The life of Kayla Mulling has already been filled with plenty of adversity. The high school student from Gainesville, Georgia, was born prematurely and without the ability to see. Despite surgery as a baby, Mulling was left blind and fighting to survive. But that did little to deter her from finding one of the most important parts of her life: music.
Even while she was struggling to survive in an incubator as a baby, Kayla's mother, Hope, played music all the time. And according to Atlanta NBC affiliate 11 Alive, that might have been where Kayla's love for music began.
Playing without seeing
From a young age, Kayla learned how to play music without seeing it. She started learning how to play percussion instruments, paying attention to the different kinds of sounds that could be made by striking different instruments. Soon enough, however, Mulling would find that she enjoyed playing the trumpet much more than percussion instruments.
"The flow of the sound, and how the valves work, what you can make it do to sound vibrato," Kayla told 11 Alive about her favorite brass instrument. "It sounds beautiful."
Despite her inability to read music like her classmates, Kayla has found her own way to learn how to play. In fact, according to her high school's band director, Kayla learns how to play music by simply listening to a song a handful of times. After hearing a song once, Kayla will try to play it as best she can. By the third time she plays it, she has the majority of the notes correct and by the fifth, she is playing it with confidence.
From playing to marching
Although Kayla was able to learn how to play songs on her trumpet rather quickly, it was not always easy for her to be a part of the marching band. Learning the marching band music was not a problem, but participating in the field shows was rather tricky. For her freshman year of high school, Kayla played from the sidelines so that she wouldn't collide with her marching bandmates during showtime. But in 2016, thanks to the help of one of her teachers – Keely Zeitlin – Kayla has the opportunity to participate in all of the field shows.
After doing a bit of research and reaching out to other band directors and students, Zeitlin and Kayla perfected a communication system that is mostly non-verbal and helps her navigate the field alongside other students. Zeitlin, dressed in black clothing during performances, shadows Mulling during their shows and helps guide her with a hand on her shoulder or back. Other than an occasional direction whispered in her ear, Kayla doesn't need much guidance.
"Kayla has amazing spacial orientation," Zeitlin told Alive 11. "She can do the fundamentals on her own. She can hit a line every time."
Not the only blind musician
Kayla's story is a tremendous one, but she is not the only visually impaired individual to excel at music. In fact, researchers at the Institute of Education, London, have found that blind children are about 4,000 times more likely to achieve perfect pitch, according to the Guardian. The same study found that more than two-thirds of blind children can play at least one musical instrument. Children without a visual impairment, however, only played instruments about 41 percent of the time. Professor Adam Ockelford, one of the leading researchers, maintained that blind children develop music skills in a different way than most.
"In young babies, the brain is very moldable, synapses grow and connections are made all the time. In blind children, the areas of the brain involved in sight are not being used, but others, including those used for hearing, become much more important," he said. "The greater focus on auditory input makes the brain develop in a different way."