I never dreamed I would ever encounter a situation like this--it's a subject that wasn't discussed in my music education courses--and if by chance it actually was, I definitely didn't pay attention. So when I got the call from a colleague who teaches at a local middle school about how he had a blind student who wanted to learn to play the flute--I was more than a little hesitant. How would I teach her? Would I have to feed her everything by rote? Was it even possible for a non-sighted person to play an instrument and read music? I told my friend that I needed a few days to do some research to even consider the possibility of teaching in such a unique circumstance. After talking with several others and doing countless Google searches, I decided it was worth a try. I would give it a few weeks, and if I failed, I would just help the poor girl find a more qualified teacher.
Well, that was a year ago, and I've never been more proud of Lydia and what she has accomplished in such a short amount of time. We've had several challenges: a flute that was in ill repair, practicing roadblocks, and trouble communicating with those who are helping her at school--but all in all I feel like we've done the best we can with what we have--and to me this is a huge success. Our lessons fly by so fast that we are both left wanting more time to continue the learning process. I've enjoyed it SO much, and it has been eye-opening to educate myself about a musical language that, up until last year, I didn't even know existed.
I've compiled the following guides to use if you or someone you know is teaching a non-sighted musician. Researching all of this on your own can be tedious and time consuming, so I hope these resources take a little pressure off--especially if you are a full time school music teacher who doesn't have time to pee, let alone time to search for helpful tools to teach your student!
Please contact me/comment below if you have any questions or if you have additional pointers!
I record all of the music that is to be learned as well as any additional instructions/reminders. Lessons are too short for Lydia to make notes on her electronic braille device, so I spend a few minutes after she leaves to record and email everything to her accessible phone.
2. Drilling the Braille
Learning music is incredibly difficult for even a sighted person. Take away the ability to see and it gets even more interesting. To complicate things further, Braille Music is COMPLETELY different than normal Braille that a blind person reads on an everyday basis--so they are essentially learning TWO new languages instead of just one. It can be quite confusing for the student and requires intense desire to learn. Though I do choose to teach some sections of music by rote--especially if we are running low on time before a performance--I require Lydia to learn everything by reading it for herself and then to translate it to me before we play. I have print copies of all her music so I can help her double check if the transcriptionist did their job correctly.
3. Tactile Aids
Graphic tape is such a wonderful invention--one that I hadn't even heard of before I started teaching my student. This tape can be placed on various points of the instrument to aid the pupil in locating the correct hand position, joint alignment, lip placement, etc.
4. Hands On
With most students I am very careful not to do a lot of touching--blame it on my public school days--but in the case of teaching someone who can't see, touching is unavoidable. I am constantly using touch to remind Lydia how to hold her head, where to place her hands, the shape her tongue needs to form for effective tonguing, and keeping an efficient embouchure formation.
1. Body Awareness
I have never encountered a sighted beginning flute player that has much body awareness--if any. Encountering a beginner who has never had sight is a completely different ball game. Even a year in, we are still going back to the basics of how and where to hold the flute in the air, where the lip plate should rest under the mouth, the angle of the head, etc. As with most things, I'm expecting this challenge to resolve itself over time as Lydia becomes more comfortable with how it feels to play the flute.
2. Describing Music
Visual aids in teaching the nuts and bolts of music are non-existent in our lessons, so I've had to become better at finding a wide range of explanations for everything from the staff, meters, time signatures, to articulations, dynamics, and repeat signs (oddly enough that has been the most confusing so far). I've noticed that Lydia thinks more deeply than any student I've ever had. Once she grasps a concept or learns a certain technique, she never loses it. Her mental capacity blows me away every time we have a lesson, and I know this will serve her well as she continues to memorize more and more music. I haven't tried this yet, but I received some advice early on about making tactile representations of these different musical elements so that a visually impaired student can be "clued in" about what the rest of the ensemble sees in the music.
Again, I'm sure this one will remedy itself with plenty more repetition--but there's something about seeing the notes go by on a page as your reading and playing the music that makes feeling the beat so much easier. Since Lydia must first translate the Braille into the notes and rhythm, memorize it, and then play it, applying rhythmic concepts such as keeping a steady beat have been so much more difficult. We will continue to do as much clapping and counting out loud with a metronome/tapping feet as we possibly can, and my hope is that eventually it will "click" with her.
- How To Read Braille Music
- Braille Music Chart
- Real Stories from Blind Musicians
- National Resource Center for Blind Musicians
- Transcription Software and Resources
- Who's Afraid of Braille Music?
- National Federation for the Blind
- Transcription Directory by State
- Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired
- Hadley School for the Blind Music Resources
If you or someone you know has the wonderful opportunity to teach a blind musician, I hope my pointers and resources have helped you in your instruction. I would love to hear your stories, so please leave a comment to join in the conversation!