Music Pedagogy for the Blind, 2011

David Goldstein

(this is an updated version of the article of this title, published in the International Journal of Music Education, No. 35, May 2000. Copyright of the original article is vested in the International Society for Music Education. What is covered here is meant to be a general introduction. )

an example of music in print and braille
From How to Read Braille Music: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. Copyright (c) 1998 by Bettye Krolick.

I am sure you are aware of people in the music world who are blind. You may even know someone with a visual problem involved in music. I run a summer Institute which brings together blind high school and beginning college students from around the United States for the purpose of preparing for the serious study of music at the university level. As I tell you about the program and the teaching techniques we use, I hope it will start you thinking about how you might include a blind student of any age in music activities, if one should enroll in your class.

Our school is Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, a nonprofit school of the arts in bridgeport, Connecticut, about an hour from New York City. Originally started for people with vision problems, it has expanded to work with children and adults with a variety of disabilities and special needs, including youth from the inner city and those who are gifted. As director of its National Resource Center for Blind Musicians, I not only develop programs in Connecticut, but answer inquiries that come from around the world regarding braille music, accessible music technology, and teaching techniques. Gradually we have gotten to know musicians and teachers around the country whom we can call on for advice in any particular area. Sometimes they live close enough to a student to help out personally or serve as mentors.

The summer Institute came about because of calls for help from students, parents and teachers. A first-year music major entering college with several successful piano performances under his belt was overwhelmed to find that he couldn't keep up in sight-singing classes, was unable to submit assignments, and had no idea what his peers were talking about when using terms like bar lines and hair-pins. Moreover, he did not know what to suggest to his professors when they asked how they could make life easier. A piano teacher called looking for a place where his young student from Mexico could learn enough braille music to enter a Texas high school for the performing arts. A mother said she was sure her son had the academic background, but felt he needed more experience being on his own in a supervised setting, to practice cane travel and such college survival skills as getting through the cafeteria line and doing laundry. At one time, students learned many of these skills at schools for the blind. Now that most college-bound students go to local schools with sighted children, there isn't enough time in the day or staff with the background to teach skills beyond what is actually needed for school. The braille music code is generally near the bottom of the list. Another thing which all the students unfortunately seemed to have in common was a lack of friends at home. As hard as one tries, there seem to be certain stages in life where "difference" doesn't go unnoticed. Participation in a music group may help to bring about acceptance, but one needs to know how to get in. Our goal became to develop a program where students could get a start learning the special skills, practice and perform with others on an equal footing, gain confidence in their independence by being in a realistic situation with help available, find friends, and have fun.

In the fifteen years we have held the program, we have had eighty-five students from thirty-one states and four countries. The program has evolved from a three-week summer experience at a university, which included ensembles and concerts, to a one-week intensive focusing on the essentials for being able to handle music theory. The program is held at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, a campus big enough to practice independent travel, and equipped with the facilities, technology, and services suited for this type of group. subjects covered each day are braille music--sight reading for theory classes and reading musical scores, and taking down melodic dictation; technology for being able to produce music in standard print notation, and theory basics, including strategies for functioning in the class with sighted students. Many of the teachers are successful blind musicians; guests speakers come to talk about their involvement in different aspects of the music industry. A great deal of mentoring goes on throughout the week. The participants go home much more confident about how they will handle the challenges ahead. Problems are not over, of course. Students call me often for ideas in locating a piece in braille, solving a technology glitch, or ways they can work with a teacher on dealing with an assignment which requires vision. The friendships they have made during the summer pay off, as they compare notes with fellow graduates or contact teachers for advice. It has certainly made my life richer to be a part of the exciting happenings of these special young people.

Braille Music. We give this top priority, as it is the area in which students usually have least experience. It can make a tremendous difference for the serious student to be able to read and analyze a piede, rather than to go by someone else's interpretation from a recording.

Braille music provides all the information a sighted person sees on a page of print music -- notes and their values, dynamic and expression marks, and fingering. Of course, it looks much different, because all the information must be given on one line that the finger can read. The music staff is discarded completely. Braille is made up of "cells" of up to six dots, of which sixty- three combinations are possible. In music, the top four dots show the pitch of the note while the presence or absence of dots on the bottom show the rhythmic value. Special signs are placed before the note to show the octave. A measure is ended with a space. A voice student can read braille and sing at the same time. A piano student reads a few measures of one hand part while playing with the other hand, then reverses hands to do the other hand part. The segments are put together until the whole piece is memorized.

There are a number of books used to teach braille music. While the most ideal situation is for the teacher to be familiar with braille, one does not have to be. The teaching books are available in both braille and print, so that any music teacher can follow along with the student. The optimum situation is for the person working with a beginner to have some training, or at least have done enough reading ahead of time to understand potential challenges. We have found that the learning of the braille itself is not as much a problem as the resistance a student who has always learned by ear may put up to reading music. It takes motivation to be able to put all the information together and to avoid confusing symbols that have different meanings in the literary braille code. Many of our students, even those who have played for years, have little understanding of the meaning of rhythmic concepts and have extreme difficulty counting. The best thing you can do as a teacher is to drill students on counting. Ear training in intervals is extremely important, as braille music uses interval signs any time notes of the same value are played together. I will not mention specific books and resources for braille music learning here, as they will differ from country to country. In the U.S. the biggest source is the Library of Congress. There are good libraries in Australia, England, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, and New Zealand. Gradually, databases are being built so libraries can share their holdings. Several organizations have put up the actual braille music on the web, for purchase or free download. Again, what is available is dependent on the country one is in.

Technology. These days, computers are a part of all music curricula. They are more important for blind people, as they can enable a student to produce assignments independently, which previously needed to be dictated to a copyist. Scoring programs are highly visual, and there are only a few that can be used by a blind person. It is possible to use certain versios of Sibelius, using special scripts along with a braille or talking screen reader. In our program, we teach the use of Lime Aloud, which is a part of of a suite of software from Dancing Dots. Lime Aloud enables a blind person to enter notes and epression marks from either the computer keyboard or music keyboard, and hear the notes played and spoken as well as being able to read them on a braille display. When the piece is finished, it can be printed out in standard print notation or sent to a braille embosser for a hardcopy braille version. The full suite of programs from Dancing Dots, called GOODFEEL, includes a braille music translator, which can convert files from the Lime program, MIDI files, and Music XML files that can be exported from standard software like finale and Sibelius into braille. Print music may also be scanned and converted to braille. But because of the visual properties of music and problems with alignment, it is often the case that a blind person will need sighted help before music which is scanned can be made readable in braille. By far the most accessible program for use in a recording studio is Sonar, produced by Cakewalk Music Systems and supplemented by a package of scripts from Dancing Dots called CakeTalking. Information about CakeTalking and GOODFEEL is at www.dancingdots.com. Work has been done to make ProTools for the Macintosh accessible through Apple's Voiceover screen reader. and is starting to be used more widely by blind professionals.

As a teacher, you know that technology, however glamorous and empowering, does not take the place of musicianship and a well grounded music education. Your responsibility is to make sure the blind student has the education and experience to function with other musicians, whether it be in understanding musical concepts, knowing how to perform with others in an ensemble, and having good technique and deportment. It may not be necessary for the blind student to know what all the print notes and squiggles look like, but he should know enough to be able to think in terms of the staff when working on a piece with others. Put your creativity to work. We have explained the staff using a metal board with raised lines and notes made of magnetized rubber, but there are lots of other materials and ways to get the concepts across. . Don't be afraid to comment on technique and posture. You know how important they are, and you will do a disservice not to work on them. The same holds true for appearance on and off the stage. It's what people see first that makes the biggest impression.

Working with a blind student can be a great source of pleasure and fulfillment. Feel comfortable from your own musical experience that you are probably right in knowing how to handle things. If something isn't working or seems unreasonable, talk to the student about it, or ask someone for help. There are many people around who can provide excellent advice. Our lines here are always open. You may reach me at the National Resource Center for Blind Musicians
Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County
391 East Washington Avenue
Bridgeport, CT 06608
Phone 203-366-3300
E-mail info@blindmusicstudent.org

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