Resources for Helping Blind Music Students
by Mary A. Smaligo
Editor’s Note: Mary Smaligo, an instructor of piano and voice, has taught elementary and high school chorus, band, and strings in Pennsylvania public schools. Her knowledge on the topic of resources for blind music students arises out of her own experiences in trying to get Braille music instruction for her blind daughter, Beth. Mary also actively shares her knowledge and provides encouragement to other parents about music education as a volunteer through the NOPBC music network. As helpful as the network is, however, it does not reach all parents, nor does it reach another audience that needs information about the importance of Braille music: school music teachers. So, Mary submitted an article to Future Reflections and to the Music Educator’s Journal, a national journal published by the Music Educators National Conference (MENC). In September, 1998, MENC published Mary’s article. Here is (with appropriate revisions) Mary’s article:
While literary Braille is well-known as a tool that blind students can use to read text, surprisingly few people are aware that Louis Braille, a blind piano teacher, also invented music Braille to help blind students learn to read and play music. The general principles of literary Braille and music Braille are similar. Both systems use a “cell” containing six dots in varying combinations that blind people read by touching, but music Braille, which is the only internationally unified code, assigns different meanings to the dot combinations.
Music educators can help blind Braille readers learn music reading skills. An entire Braille music symbol system correlating to the print music system exists, and a large amount of sheet music for individual or group use is available. Taking advantage of existing resources, teachers can provide Braille music so that blind students have the opportunity to learn to read music at the same time that sighted students do. If the effort is successful, the Braille student can read music independently and can participate in ensemble groups or perform as a soloist to the extent that his or her musical ability allows.
Blind students are a low-incidence factor in the overall population; in an entire career, a music teacher may encounter such a student only once or twice. Overwhelmed by what seems to be required, but unable to locate suitable resources, the teacher may still try to do the right thing despite having virtually no tools. A general awareness about Braille music and its availability can help to resolve this dilemma. Although this article is not a comprehensive, detailed survey of existing resources for blind music students, a number of readily available resources are discussed.
Colleagues and Parents
The assistance that local teachers of blind students can provide through their thorough knowledge of resources, specifically in educational settings, cannot be underestimated. Such a teacher, usually employed by the area’s major special education office, may already teach the blind student who is entering the music class. Acquiring classroom music textbooks for the proper grade level, helping the student to Braille his or her own musical compositions, determining Braille music reading readiness, contacting Braille music transcribers, and acting on behalf of the student’s needs and school personnel are just some of the ways in which these local teachers can help music educators and their students.
Parents of blind children may already be well on their way to locating resources for their child. Collaborating with parents, especially if they are also working with the child’s Braille literary teacher, can be invaluable. It is advisable to consult with them frequently as to resources and progress and to explain to them how they can help advance their child’s music education. Parents may be able to supplement the teacher’s efforts to obtain information and material and will appreciate being kept informed.
First Steps for the Youngest
Like most sighted students, blind students begin to learn to read in first grade, and like many sighted students who take music lessons, they begin learning to read music one to three years later.
A tactile music staff with various textures for notes (sandpaper, cardboard, etc.), along with verbal explanations, can provide the student with some idea of the format of printed music, the shapes of print notes and symbols, and the linear motion of notes. Much of this information will transfer to learning to read Braille music when specific note and symbol reading is introduced to all students.
Beyond Recorded Music
As a music student progresses, a desperate but dedicated teacher may decide that having the student listen to recorded music and learn by memorization is the only option available for helping the student maintain progress with the rest of the class. While helpful in some aspects of music education for all students, these methods alone are insufficient for blind students learning how to read music. Even if a sighted student already knew how to read music, a committed music educator would not permit him or her to learn music using only recorded materials and rote methods.
In combination with Braille music reading, however, instrumental teachers who teach individuals, small groups, and bands/orchestras would do well to use a lesson book that comes with a play-along cassette or CD. The nature of Braille music reading means memorization of each lesson after the student reads it and the teacher is confident that the student understands it. A play-along cassette, which should never be used as a substitute for Braille music, can streamline memorization efforts and equalize the mechanics of Braille music reading in comparison to standard printed music.
A free correspondence course for learning to read Braille music notation is offered by the Hadley School for the Blind. [Editor’s note: See the resource list at the end of this article for contact information for this service and other resources discussed in this article.]
National Library Service
The Music Section of the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is the main source for borrowing Braille music in the United States. Materials in Braille make up the largest portion of the collection. The NLS holdings, which include virtually all available printed and hand-produced Braille scores, recordings, and texts, offer instrumental music, vocal and choral music, some popular music, librettos, textbooks, instructional method books, and music periodicals. Recorded courses for beginning guitar, piano, organ, accordion, recorder, voice, and theory have been purchased or specifically developed for the NLS program. Anyone who is unable to read or use standard printed materials as a result of temporary or permanent visual or physical limitations may receive service. Loaned items are sent to borrowers and returned to NLS by postage free mail. The staff also provides information about purchasing or borrowing music from other sources.
Blind or otherwise visually disabled persons can enroll in the National Library Service system upon request. A letter or call to the Music Section of NLS from the music teacher, the student’s parents or guardians, or the teacher of the blind who provides services to the student will bring information about all NLS Braille music resources. Loans are made in the name of the certified individual, and teachers, parents, or guardians can request materials for the student’s use. (For example, while a music teacher or school would not be loaned How to Read Braille Music, the eligible student can borrow it in both large print and Braille.) If the Braille teacher, the music teacher, and the student will be working together, arrangements can be made to borrow two Braille copies and one printed copy of the same book in the student’s name so that each person has a book to use.
A simple, concise resource is How to Read Braille Music, Book I, which is written on a fifth-grade reading level so that it can be used as a self-help resource for beginning through intermediate level Braille reading musicians. Especially useful in the classroom, How to Read Braille Music includes vocal and instrumental music code peculiarities, as well as an index of music symbols.
The Primer of Braille Music, another possibility, contains thirty lessons, twenty-four of which cover the basic knowledge required for reading music. Lessons 25-30 cover vocal and instrumental music. Each lesson presents the same information for both sighted and blind users, with Braille characters and signs on the left side of each page and text and music on the right side.
Although it was published in 1960, Braille Music Chart, new revised edition, available in print and Braille, is still useful as a ready reference in classroom music lessons and as a guide for Braille readers to music symbols written on the chalkboard for sighted students. Containing a complete list of all Braille music symbols, it may also be useful to the advanced student. The Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, a more detailed reference work, is suitable for advanced students.
If knowledge of increasingly advanced Braille music notation becomes necessary, the New International Manual of Braille Music Notation, published in 1996, is now available in print, Braille, and CD-ROM.
The Central Catalog, published by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), lists volunteer-produced Braille, large-print, and recorded textbooks; commercially produced large print textbooks; and regular press Braille and large-type books produced by APH. The database from which the catalog is produced daily is called APH-LOUIE and is available on the Internet by subscription through APH.
One particularly important resource from the National Library Service is an annually published circular listing Braille music transcribers around the country. Because some music that the teacher wants his or her students to learn to play may not be available in Braille through the usual channels, access to transcribers is necessary for successfully mainstreaming blind students into the music class.
If a music teacher uses worksheets for the class, a Braille music transcriber can transfer the printed text and music to Braille. Turn-around time for this sort of Brailling makes it necessary to plan well ahead. While music transcribers now have the technological advantage of computer software to assist in the process, time must still be allowed for the transcriber to receive the printed worksheet, mentally convert the printed notation into Braille, and then input the result. Using software similar to word processing, the transcriber can then correct, copy, move, delete, and save the data in the file. The file is then printed on a Braille printer and sent back to the requestor, or a disk can be sent for printing if the requestor has access to a Braille printer. Each Braille music transcriber determines the cost for each page of Braille.
Band and choral music otherwise unavailable can easily be sent to a Braille music transcriber in the same fashion as the worksheet.
It is also possible to become trained as a certified Braille music transcriber. Prerequisites include a Library of Congress certificate in literary Braille and some specialized equipment. For more information, contact the NLS.
Some newly developed software automatically converts print to Braille, allowing a sighted person with no knowledge of Braille music transcription to scan printed music into a database from which Braille can be printed. Other software offers similar or other functions related to or supportive of computerized transcription of Braille music reading. This area of software development is very new, and a number of products are being developed by private enterprises. Music educators interested in computer technology for their blind students are encouraged to contact the NLS or other advocacy organizations to obtain the latest information.
In circumstances other than school situations, a call to a local blind association, rehabilitation agency for the blind, or chapter of the National Federation of the Blind could provide extra help, if needed. A list of state agencies that administer rehabilitation and special education services is available from NLS.
The National Braille Association assists those involved in developing and improving skills and techniques for producing materials for those who are print-handicapped. A central depository for hand-transcribed Braille masters, the association offers items for sale at prices under cost, and all production is done by volunteers. The catalog, free upon request, offers brass, string, woodwind, percussion, organ, piano, and voice music materials, as well as items on harmony theory and popular music.
A source of general information is the Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired (MENVI). It describes itself as “a coalition of parents, educators, and students” who function as a network providing information and resources, including phone numbers, on music education topics concerning blind students. MENVI will send a membership application and regular newsletters in Braille and print containing helpful articles upon request. Recent newsletters have addressed such topics as free Internet services for the blind, exercises that parents can use to begin their blind child’s musical education, and tips for blind children on how to learn to sing in a choir.
Located at the University of Bridgeport, with satellite locations throughout Connecticut, the Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped (MACH) offers a variety of courses and programs focused on Braille music, musicianship, and using the computer as a music tool. Affiliated with MACH, the National Resource Center for Blind Musicians responds to inquiries about sources for Braille music and provides advice on accessible music technology.
The National Federation of the Blind’s mission is to seek “the complete integration of persons who are blind into society on a basis of equality.” The organization focuses on legislative issues, publishes a monthly magazine, Braille Monitor, and two quarterlies, and sells additional publications and assistive devices through its Materials Center. Two divisions, the Music Division and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, have established the Music Education Network for the Benefit of Blind Students, which is coordinated by volunteers.
For College-Bound Musicians
For the past three years, the MACH Summer Music Institute has offered a three-week live-in program for blind college-bound music students. The program focuses on music, Braille music, and computer skills (including composition and scoring) and helps students develop strategies for university-level academic study and on-campus living. To obtain a brochure and an application, send a request to MACH.
In addition to its Preparatory and Conservatory Divisions, which address the needs of beginning and advanced students, the Southern California Conservatory of Music offers bachelor and associate degrees in music to blind students through its Braille Music Division. Its stated goals are to prepare the serious student for a professional career and to train the motivated student for a full, active cultural life and influence in society. The Conservatory can be contacted through MENVI.
While blind students may attend any college or university as long as they meet the school’s requirements for all students, there are other college-level courses specifically for blind students and teachers at various locations throughout the United States. Help in locating these programs may be obtained by contacting the organizations dedicated to promoting music education for blind students.
Help Is At Hand
Those involved with music education for blind students make up a small community that is growing steadily. These highly active groups, many of whom know each other and are aware of each other’s work, are generous with their information and often suggest additional resources beyond their own that may be helpful to the inquirer. Many of these are free or minimally priced. With a few phone calls, letters, or e-mail messages, music educators can obtain as much help as they need to provide the same education to blind students that sighted students receive.
Editor’s Note: The following resource list contains all the music resources referenced in the article above:
Hadley School for the Blind
700 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL 60093-0299
Phone: (847) 446-8111 and (800) 323-4238
Fax: (847) 446-9916
Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired (MENVI)
Southern California Conservatory of Music
8711 Sunland Boulevard
Sun Valley, CA 91352
Phone: (818) 767-6554
Music Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
1291 Taylor Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20542
Phone: (202) 707-9254 and (800) 424-8567
Fax: (202) 707-0712
Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped (MACH)
National Resource Center for Blind Musicians
600 University Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06601
Phone: (203) 366-3300
Fax: (203) 368-2847
National Braille Association, Inc.,
Three Townline Circle
Rochester, NY 14623-2513
Phone: (716) 427-8660
Fax: (716) 427-0263
Braille Music Chart, new revised edition, 1960. American Printing House for the Blind, 1839 Frankfort Avenue, P. O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085. Phone: (502) 895-2405 and (800) 223-1839. Fax: (502) 895-1509.
The Central Catalog: Textbooks for Students Who Are Visually Handicapped. Educational Resources Network of the American Printing House for the Blind, P. O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085. Phone: (502) 895-2405 and (800) 223-1839. Fax: (502) 899-2274.
Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, Bettye Krolick. 1979. Music Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542. Phone: (202) 707-5100 and (800) 424-8567. Fax: (202) 707-0712. TTY/TTD (710) 822-1969. E-mail
How to Read Braille Music, 2nd ed., Bettye Krolick, 1998. Opus Technologies, 13333 Thunderhead Street, San Diego, CA 92129-2320. Contact Samuel O. Flores, phone: (619) 538-9401 or e-mail:
New International Manual of Braille Music Notation. 996 OpusTechnologies, 13333 Thunderhead Street,
San Diego, CA 92129-2320. Phone/fax: (619) 538-9401.
Primer of Braille Music, Compiled by Edward W. Jenkins. American Printing House for the Blind, 1839 Frankfort Avenue, P. O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085. Phone: (502) 895-2405 and (800) 223-1829. Fax: (502) 895-1509.