By Richard Taesch

(posted on this web site with the kind permission of the author)

Within the science of education, there is much to be learned from the special problems confronted by the blind student. As educators, whether music, academic, or the combination of both, we share a common responsibility for developing and maintaining usable communication medias for our students. As professional music teachers, few of us would question the value of the music reading skill as an indispensable and tangible communication medium.
Unfortunately, not all students are given the opportunity of access to the musical medium we know as print or braille. Some music teachers may even be surprised to find that many students, sighted or blind, are not taught to read music at all. In pop music situations, often reading is considered cumbersome and unnecessary. As with the printed word, music reading is an issue of literacy. No person should be denied personal access to information and the freedom of choice it provides.
Why then is there so much illiteracy? Is there a correlation between academic and music illiteracy? Who has failed to show the earliest learner that literary and music reading is important and within reach? Who has told the blind learner that braille music reading is only a luxury, and that he or she must remain dependent upon tape recordings made by the sighted? Perhaps the answers to some of these questions can be found in attitudes and indifference within our own ranks. There does, indeed, seem to be a definite connection between resistance to all types of literacy.

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

Inspiration for this article came at a very unexpected moment. Attending a meeting of certified braille transcribers, I was exposed to the news that the Braille Literacy Bill, SB. 701, had been dropped due to lack of support and interest. The bill was to provide access in all schools to braille learning for blind students. That very afternoon while speaking with a coordinator of music programs for the blind, I was told that this department did not encourage braille music reading. I was told in so many words that music reading for the blind was impractical, too slow, and generally not preferred by their blind performers. It was much easier to learn from tapes made for them, and that it was impractical to memorize everything. This information, incidently, was being provided by a sighted person in charge of this program. When I asked if the person knew braille music or anything about it, the answer was expectedly, "no!"
As a certified braillist in process of developing a new program for braille music at a small accredited institution, I was deeply wounded. "Have I spent all these years envisioning a dream only to discover little support from blind students or those in charge of educating them musically?"
As the wheels in my mind continued to churn, my disappointment turned to anger, then to a strong sense of responsibility. One of my questions about illiteracy had been answered! The blame cannot be placed upon the innocent learner who has not been informed properly nor given the choice to become independent and "literate."
A study exists called "The Leipzig Connection" (Paolo Lionni, Heron Books 1993). It traces the birth of experimental psychology and its effect on education today. The study follows the downgrading of education based upon a concept that children are taught to conform and only to serve the needs of an orderly society. We are not to become creative individuals capable of making our own choices. This concept does not consider teachers instructors, but "designers of learning experiences." If this is true even only in theory, then we have much to be concerned about--as well as some profound possibilities regarding some difficult questions.
As music teachers we know, perhaps better than any educator, the value of teaching independence, creativity, and the right to be individual. Who better is in a position to help turn the tide beginning with literacy in our own music studios?

Solfege--Hands-on Vs. Hands-off

The European concept of solfege or music reading being taught before an instrument is played is as old as music itself. Teachers often find Asian students who have shared such early exposure to be superior musicians to American born children. Why is this? As a teacher of the guitar for thirty-three years, I have consistently experienced a phenomenon that during an oral instructional session, if the fingers touch the strings, the brain seems to leave the body. The mind closes off, drooling begins, and the avenues of communication are severely restricted. Why is this?
With the "hands-off" approach, the instrument is viewed as an inanimate object. It is only capable of reproducing what the performer emotionally, intellectually, and technically is capable of. In America, the instrument is the primary focus. It is the "toy"--the material object that captures the interest. It has a soul, a personality, and in some cases, has even synthesized the musician.
Though it is true that music is first perceived by the ear, if the next focal point is the toy, the tangible intellectual force behind the art is then by-passed. The hands-off approach, on the other hand, allows the musical mind to develop more quickly and freely, unbiased by another interpretation as first exposure. Tools of interpretation are then applied through prudent training and pedagogy. The "tangible communication medium" of music is now set in place.

By Ear-Alone Vs. By Music

Perhaps more in the area of braille music comes the argument of learning by ear vs. learning to read music. When playing by ear, stimuli enter via the ear senses. With the sight or touch medium (as is braille reading), the intellect must first decipher the tangible communication medium. The ear and the eye methods, much to the surprise of ear-only supporters, have everything in common. Both reach to an outside source to receive processable data. The ideal, of course, is to merge both senses in order to "hear with the eye (or touch)," and to "see with the ear." In this way, the blind and sighted learner or performer share the same means of input.
To learn solely by using the finished product (pre-recorded music) as a model, denies students access to their own unique interpretive process. There must be a vehicle separate from the finished product. The medium itself must be flexible and capable of varied application. Using the finished product for a pattern as in the ear-only approach, cannot replace such a medium.
To learn by listening only is merely a form of plagiarism. Reproduction is strongly influenced by the interpretation of the version being copied. For blind performer, there is little opportunity for personal interpretation of data initially perceived through aural communication. Even with "talking books" for the blind, the language/communication medium is being interpreted and translated by the intellect. Pictures and meanings are then formed and evaluated, accepted or questioned. Music by ear alone, therefore, is dependency upon performance by the sighted--there is no translation process taking place.
The right to choose the translation process should be available to all. For the blind learner, it seems the choice not to read is based upon a lack of exposure to the braille music medium at the earliest levels. From what source does this prejudice come? Surely it cannot come from an experienced teacher of music who is, at least, aware of the logical clarity of the braille music language intended by Louis Braille himself! A music teacher in charge of a blind student need not know anything about braille to recognize the right of that student to make a choice for music literacy. Louis Braille, by the way, was a blind piano teacher!

A Case for Music Literacy

Not all music teachers will have the opportunity to teach a blind student during their careers. Some teachers prefer not to teach blind students. All teachers, however, can benefit from a better understanding of any communication problems encountered in the teaching profession. Allow me to share a few pros and cons I have encountered in the case for music reading by the blind:
Argument: "The blind learner is still dependent upon the sighted transcriber for braille music, so what is the difference?"
Answer: So is the sighted learner dependent upon the creation of the printed page for resource music aside from previously recorded music. With written music, print or braille, the playing field becomes equal for blind or sighted learners.
Argument: "There are too many symbols!"
Answer: Not really. In print a note appears on a staff position; in braille a note has an octave mark placed in front of it. Often a group of notes will not require octave marks; in print all notes require a staff position. In print, notes are blackened or open to indicate values, etc. In braille, a simple dot position in the note cell indicates value.
Argument: "The sighted performer can scan the music visually for live performance. There is less need for memorization; braille music is much too cumbersome to be used by a blind performer."
Answer: Once again, such a statement is an obvious case of the sighted thinking and choosing for the blind. Instant sightreading is totally irrelevant to the value of the "tangible communication medium."
Whether braille or print, the communication medium of music is still a new language that must be learned at some first basic step in the process. The initial speed of interpretation is again irrelevant, and should not be a deciding factor against the case for music or braille music literacy!
Braille Music and The Educator

Written music is extremely important in educational situations. Consider the blind student in the study of composition at the college level. Would anyone recommend the study of orchestration and arranging without being able to see the range and movement of the various instruments? Who is going to record a three-hundred-page theory or harmony text with music examples on cassette? Does this mean the blind student is excluded from music courses? The blind student will be excluded from many things if totally dependent upon the sighted.
Other examples include lyric and chord symbol placement for basic accompaniment. Jazz music leadsheets, chord progressions, improvisation layouts, and song form are not easily approached by ear only. The ear is the final judge, however, not always the best way to demonstrate musical logic and architectural form.

Braille Music Basics For The Layperson

It is not the purpose of this study to convince music teachers that they should undertake the study of braille music. On the contrary, the intention is to provide a view of this side of your profession. Whether you will admit it or not, the cause for literacy affects us all. Music is manifested in sound. As teachers, how better our depth of understanding can become if we possess a view of those who hear in darkness.
The braille cell is a six-dot configuration. Each cell can represent a letter, a number, a whole word, or a musical note depending on context and accompanying signs. Although music braille is separate from the Literary Code, there is a "facsimile" form used for simple leadsheet music that does not require knowledge of the Music Code. Such a format can even be used by teachers who do not know braille at all. This format is used for beginning students where words and the placement of chord symbols is desirable.
In braille music, the braille literary letter "D" is used as the solfege symbol, "Do." This braille note is "C," and the remaining music alphabet follows consecutively, re, mi, fa, etc. This is a "fixed-Do" system with C remaining always, "Do." For braille "Touch-singing," numbers are generally assigned to the scale steps just as in print solfege. The number 1 is assigned to the first scale step thereby creating a "movable-Do" system. There are two columns of dots numbered vertically 1-2-3, and 4-5-6. The bottom of the cell, dots 3 and 6, are used to indicate values. Dots 4-5-6 are used before a note cell to indicate octave positions such as first octave, second octave, etc.
For piano students, one hand touches the braille while the other plays the music. After both hands have been played, the student assembles a section to be memorized. For string instruments, one hand can hypothetically play all of the music by feel first. For the vocalist, singing can take place immediately while touch-reading the braille music.


Throughout my career I have experienced growth in the field of music teaching even while learning skills not directly related to music. Hopefully, this study can provide a new aspect of the music reading skill for teachers. If the decision not to support music reading, whether braille or print, is made by those who know little about it, then what hope do we have? Knowledge and information must be shared, and willingness to consider all medias of communication must remain open. If those known to be experts in the field of braille music, many of them blind, are also successful teachers of music, then I invite you to draw your own conclusions. We must provide our students with every available means of self-reliance. Give them the means to function as self-reliant individuals, and watch them grow more quickly and their willingness to contribute to our world increase.
I would like to conclude with the following quotation by the Rev. R. Inman:

"The great teacher never strives to explain his vision--he simply invites you to stand beside him and see for yourself."

Recommended Reading:

THEY SHALL HAVE MUSIC (Dorothy Dykema; 604 North Allyn, Carbondale, ILL 62901)
HOW TO READ BRAILLE MUSIC (Bettye Krolick; Opus Technologies.)
THE LEIPZIG CONNECTION (Paolo Lionni; Heron Books 1993)
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, NATIONAL LIBRARY SERVICE; Information kits for teachers or students are available. (1-800-424-8567)

Author's Biography

Richard Taesch has served as Guitar Department Chairman of Southern California Conservatory of Music since 1976. His teaching career began in 1961. He founded and now directs the Braille Music Program at SCCM. Mr. Taesch is certified by the Library of Congress in literary and music braille transcription. He serves as state Music Specialist for the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped (CTEVH).

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