A Maestro’s Consultation

How Allegro Optical, the musician’s optician, helped a conductor when faced with deteriorating eyesight

Michael Downes studied the cello with teachers including Ioan Davies and Timothy Mason. As for conducting Michael learnt his craft under the tutelage of Lionel Friend and Colin Metters. After a period of time at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Michael went on to become St Andrews University’s first full-time Director of Music in 2008. With an impressive CV Michael has conducted numerous choral, operatic, orchestral and even contemporary-music groups in London and the South-East. As part of his role as Director of Music, Michael conducts the St Andrews Chamber Orchestra and the St Andrews Chorus (Scotland’s largest choral society), and he founded and conducts Byre Opera. Michael has also lectured on opera and music for bodies including English National Opera and English Touring Opera; the Britten Sinfonia, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera House and Scottish Chamber Orchestra; the Glyndebourne, Huddersfield Contemporary Music and Edinburgh International festivals.

Presbyopia and the musician

Music and the arts is Michael’s passion and he has dedicated his life to music education. But what would you do if your life’s work and passion were threatened by a relatively simple and very common visual condition? Presbyopia is a form of later-onset long-sightedness which is caused by the loss of elasticity of the crystalline lens and begins typically in middle age. The condition will affect nearly everyone over the age of 45, whether they’ve always had perfect vision or already wear glasses or contact lenses. The condition causes a gradual reduction in the eyes’ ability to focus on nearby objects. It’s a natural and often annoying part of ageing. While presbyopia is an annoyance to most people, it can be devastating for musicians. For those who regularly read music, (often very small music), advancing presbyopia is a serious handicap. It takes many years of practice to develop the ability to sight read music. Sight-reading is an extremely complex skill and can take many years to master. Conductors, in particular, are required to read up to 35 different lines of music, all at the same time, printed in either B4 JIS (257 x 364 mm) or A3 (297 x 420 mm) scores. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But what does a conductor do when his ability to use a skill he has honed to perfection is compromised? Michael’s first port of call was his own optician, but the solution offered wasn’t great. With moderate myopia and a near addition of +1.50 Michael took to the Internet to find an optician who specialised in helping musicians. He found Allegro Optical, “The Musicians’ Optician”, the UK’s only BAPAM (British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) registered optical practitioner.  

Semplicemente Risoluto

Michael travelled from Fife to Meltham for a consultation. The consultation begins with a detailed medical and ocular history and a thorough diagnostic evaluation. The team looked at Michael’s various working distances and angles and plotted a lens design to allow him to conduct both orchestras and choirs with ease. On occasions, Michael is required to conduct both an orchestra and a choir at the same time so a wide visual field is essential.The resultant lens design provides clear vision of the score on the conductor’s stand and a wide field of view for distance with no peripheral distortion allowing him to see all the sections of the orchestras and choirs. When Michael received his new glasses he was delighted and said; “In recent years I had been having increasing difficulty focusing both on the music and the performers, whether wearing contact lenses or any of the different types of glasses I had tried and particularly in the poor light that you find in many concert halls. The problem was becoming increasingly distressing and starting to distract me from the music that should always be one’s only focus of attention in a concert. Thankfully, as soon as I found Allegro Optical on the Internet, a solution was close at hand. Sheryl and her colleagues instinctively understand what a musician requires from eye-care, which is so different to most other sorts of work. The glasses they have prescribed me not only provide clear vision in every field I need, but are comfortable and light and allow me to communicate directly with the musicians without obstacle. And every single person I met at Allegro Optical was extremely friendly and helpful which made the trip to Yorkshire a very pleasant experience as well as an invaluable one for my work. I recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone experiencing similar problems.”

Why Allegro?

Michaels vision problems are a prime example of how frustrating presbyopia can become for many musicians. Changing facus at different distances becomes very problematic and many musicians like Michael  struggle with the varying visual distances required. Some musicians even suffer from postural problems which are frequently caused by their deteriorating vision as they try to compensate for their reduced visual clarity. At Allegro Optical we have an understanding of the many playing and seating positions of musicians, allowing us to overcome these often complex visual challanges.  Musicians working and playing can frequently be easily improved.  Many Musicians who experience focusing problems at different distances are unaware that there may be a solution to their vision problems.

Unique lenses for unique people

Frequently Optometrists and Opticians either prescribe and dispense single vision lenses for the music stand. Some do dispense Computer or Occupational lenses, acknowledging the musicians varied focusing points. Unfortunately, these lenses don’t give enough depth of field. Some opticians even claim these occupational lenses to be specialist music lenses!

Do you need help?

If you are a musician looking for help from an optician check out their website. Do they have evidence of the work they do with musicians? Do your research beforehand and always use a specialist with a proven track record. Look out for blogs and case studies for the evidence that they can do what they say.  To be honest a good specialist sports lens will be able to provide a better solution for some musicians than any occupational or vocational lens can. Musicians use their eyes in a very similar way to sporting professionals. At Allegro Optical we design all our musicians’ lenses individually and they are manufactured to our own unique format. In fact, our senior dispensing optician and co-founder Sheryl has recently been awarded the title “Dispensing Optician of the Year 2019” for her work in this field. Other Opticians and Optometrists frequently contact Sheryl when needing help with a musician they have seen in their practice. Always check that the lenses you are prescribed are designed for the intended purpose.  Please be aware that leading lens manufacturers DO NOT make lenses designed specifically for musicians. If it’s musicians’ lenses you need call Allegro Optical in Meltham, Holmfirth on 01484 907090. Or Allegro Optical in Greenfield on 01457 353100  

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