This past week, as I mentioned in my last post, the North Dakota School for the Blind hosted it’s first ever Braille Music Institute. During that time, we were lucky enough to have with us Bill McCann, founder and creator of the Dancing Dots company, which produces the Goodfeel Suite of software that can be used by and for Blind Musicians to produce what he calls “accessible scores,” or music that can be read by either a sighted or blind individual. During our institute, students learned how to do this by scanning print music into a computer equipped with the program JAWS, a screenreader that collects print information and reads it aloud to the user. From the scanned music, students were able to convert the lines and dots on the page to braille music that could be played back auditorally on their computer or read with their fingers through a tactile braille display below the regular keyboard. We were also lucky enough to be able to purchase equipment called Limelighters, so our Low Vision students could additionally get their music enlarged on a touchscreen for easier reading and portability.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the sheer girth of each photo’s captions alone, there’s a lot that these programs can do for users who are blind or low vision, and a lot that we did this week using them – far more than I could certainly go into detail about here! In the four days students were on campus, they spent a total of 9 hours in direct instruction on music notation and transcribing technology, visited two local theatres (attending an audio-described production of Oliver at one of them – very cool!), and had the opportunity to network with local peers from the Summer Performing Arts Company (SPA) about the challenges and rewards of pursuing a life full of music and art. But I thought I’d share with you some of the basic things I learned this week about music for and by individuals who are visually impaired, in the form of 3 considerations you can make as an individual, student, educator, or therapist:
1. Never be afraid to move beyond your assumptions and ask an individual who is blind how their experience is going. If you’ve ever found yourself working with a blind or low-vision student and wondering “Are they understanding this?” – that one consideration can mean the difference between an individual truly experiencing the music, and just “being there” for it. If the individual you’re addressing is verbal use questions like “How is this going for you?” “What are you gathering from everything that’s happening?” or “Tell me what you’re hearing right now – what does that mean to you?” and follow-up from their answers with confirmation or providing additional information (i.e., “Ok, you heard that – good! So did I – you might like to know that while that was happening, this was also going on,” etc.,) Frequent comprehension checks open the door to letting them express any concerns or gaps in understanding that they may be experiencing, as well as educating you on how they are learning and perceiving, so that you can adjust as is necessary and you are able.
2. If the individual you’re working with isn’t verbal, or you’ve determined that they aren’t getting everything there is, ask the question (either of yourself, or of them directly) “What do you think would make this easier to understand?” Most likely, a verbal individual will tell you what would help (i.e., “if I could have a braille program telling me who the characters are, I might be able to better follow the relationships unfolding onstage.”). If the individual isn’t verbal, think creatively. What is the information they’re missing? Is it something that could be represented in a tactile, physical way? Or maybe an auditory one? If so, are there adjustments you can make in that moment, or (like the Braille program example) is it something you’ll have to log away and remember to do next time? Make whatever adaptations you can in the moment, and then confirm to the individual you’re working with that you’ll make further adjustments next time and thank them for their input. Then it’s time to…
3. Locate the professionals near you that can help to make the necessary adjustments for the individual you are working with the experience a fuller understanding of whatever material you’re using. Perhaps your local School for the Blind has an audio describer that can work with you like the one we found, providing descriptions of any visual information your client might miss via a microphone that they wear to communicate to the blind or low vision individual wearing the headset to hear them. Or perhaps you can contact someone about arranging an advance tour of the theatre or performance hall, so that the individual can get a sense of the layout or costumes before the show. Free-lance Braille transcribers operate all over the country as well, making reasonably priced Braille transcriptions of everything from menus to programs and more – many of them have websites or can be found via referral through calling your local school or other agency for the Blind. Don’t ever let “well I can’t do it!” stop you from finding someone who can!
You might find these tips useful in a variety of scenarios. It never hurts to challenge the status quo and seek out the adaptations you need. An internet search and a phonecall or two may well show you someone out there has had the same issues you do and found a solution! Until I discovered the ND School for the Blind, I had no idea Braille Music was out there, or that so many students were hungry for it. Now I know that the more tools and opportunities I discover to enhance my students’ learning, the more people I involve in the process, and the more places I can get to accommodate those people and opportunities, the more success my students will have – more people, more places, more often, more progress – and that goes for every individual I serve!
Coming soon: a look at the new journey I’m embarking on as a Music Therapist on vocal rest. What I’m learning in my 8 weeks without singing (spoiler alert: it’s a lot!)