato State University in Minnesota.
While working on a project for her masters she met her husband, Phil, online when he responded to a question she had about using readers (people who read to blind people) for her project. As it turns out he is also blind and offered his opinion on the matter and they hit it off online, talked on the phone, and eventually met in person. They have now been married for nine years and live in Minneapolis, Minn.
For most of her life Kragnes made use of a walking stick to get herself around. She never considered a seeing eye dog because she was terrified of dogs. She supposes it was from growing up with happy farm dogs who always wanted to jump up and greet her and it usually scared her. It wasn't until she met her husband, who convinced her to give it a try before they were married, that she began using a seeing eye dog. He had a German shepherd and knew how helpful a seeing eye dog could be.
She finally gave it a try and an organization specializing in pairing seeing eye dogs with people, paired Kragnes with a golden retriever named Tanner. She says Tanner was extremely patient while they trained together for one month. Kragnes said she couldn't believe how freeing a seeing eye dog was. She was happy to be able to go into a restaurant and not fear hitting someone with her cane or catch a crack in the sidewalk with it. Tanner was with her for four years when he became ill and had to be euthanized.
Kragnes was heart broken and likened the experience to losing a child. Most people didn't understand her grief saying things like, "He was just a dog, get another one." Her second dog, Shelly, didn't work out quite as well. Shelly hated the work and after nine months Kragnes had to look into a different animal. She felt horrible and blamed herself, she compared that situation to a divorce. Now she has Wynell who is also a golden retriever. Wynell is a retired breeding dog and has been with Kragnes three years, she is seven years old. She has a relaxed temperament and loves attention lavished on her from Kragnes and all who greet them.
Through all her trials and tribulations she has had to endure the disappointment of not finding a job in her field of study, then her husband has been battling numerous health problems in addition to working full time. Normally it would be enough to send someone over the edge but Kragnes was able to endure for many reasons including her music.
Kragnes began learning to play the piano at a very young age. She learned by ear, saying that Braille music wasn't her favorite method of playing. She enjoys most kinds of music and felt she would like to do something with her talent. For a long time she fought music because people would discourage her with comments like, " Oh you don't want to do that," simply because she was blind. The fact is music is a part of her regardless of her disability.
The road to her music career began one Christmas when she and her husband were living on lean times. She made a tape of Christmas music to give to family members as gifts. Then at some point she and her husband were brainstorming ideas of what they could do to make music work in her favor. They came across a web site for David Lanz, an executive producer who was going to conduct a workshop for piano teachers in the area where she lived.
She made arrangements for a friend to take her to the workshop and took along her Christmas tape on the hope he would listen to it and give her some feedback. As it turns out Lanz did not read music and was describing his methods out loud to the audience with an overhead screen. Kragnes played what he was describing with her fingers because she wanted to know what it would feel like to play it. Her friend was amazed that she was playing exactly the same things he was showing on the screen.
After the workshop she was able to speak to Lanz and asked if he would listen to her tape. She was floating on air when he said he would but to give him six or eight weeks to listen to it and critique it. To her surprise he phoned her two days later and told her it was some of the best unsolicited material he had ever heard. In addition, he told her she should make an album and offered to loan her the money to make it.
Her next step involved creating what she thought was a demo album. When she was recording it she was trying to show off all the things she could do with the piano. She sent it to Lanz thinking he would choose some styles or songs to put on an album. What she got in return was a master copy and a recommendation to make around 1,000 copies and sell them. The whole process was a great boost to her self confidence and faith in her abilities. That first album she dubbed "Golden" in honor of her first dog Tanner.
Since then Kragnes has made three more albums all a reflection of her life and the ups and downs she has gone through. She usually makes one cover song (a song that is familiar to everyone) but the rest of the compositions are her own. She gets ideas for her songs, usually at the most inopportune moments, then uses a tape recorder to put the pieces down "in writing". By playing back the bits and pieces she is able to put together a piece that is completely original. Many times she doesn't know what the song is about until later when she reflects on her thoughts at the time she wrote the piece. Sometimes others give her titles based on how the music made them feel.
The original music is left open to the interpretation of the listener, which provides a sense of pure music and leaves it open to a wider audience. She does not categorize her music in any particular genre because she likes most types of music. She says her albums have progressed, each one becoming more genuine that the one before it. She quotes, "The music I choose to listen to at a certain time is a reflection of my real self in a given moment -- what I am feeling, thinking or doing. By contrast, writing music is an expression of my ideal self. It is not a reflection but is an actual part of the best person I am. This piece of the ideal me is captured by sound in a fleeting moment."
The CD's are available for purchase from The Bookseller in Cherokee, her mom, and online at www.rebeccak.com. The website also has clips available for download as a preview of her music.