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from the Winter 97 issue

Music in the Key of Life

by Paula Wright, Instrumental Instructor, TSBVI
and Kate Moss, Family Training Specialist, TSBVI Outreach

When many of us think about individuals who are visually impaired, we think of musicians such as Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. Music seems like a natural match for people with visual impairments. After all, aren't they able to hear better than people without visual impairments? Like many stereotypes about people with disabilities, this is not true. As Paula Wright noted when we met to talk about teaching students with visual impairments to play musical instruments, "It is truly 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." However, if a student is motivated to learn a musical instrument, it can bring a richness to her life and teach some important lessons.

If you are thinking that your son or daughter should learn to play an instrument, think about this. There are four traits that Mrs. Wright feels a student must have: a good ear, good coordination, the ability to concentrate, and most importantly, a great deal of motivation. Some of these traits can be developed, but motivation can not be taught.

If your child is really motivated to learn an instrument, how do you begin? What instrument should she learn? Can she join the school band or orchestra as a way to learn music or does she need private lessons? Are there special adaptive techniques and technologies that will help him learn the instrument easier?

Before a student begins instruction with Mrs. Wright, she likes to discuss their goals in wanting to learn to play. Some students may be considering music as a possible career while others simply want to learn music for their own pleasure. However, since motivation is key to learning an instrument, Mrs. Wright wants the student to be clear about her own personal goals. Learning an instrument takes a lot of time and energy. If the student is doing it only to please her parents, the experience may prove frustrating for everyone.

Selecting an instrument, may take more time for the student with visual impairment. Mrs. Wright feels that the student should listen to a variety of instruments and think about the sound that they find most appealing. Some instruments are more difficult than others to learn, especially for a student who is visually impaired. For example, a violin requires the player to position the bow arm at a precise angle to the strings. This may be more difficult for the visually impaired student who must rely on remembering how the position feels rather than how it looks. Students at TSBVI have the option of learning to play piano, guitar, wind, brass, and stringed instruments. Paula helps the student in finding the perfect match taking into consideration such factors as their interest in the sound the instrument produces and physiological considerations.

Mrs. Wright suggests that it is very difficult for a student with visual impairments to learn an instrument through large group instruction. Usually individual instruction works best, although small group instruction (no more than 4 students) can be used for some aspects of instruction. Parents may want to consider private lessons initially or as a supplement to instruction in a school program. Most school music programs are not set up to allow the music teacher time to offer individual instruction to students. However, a more advanced student might be able to tutor the student with visual impairment. Contacting college or university music departments in your area may be one way to find a private instructor for your child.

Because students who are totally blind may not have any image of the instrument and how the sound is produced, they need time and guidance to explore the instrument. For example, Mrs. Wright will have her students explore the inside and the outside of the piano. They will feel the strings and the hammers that strike the strings. They explore the keyboard, the pedals, etc. They learn how their instrument produces sound before they go any further.

Learning to position the instrument may also be an issue for children who are significantly visually impaired. Teachers may need to physically position the student with her instrument and coactively work on fingerings since she may never have seen how someone holds the instrument or fingers it. Students with visual impairment typically learn the correct position only through repeated positioning by their teacher.

Once the student has selected an instrument, she will need to learn about music. Although there is braille music, few students use it. It is cumbersome, or sometimes impossible, to read a line of braille with one hand and play with the other. However, some professional musicians who are visually impaired, use it to learn a score that they will then play from memory. This gives them the advantage of being able to sight-read new music and interpret first-hand how the composer intends the music to be played. Someone studying singing might find braille notation to be very helpful.

Braille music is not the same type of braille that students use to read books or to take notes. Musical braille notation, although once taught extensively, is not taught much anymore in this country. Some of the European countries still teach it and have extensive libraries of musical scores in braille.

You can find braille music through the Library of Congress and through American Printing House for the Blind. Dancing Dots is a company that specializes in transcribing music from print to Braille using computer technology. They can produce braille music in a fast and timely fashion. For more information on services that they offer, contact the company at 610-783-6692 or send an e-mail to

Finding someone who can teach this form of braille, however, is more difficult. Sighted music instructors may find it too difficult to learn. Louise Kimbro of Elsmere, KY, who uses braille music notation, says that, like shorthand, some people can pick it up easily and others can't seem to get it no matter how hard they try. However, if a student can not learn to play by ear, this may be an option to explore.

Paula did not set out to be a teacher of the visually impaired. In fact, she began her work at TSBVI as a favor to friends, Forrest and Dorothy Goodenough, who were teachers at TSBVI. After working with the students for a while however, she discovered that she really enjoyed working with these students. She eventually went on to get her vision certification, but many of the techniques she uses to teach are not that different than those used to teach sighted individuals.

Mrs. Wright does adapt some materials. She uses flash cards as a way to teach students some of the musical symbols if they have sufficient vision. They work on concepts of left and right, up and down. Musical pieces may be enlarged using the enlarging option on a photocopier. However, much of the work of learning music comes from listening. Typically students will spend time listening to pieces of music, focusing on a particular instrument, paying attention to rhythms, pitch, and intensity of sounds. One student whom I spoke with said he could not pick out many sounds when he first started working with Mrs. Wright, but practice in listening has greatly improved his skills in this area.

Most of Mrs. Wright's students learn music by ear. She tapes scales, chords, and songs noting what each pitch or cord is. The student listens to these tapes and practices making each pitch. She also breaks the music into short musical phrases that she labels as A, B, C, etc. These phrases or "themes" reoccur again and again in the score. Sometimes they are altered slightly (e.g., a phrase ends in a whole note instead of two half-notes) and these are identified as A1, B1, etc. Once the student memorizes the phrase she can help them string the phrases together in a particular sequence. For example, A, B, A1, B, C, A, A1, etc. It takes students longer to learn a song this way, but typically when they get it memorized they never forget it.

There are many commercially-available computer programs that are created to teach music to sighted learners. These programs may or may not be appropriate for students with visual impairments. When choosing a program, keep in mind the student's needs and understanding of music. Having a basic knowledge of music will help a student acquire concepts addressed in the computer program.

It helps if you have a good ear for music and if you have perfect pitch. However, even if you don't have these gifts, you can learn to play an instrument if you are persistent. Mrs. Wright currently has students who are also partially hearing impaired. Although learning to play is more difficult for them, they are making progress and seem to enjoy the activity. Like most activities you have to be prepared to practice, practice, practice. Students usually need instruction at least three times a week. Once-a-week lessons are not very effective for the student with visual impairments.

Mrs. Wright emphasizes basic music theory, learning cords, scales, etc. Students learning to play the piano for example, spend a long time just learning the keyboard. Mrs. Wright does not use tactile markers to help the student find the correct keys. She takes students through exercises such as the one where she has them move along the keyboard to find the "C" keys. Many of these exercises are the same ones that sighted students practice.

Paula prefers to have students begin their instruction in music at an early age, however, older students who are properly motivated can do quite well. Younger students usually have short instructional times, 5-10 minutes, and then practice the lesson on their own. Older students are able to work for longer periods of time and Mrs. Wright pushes them to stretch their skills and their ability to concentrate for longer periods.

Mrs. Wright, who has played cello for the Austin, Houston, and Oklahoma City Symphony, is classically trained. She believes in developing a good classical foundation for all of her students. The student is required to learn one classical piece and select another piece of music from the pop, country, jazz, or rock categories. Each of her students, beginning at the end of their first year of instruction, are required to perform at a recital. Paula helps the student pick a piece he or she is comfortable performing, even if it is an easy piece. The experience of performing in front of others, builds self confidence and poise. These traits she feels are important for the child to have to be successful in any aspect of her life.

Learning to play an instrument can be a wonderful thing for a child with a visual impairment. It may provide him with an additional social outlet or a recreational activity that enriches her time alone. It can be a way to draw people without disabilities to the child. It can build many important skills and traits such as coordination, concentration, self-discipline, self esteem, and perseverance. However, playing a musical instrument is not for everyone. Discuss the pros and cons with your child before committing to music lessons. Find out where you can get some individual support for him if it is needed. Talk to your school band director or chOír director and vision teacher about how students who are visually impaired can be included in their programs.

If you have questions, you may write to Paula Wright at TSBVI or contact Louise Kimbro at 3746 Autumn Rd., Elsmere, KY 41018, phone: (606) 727-3955.

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