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  • Patrick Robinson enlarges the text to his sheet music to follow along as he practices with the a capella group, Friends and Focus. (Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette)

  • Members of Friends in Focus, a blind a capella group, from left, Joan Thomas, Nancy Ake and Rich Poncin, with his service dog, Ginger, practice for Saturday morning's performance at Hobby Lobby on Coldwater Road.

  • Members of Friends and Focus, a blind a capella group, from left to right, Joan Thomas, Nancy Ake, and Rich Poncin, with his service dog, Ginger, practice for the upcoming holiday season.

  • Rich Poncin, with his service dog Ginger, practices for the upcoming holiday season concerts with his group, Friends and Focus, a blind a capella group.

  • Patrick Robinson, left, practices his solo for the upcoming holiday season concerts with his group, Friends and Focus, a blind a capella group. Bradley Moore, right, listens and joins in on the chorus.

  • Patrick Robinson enlarges the text to his sheet music to follow along as he rehearses.

Thursday, November 16, 2017 1:00 am

Won't be left in dark

Visually impaired a capella group to perform Saturday

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Joan Thomas' fingers glide along pages of Braille as she sings. The same for Rich Poncin, who has his dog, Ginger, lying near his feet.

Nearby, Nancy Ake holds her song book that includes enlarged words of the holiday tunes the group is rehearsing.

Patrick Robinson uses a magnifying device to help him see the words, while Bradley Moody sings without any sheet music at all.

They are part of Friends in Focus, a blind a capella music group formed six years ago by Ake and Poncin.

The group is gathered in Poncin's home on this sunny Tuesday afternoon to rehearse. They have a Saturday performance in which they will sing while ringing bells for the Salvation Army from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hobby Lobby on Coldwater Road. 

“Don't forget the bells,” Poncin says, as the group readies to sing a holiday favorite, “Jingle Bells.” But the tune doesn't go so well the first time around.

Ake shakes her head. “We're off tune. Let's do it again.”

Although members practice each Tuesday, a chance to sing publicly is not only good practice for the start of their holiday performances, it also offers the group a chance to give back to the community – the main reason the group was started in the first place.

Singers in Friends in Focus are either blind or visually impaired, according to Ake. The members are part of the Indiana Association of Workers for the Blind in Fort Wayne.

The group primarily sings in nursing homes and churches. Ake says by the end of the year, they will have completed 60 performances.

Ake and Poncin created the group in order to give back to the community, Ake says: “It's our belief that if we can bring one smile to one person, we've done our job.”

Ake, a singer and musician most of her life, lost her sight at the age of 59. She is blind in one eye and severely visually impaired in the other. “I'm not a professional but I have a good ear,” Ake says.

Most of the members have to make adjustments in order to read the words to the music selected for each performance. Ake enlarges the words in bold, while Poncin and Thomas use Braille.

Poncin has a Braille reader that he uses to transform the sheet music into Braille. The machine is similar to a typewriter and once a song is decided, Poncin has someone read him the lyrics as he punches it into the machine.

Poncin says he has been using the machine for 64 years. The Fort Wayne resident lost his sight when he was 7 after being hit by a car. 

Ginger is a service dog and helps him get around at both home and in public.

Moody, 57, learns his music a different way. He says he tried to enlarge his lyrics, but he just couldn't read them. Now, he learns the melody and then has his wife sing the words in order for him to memorize them.

This will be Moody's second Christmas with Friends in Focus. He has been legally blind since 2006. He realized he was losing his eyesight when he was going to college for printing. “A cruel joke,” he says, smiling. 

He heard about the a capella group while bowling with Ake. “I'm so glad,” he says. “It's really help me come out of my shell.”

So much so that this year he will be singing his first solo, “Mary, Did You Know?”

Robinson, 54, will also sing a solo this year. He learned of the group through The League, where he is a support coordinator. He decided to join the group after learning about its outreach efforts through singing.

“We're happy to do something Saturday,” Poncin says. “(It's) another way to give back to the community,” especially the Salvation Army, which has helped several of the members in the group, he says.

Poncin also gives praise to the Lions Club, whose members help drive the choir members to rehearsals and their performances. Without them, the singing group wouldn't be able to share their music with others, he says.

“They sure wouldn't want us to drive,” Ake says.

With that, the group begins to laugh. It's one of several moments that the singers share by being a part of the group.