Despite brain trauma, Holt student excels as musician

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By Maddie Fetchiet
Holt Journal staff writer

Desa Hiither has loved playing music since she was 6 years old, but after suffering brain trauma in a car accident shortly before starting high school, she was worried her talents would never be the same again.

She was wrong.

Hiither, a junior and a member of the Holt High School symphonic and marching bands, plays more than 10 instruments, composes and can freestyle jazz pieces.

While music has always been in her life, she was able to expand her talents immensely even after her injuries.

After falling out of a moving car, Hiither suffered skull fractures and was left with an air pocket in her brain and neck, brain bleeds, and is now hearing impaired, according to Hiither. She wears a hearing aid in each ear.

“I was told I was going to be in a vegetable state for the rest of my life, if I did survive,” Hiither said. “I was so frustrated after the accident I wanted to drop it all.”

Hiither was left without adequate motor skills as a result of the accident. However, after undergoing speech and cognitive therapy, she has regained speech and some hearing.

Carrie Hiither, Desa’s mother, had to adapt to a supporting role in Desa’s life after the accident, but amid the trauma, she recalls her concern that Desa would lose her musical abilities.

“The only time I cried in front of her is when she got fitted for her hearing aids because I thought of her music,” Carrie Hiither said.

Carrie Hiither has sacrificed time with her family to support her daughter and put food on the table after the accident. She took a year off work after Desa was injured to assist with her daughter’s medical needs.

“I work four jobs and I go to college now. The accident affected me emotionally and financially, but I work as hard as I do to help us survive,” Carrie Hiither said.

The accident has greatly affected the Hiither family, but Carrie Hiither says the accident has brought them together, and has especially made Desa a stronger person.

“She’s stronger and she helps me emotionally. Desa sees people for who they are, and not for what is wrong with them, and she has really used this to help others,” Carrie Hiither said. “They told me she wouldn’t make it through the night, so to have her is a miracle in itself. She’s affected a lot of people in good ways, so we are just thankful she’s here.”

Despite the many injuries she suffered, her passion remained strong in the face of challenges she would face.

“I hear that music all the time in the house and it makes me smile, she’s so passionate. To know that the accident didn’t affect her artistically made me happy,” Carrie Hiither said.

“I think after Desa’s accident she’s worked very hard to keep the way she was. She’s worked hard to make sure she’s understanding all of the music as well, and she’s really done a great job,” said Evan Edwards, a clarinet player in the symphonic band.

Hiither is a saxophonist in the symphonic band, where she plays alto saxophone. She also plays piano, clarinet, oboe and flute, among other instruments, but there is more to the girl behind the melody.

“I love to write my own music. I’ve been working on a full symphonic piece for three years,” Hiither said. “I also like to write a lot of solo pieces for piano.”

Her talents may serve her well when writing music, but reading it is another story, according to Desa Hiither.

“I never really learned how to read music, so it was harder after the accident. I would also go by ear with other people’s sounds,” Desa Hiither said. “I can hear about half of what everyone else hears, so when I’m tuning I have to feel the waves of the music. Whatever I feel I play, I just play without writing.”

Around town, Hiither is recognized for her ability to excel at any instrument within minutes of playing that first note. According to Carrie Hiither, local music shop owners are continuously shocked by her knack for playing by ear.

“Give her about 10 minutes with any instrument and she can play a full song. She can get the jest of anything just by hearing the sound, which is amazing because of her hearing disability,” Carrie Hiither said.

Michael Emerson, the band teacher at Holt High School, has mentored Hiither, and says he enjoys seeing a young musician succeed so frequently.

“She moves very fast and has a talented musical ear. It’s impressive to watch,” said Emerson.

Hiither’s quick ability to learn new music, instruments and tuning techniques has been recognized throughout the band, as she continuously inspires her peers.

Christopher Lewis, a saxophonist in the symphonic band, says he has always admired Hiither’s ability to quickly learn harder pieces of music.

“Even in songs with harder fingerings, she just comes out of nowhere and plays it. I really believe she has a bright future in music,” Lewis said.

Emerson says having a helpful and talented musician in the band like Hiither has benefited his other students.

“She leads by example by playing well and having other students emulate that. It’s very impressive to watch her experiment and move quickly,” Emerson said.

Hiither’s skill to play by ear has also helped her develop her songwriting and freestyling skills. With the help of Lewis, she has learned to get unique sounds out of her instruments, helping her be a more creative composer.

“If I make a mistake I just keep playing and it works. I freestyle a lot of jazz with Chris, too, he’s really expanded my abilities,” Desa Hiither said.

After her accident, Hiither was no longer able to read music. But with the help of Lewis and Emerson, her talent has combined with new technical skills to make her an admirable musician.

Hiither says sShe enjoys practicing five hours a day on weekdays. On weekends, the playing never stops.

“I practice until I get yelled at. On the weekends I practice morning until night if I have nothing going on,” Hiither said.

Hiither plans on applying to Michigan State University next year and hopes to continue playing, writing and performing. While she doesn’t plan on majoring in music in college, she says she still wants to play and teach others.

“I want to be able to teach others what I’ve learned because I believe those who can play music really have a broader picture of life,” Hiither said.

Her natural musical talents, her willingness to help others and her perseverance gives Emerson and her peers confidence that she can have a great career in music.

“Mr. Emerson helped me realize I have to work harder, but that I can do it. I won’t let the accident get in the way of something I love,” Desa Hiither said.

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