How Tyler Zahnke, a musician who is blind, is turning passion into a career

Probably no other Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) student has “American Idol” finalist Scott MacIntyre’s cellphone number. But Tyler Zahnke does.

That’s because Zahnke is one of only 10 musicians who are blind in the nation recently selected to attend the first SongSight music mentoring retreat in Scottsdale, Arizona, featuring MacIntyre, a singer-songwriter, who is blind.

“It was amazing,” says Zahnke, who had shared a meal with McIntyre, made some music with him, and visited the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. “I was basically reminded of how beautiful music can be, and the power of singing together.”

The retreat included some songwriting, singing, and recording an original song at the end of the weekend. But Zahnke, a GRCC music major, says the best part was hanging out and networking with MacIntyre and other musicians. 

MacIntyre was the first blind “American Idol” finalist and a fan favorite for viewers for optimism in the face of adversity.

One-of-a-kind program

Over three days, attendees took part in masterclasses, wrote songs, experimented with new and unique instruments, and recorded an original song with the whole group to be released online after the retreat.

This one-of-a-kind program was designed to create an intimate experience so each activity was not only hands-on but allowed participants to truly explore their potential and discover the life-changing power of music.

Tyler Zahnke tours the Musical Instrument Museum. (Tyler Zahnke)


“We were all musically talented people listening to each other, and it was wonderful,” says Zahnke.

He also met Kurt Henry Heinecke, who composed the music for “Veggie Tales.” 

“It was pretty cool. We were all a little starstruck because a lot of us remembered all the ‘Veggie Tales’ songs and were singing them,” Zahnke says.
 
A lifelong quest

The retreat is just the latest in Zahnke’s lifelong quest to make music.

Blind since birth, the 25-year-old Grand Rapids native said his love of music began as a toddler when his family would listen to classical music and his mother played the piano. After teaching himself piano basics as a young boy, he began taking lessons at age 10.

While taking online classes at Northview Alternative High School, he began composing, singing, recording, and editing his own music at home.

Tyler Zahnke was one of 10 music students selected to attend the SongSight event. (SongSight)

But it was GRCC that changed his world. Zahnke enrolled in 2017 and has consistently pursued his associate degree in music ever since.

“GRCC has helped me develop a deeper understanding of music, what a musician does, and has helped me get more in tune with different genres of music,” he said.

‘Performing makes me so happy’

The best part, though, is performing. Zahnke, who considers himself equal parts singer and keyboardist, has been singing with GRCC’s vocal ensembles since he started attending five years ago. “Performing makes me so happy,” he said.

Most recently, Zahnke performed at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids at the Council of Michigan Foundations conference. He credits his involvement with the DisArt Festival in 2018 and 2019 for raising his profile as a musician. 

With a focus on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disability culture, DisArt provided an opportunity for Zahnke to compose music for an art gallery show and perform piano music at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“My first major paying gigs were through DisArt,” says Zahnke, adding he believes that exposure set the stage for his performance at the Amway Grand and being selected for SongSight. “I'm mostly a singer, and I play the piano, too. I have a little experience with percussion.”

Although still charting his career, Zahnke would like to eventually record an album, perform live concerts, compose production music for TV shows or commercials, and create music-related software for the blind.

“Living this life has made me more resourceful,” he said of his blindness, “I think a lot of the challenges I’ve faced are being eliminated.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.