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by Bill McCann, President and founder of Dancing Dots and Holly Cooper, Ph.D., TSBVI Outreach Deafblind Education Consultant
Abstract: During a summer program offered by TSBVI in 2006, students learned how to use computers, software and MIDI keyboards to compose music, input it into a computer, and read and edit it with screen reading software.
Keywords: programming, braille music, braille technology, blind musicians.
Many teenagers are big music fans and some are also interested in playing or singing in organized settings. Ask almost any teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), and she will probably say her students are even more likely to be interested in music than the average person their age. However, many TVIs are at a loss for how to support students with blindness in music classes if they are not musicians themselves. Few TVI's know how to read music, let alone braille music. Some students with visual impairments are fortunate enough to have access to braille music; some learn to play new songs by ear. But now technology exists which can translate print music into braille, and use screen reading technology such as JAWS with music editing software, so users who are blind can compose and edit music notation.
This past summer, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) offered a special summer session on braille music, and plans are underway to repeat a similar program in 2007. The class was taught by TSBVI music director, Jane Rundquist, John Castillo, assistant music director, and Bill McCann, president and founder of Dancing Dots, a software company which develops products for musicians who are blind. Bill McCann describes below the summer program in which he and the students and teachers participated.
During our first-ever Braille Music Camp at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin, held in June 2006, nine talented and highly motivated young blind musicians learned how to use technology from Dancing Dots to prepare musical pieces. They learned how to enter individual notes by typing on the PC keyboard or playing on an attached musical keyboard. They played their pieces back to listen for places that needed improvement, and applied new skills they learned to make needed corrections. When they were satisfied with the results, they learned how to print their pieces for sighted musi cians to read, and how to create a companion braille score using GOODFEEL from Dancing Dots. Individual selections ranged from songs by Brahms to Elvis, along with a few original compositions.
Our students also refined their braille music skills using a braille music course authored by Richard Taesch of the Southern California Conservatory of Music. Jane Rundquist coached the students in the ancient art of solfeggio singing. Each degree of the musical scale has its own solfege syllable: C is "DO", D is "RE", E is "MI", etc. This system was made famous in the "Doe, a Deer" song from the popular musical The Sound of Music.
Although we definitely focused on how to read and write music in both braille and print, the students had some time for creative expression through the performance medium of sound using the SONAR software. The result was a mix of original arrangements and compositions. Most notable was a protest song entitled "I Want to be a Rock Star" written and performed by Daniel Martínez. Danny first recorded himself playing his guitar. Then, as he listened to his guitar track through headphones, he sang and recorded his vocal track. The results were impressive.
On the final day of our camp, we gathered in TSBVI's auditorium. Teachers, parents, school staff and fellow students gathered to witness our presentation of the fruits of the labor of our young musicians. Sighted members of the audience watched a video screen that displayed the music notation for each student's class project. Everyone listened to the pieces played back on a laptop computer. Then Kristi Kneedler, a talented player of the baritone horn, played a duet with her teacher on cornet. With her left hand, Kristi read the bass line to Bach's Sleepers Awake from a braille score created by Dancing Dots' GOODFEEL software while she worked the valves of the baby tuba balanced on her knee! This demonstration was a great crowd-pleaser. The crowd also enjoyed a few SONAR recordings produced by some of the students, "I Want to be a Rock Star" in particular. After that, Ms Rundquist led her chorus of solfege singers in their unique arrangement of My Country 'tis of Thee sung first as separate parts, and then in the traditional four-part harmony with Kristi accompanying on her baritone. Each group sang their part of this familiar song using the solfege syllables instead of the well-known words while reading their own part in braille music notation. Yes, blind people can "sight read"!
The program ended with a surprise musical presentation to Mr. McCann in which the students expressed their thanks for what they had learned at our camp in a lovely song. Young Miss Kneedler told the group during their final rehearsal that the camp had been "the best thing that ever happened to her in her whole life!" To say that hearing that statement made her teacher's day, would be the understatement of the year!
Certainly each of these young, talented, and intelligent students learned some new musical and technical skills and sharpened the skills they brought with them. But what I hope I gave them all, in addition, was the confidence to believe that they could move into a new situation, work hard, and excel. Music and technology can teach us so many life skills: discipline; patience; tenacity; concentration; teamwork; presentation techniques; poise; self-assuredness; and on and on and on. It was my pleasure to watch these young people progress over the two short weeks we shared and increase their own store of these life skills.
Plans for next year are still tentative. Sharon Nichols, the program coordinator, Jane Rundquist and Bill McCann had a conference recently to discuss possibilities. Everyone agreed that the program had been a success on many levels and that we would like to do an encore next summer. There are a number of ideas for making this an even more productive session. More information will be available in the Summer Program information that will be posted to the TSBVI website.
Dancing Dots offers a suite of mainstream and assistive technology software that provides many features to musicians. Sighted individuals who can read conventional printed music (staff notation) can scan, edit and automatically transcribe print music into the equivalent braille music notation. These "copyists" need not necessarily know anything about braille. Music can also be played directly into the software's editor via an electronic musical keyboard, or even imported from programs like Finale and Sibelius, the two music notation editors used by the majority of music educators in the U.S. and abroad.
The following are the tools used in the Braille Music Technology summer program at TSBVI.
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