The Joy of Music: You Don't Have to See to Have a Music Career

This is a long record. Use the table of contents to jump to sections directly.

Table of Contents:
1. Introduction
2. "The Catch."
3. Music Education
4. Music Careers, Part One: An Overview
5. Music Careers, Part Two: Advice for Success or Make your Opportunities, Don't Wait for Them!
6. Wrap-up
7. Kudos

Internet Resources
1. Braille Music Links
2. Education Links
3. Technology Links
4. Other Musical Links

1. Introduction

What is it about music anyway? It gets in your head. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. It makes you dance, it makes you sit still and listen. Music is expressive. It gives you a thrill, a moment of pure communication without words getting in the way. Haven't you ever listened to a song or other piece of music and felt something move? Haven't you ever said to yourself "Yes! That's it exactly!" when a particular chord or melody resonated inside you? Perhaps a particular passage causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up. Perhaps you feel shivers going up your spine or goosebumps form on your arms and legs. Music takes possession of your body: you breathe with its rhythm, dance to its beat. Like a roller coaster, you sit in its car and ride where it takes you-- up, down, over, under, and side to side-- until the ride is over and you're on your own again.

Wouldn't it be nice to be a musician ? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to create this experience for others? To take a room full of people on a magical secret journey, to show them new and wonderful places, to open wide the mystical windows of the subconscious and then weave those dreams into a tapestry of sounds. Sounds great, doesn't it? You are probably asking (and well you should be asking): "What's the catch?" Fred's Head did some research, talked with some blind musicians to get their input, and prepared this report to answer that question and some others as well. Each section of the report ends with relevant quotations from the blind musicians who shared their experience with us.

"Exhilarating. Sharing a gift with others is what I enjoy most."--Terry Kelly, songwriter and recording artist

"I feel powerful, as if there are no barriers. I can enrich people's lives and cause them to feel... there's nothing like it. I feel grateful for this gift."--Maureen Young, classical soprano soloist and teacher

2. "The Catch."

Becoming a musician requires more than just talent and a willing spirit. It requires work. Hard work. Hard work and lots of it every day. Dreary, monotonous exercises to train your ear. More dreary and monotonous exercises to train your mind in the language of music. Even more dreary and monotonous exercises to train your body to play the instrument(s) of your choice. Then, when you have your skills honed, you spend hours learning how to perform specific pieces: how to make the music in the piece breathe and flow, how to make the phrases sing with joy or cry with sorrow, how to find and transmit every subtle nuance of the music to your audience. It can be very hard to keep at it until you can play the piece perfectly. It is very easy to get discouraged, especially since the music business really doesn't pay well. If you want a lucrative career, find another field. If you want a career that rewards you in other, deeper ways, you must be determined enough to get through the discouraging periods. If you are, and you do get an audience, and you play your heart out and succeed in taking them into the eternal mystery of music-- the satisfaction and the fulfillment you'll feel will justify every day, every hour, every single minute you spent working on those dreary and monotonous exercises for so long.

"...frustration is a daily part of musical life"--Joey Stuckey, songwriter and recording artist

3. Music Education

Let's look at some of the practical details of learning to be a musician. If you haven't already, you need to decide what instrument to play (this includes singing--your voice is an instrument, too). If your school has a music program, take advantage of it. The music teacher can help you choose an instrument and also will help with the next step: finding a private teacher. This is important because a music teacher at a school is a general practitioner-- they will teach you the art of music, but they can't know everything about a whole lot of different instruments. You need to be trained on your instrument by someone who is a specialist with that instrument. Not only will you learn how to play, you will also learn how to maintain your instrument-- it is important to keep it in good shape.

Learning by ear is all well and good, and you should know how to do it, but you should also learn to read music as soon as you can. If you have no useful vision, learn to read braille music. Ask your teacher and use the internet to help you find resources (we have some resources listed at the end of this article). The ability to read music is important-- it gives you a large degree of independence in your selection of pieces to play and it often decreases the amount of time needed to learn a new piece. It also allows you to learn pieces that are so new that they haven't been recorded yet--perhaps you will make the premiere recording!

Will blindness affect playing an instrument? Not very much-- your learning process will differ from a sighted student's. For example, a sighted student learns how to properly hold the instrument by watching the teacher; you will learn the correct posture just as quickly, using touch and verbal direction. The biggest differences have to do with braille music. In most cases you have to memorize the music before you can play it and often it is difficult to find a braille transcription of a particular piece that is common in regular music notation.

Once you have learned pieces, start performing them in public. Play for your family and your friends. Often school programs include recital opportunities: use them all! You should also start playing in ensemble situations. Either through the school orchestra, band, or chorus, or maybe at your church, or even just with your friends-- play with others. It helps if there are some people in the group are experienced-- they can provide leadership and direction to the group and if you pay attention, you can learn from them how to be a leader and director yourself. The important lesson here is to perform in public as much as you can. The more you play for people, the more comfortable you will become with performing.

It is also important to listen to as much music as you can, which isn't hard if you really love the art. What is hard is that you should listen to as many different styles of music as you can. With the development of sound technologies like the MP3 and the explosive expansion of the internet, you can listen to a lot of music from the comfort of your home without a tremendous expense. And there is always the radio and television for listening to current popular styles. Even if you don't understand or just don't like a particular style, you should learn to understand how that style works in order to broaden your knowledge base-- to add more tools to your belt.

As you get to the end of your high school years, you will have a number of serious decisions to make regarding your future. Among these questions are the ones that relate to music. What do want to do? Do you want to make a career out of your talents and be a professional musician? Perhaps you would rather make a career out of some other field and continue doing music on a semi-professional basis. Some people would even consider giving music up at this stage of their life, but those people wouldn't be reading this article, so we won't be discussing that option. Your answers to these questions will help you to decide which higher education path you need to take. Talk to your music teacher(s) and to guidance councilors. Many colleges and universities have music programs, including the music minor for those who wish to have a different major subject. There are also specialized schools for music or for instruction in specific areas of music such as recording technology. The college path gets you a more rounded education, but expect to take four or more years. The specialized schools get you out more quickly, but all you get is the specialized training.

"I would encourage people to learn as much as they can. Seek out people who can teach you braille music or other skills of blindness so you can be as independent as possible."--Stephanie Pieck, pianist and teacher

"There are no shortcuts-- the only way to become a professional musician is to spend almost all of your time trying to perfect your craft"--Joey Stuckey

" music in school and university, study a bit of theatre, study the music business, practice..."--Terry Kelly

4. Music Careers, Part One: An Overview

So what sort of career options are there in music? How do you take your talent and technique and earn a living with it? There are a number of different possibilities that depend on where your particular talents and interests lie. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, musicians and related workers held about 273,000 jobs in 1998. Three-quarters of these were part-time, and just over 2 in 5 were self-employed. 2 out of every 3 musicians in salaried positions (both full- and part-time) are employed by religious organizations.

Teaching: There are different teaching options available. If you want to teach music at a school, you need a college degree in music education and you need to get teaching certification for the state where you want to work. Teaching at the college level is another possibility. This option pretty much requires advanced college degrees (a doctorate or at least a masters) in music. If you don't like the classroom atmosphere, you can teach students privately, one-on-one. With enough private students, you can operate your own studio or school.

Performing: again, lots of possibilities, particularly when you consider all of the different genres of music you could play. You can be a solo artist or a member of a performing group. You could be a conductor, bandleader or a choir director if you have leadership skills.

Composing and Arranging: If your musical gifts extend to creating and arranging new music, you can market these talents. Many musicians are looking for new material to play and advertisers need someone to create those catchy jingles. With luck and the right connections, you might even get to write music for movies or television.

Related work: There are a lot of occupations that require musical knowledge but do not involve musical participation. Examples include music therapy, piano tuning, and instrument repair. Other possibilities require business rather than musical knowledge: concert management, booking agent, music publishing, and music retailing. Other occupations that involve music include music librarian, sound technician, and music critic.

"I've often worried about wasting time... then I discovered that the time I spent worrying I could have been just using. [Therefore] the best way to save time is to use it." John Sanfilippo, pianist and teacher

5. Music Careers, Part Two: Advice for Success or Make your Opportunities, Don't Wait for Them!

Music is a glamorous occupation, and for a select few musicians, an extremely lucrative one. This attracts a great number of talented individuals into the field--which leads to a lot of competition for jobs at all levels. Many people are unable to find enough work to live on and give up or content themselves with playing music part-time and earning a living in some other field.

Like any endeavor, a music career requires dedication, perseverance, self-confidence, and a willingness to risk complete failure. For John Sanfilippo, the hardest part was "turning off my own negatives." There is no set formula, no recipe for success. Maureen Young explains that "you have to go where your talent is and exploit your opportunities- these will be different for everyone." There is no guarantee that you'll succeed even if you do everything right; you will experience what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls "intermittent periods of unemployment" particularly when you are starting out. You have to get out there, stay the course, and make the most of your opportunities. Joey Stuckey says " being persistent and staying visible I was given many wonderful opportunities, which continually elevated my career."

To encourage opportunity to knock on your door, you should master other skills besides music. You can increase your opportunities by getting to know the right people or at least getting these people to know who you are. Terry Kelly emphasizes the need for people skills:

"Learn etiquette, personal grooming, develop communication skills, through self-introduction and attending conferences. Before an individual spends money on a producer, a recording or signs any type of contract it is imperative to seek guidance and information from a seasoned individual in the music industry. Quality recordings and marketing plans as well as personal development are essential to even have a crack in the industry."
Sheila Styron, composer and teacher, also stresses the need for networking and making contacts:
"Get to know everybody who is anybody in the blindness community and take whatever they have to offer: scholarships, performance opportunities, publicity, mentoring, whatever. Surround yourself with strong support, learn to read braille music and make use of teachers, parents, friends to provide as many networking opportunities as possible. Even if you are talented and accomplished, it is still all about having the right connections."

Your personal appearance is important. Maureen Young's agent once told her "before you sing a note, they [the audience] have formed an impression." She passes this lesson on by encouraging her blind students take ballet lessons to help develop fluidity in their movements--"you don't want to appear stiff." Terry Kelly runs a narrow strip of carpet from backstage to his performance area. This simple preparation helps him make a good first impression: it allows him to stride confidently, unassisted, onto the stage.

No matter what form your career path takes, you should be organized. Organization will save you time and effort. Along those same lines, one thing you must learn is how to run a business-- how to keep records, account for your income and expenses, pay the correct taxes on your income, et cetera. Stephanie Pieck sums it up:

"paperwork for [my] studio is organized as much as possible, and I would encourage anyone doing music as a business to find a good, reliable accountant to help with tax preparation. I also write everything down using a Braille N Speak, from student phone numbers, assignments, and schedules, to the bookkeeping stuff. Then it's right there at your fingertips without having a lot of braille paper clutter and without having to boot a computer up every time you want to find something."

6. Wrap-up

Music is one of the finest and most moving of the Arts. Music is everywhere; all cultures have developed some form of music. Creating music is one of the greatest and most thrilling things a person can do. It is an occupation worthy of one's life-long devotion. Trying to survive in today's world by one's musical pursuits is very difficult, but it is not impossible. If you want to pursue a demanding career with tremendous spiritual benefits and are not interested in financial benefits, if music is in your soul and you don't mind periods of intermittent unemployment, and if you are willing to work very hard, don't care about stiff competition and are willing to risk complete failure, then you should consider a career in music.

7. Kudos

Fred's Head would like to extend our heart-felt thanks to the following blind musicians for sharing their time, experience and insight with us:
Terry Kelly, songwriter and solo artist. (Terry Kelly's Web page:,
Stephanie Pieck, pianist and teacher,
John Sanfilippo, pianist and teacher,
Joey Stuckey, solo artist, composer and teacher. (Joey Stuckey's Web site: ),
Sheila Styron, composer and teacher,
and Maureen Young, classical soprano soloist and teacher.

Internet resources

1. Braille Music Links

BrailleM electronic mailing list
BrailleM is a place for discussing and learning about all aspects of braille music code. The list is designed to help beginners in Braille music and give them a place where they can ask questions of more experienced braille music users. The list will also be useful to more experienced users, who can discuss about more difficult passages and formats.

National Braille Association, Inc.
Maintains a collection of braille music in addition to their other services. See their website for pricing information or to order a free catalogue.
National Braille Association, Inc.
Three Townline Circle
Rochester, NY 14623-2513
Phone : (716) 427-8660
Fax: (716) 427-0263
Website: National Braille Association:

2. Education Links

Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired (MENVI)
MENVI is a coalition of parents, educators and students. Operated by blind musicians and teachers for blind musicians and their teachers, MENVI is an information network and resource.
Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired (MENVI)
Southern California Conservatory of Music
MENVI Headquarters
8711 Sunland Boulevard
Sun Valley, CA 91352
Phone: (818) 767-6554
Fax: (818) 768-6242
Website: Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired:

Hadley School for the Blind
The Hadley School for the Blind offers free distance learning courses for the blind and their families. Among the many courses they offer is a course on the braille music code which has provided essential instruction for many blind students who would not have had access to the music code otherwise.
Hadley School for the Blind
700 Elm Street
Winnetka, IL 60093-0299
Phone: (847) 446-8111
Fax: (847) 446-9916
Toll-free: (800) 323-4238
Website: Hadley School for the Blind:

An interesting system for learning braille, they have a music code set available
P.O. Box 475
Plaistow, NH 03865-0475
Tel. (603) 382-1904
Fax (603) 382-1748
Website: Tack-tiles:

Braille through Remote Learning (BRL)
BRL is an online instructional program that provides teachers, parents, social workers, and current/future braille transcribers with a series of three integrated online courses in braille and braille transcribing. These courses are free. They have the 1997 braille music code online (Braille through Remote Learning:, but in order to see the braille, you need to download a special true type font, simbraille. Instructions for downloading and installing the font are available here:
BRL Instructions:

MENC: The National Association for Music Education
MENC is a professional organization for Music educators. Lots of useful information is available from their website.
1806 Robert Fulton Drive
Reston, VA 20191
Phone: (703) 860-4000
Toll-free: (800) 336-3768
Website: National Association for Music Education (MENC):

Dr. Fred Kersten has collected information for music teachers trying to accommodate blind and visually impaired students in main-stream classrooms. The results of his research are made available in his Web page:Fred Kersten's Page: AM 1/14/2005 tml

3. Technology Links

Music and Arts Center for the Handicapped (MACH)
This organization holds an annual Summer Institute for Blind College-bound Musicians. They also have a National Resource Center that you can contact with questions about braille music or music technology and they provide workshops and basic music technology training to teachers and college students throughout New England.
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

Dancing Dots
Software company that has developed "Goodfeel," a program that transcribes certain types of music notation files, including midi files, into braille music. It is available in different option packages, one of which includes Midiscan--a program that converts scanned printed music into a midi file.
Dancing Dots
1754 Quarry Lane
P.O. Box 927
Valley Forge, PA 19482-0927
Phone: 610 783-6692
Fax: 610 783-6732
Website: Dancing dots:

Opus Technologies
Software company that developed the program Opus Dots Lite--software that converts scanned print music into braille. They also distribute Optek Systems' Toccata software. Toccata transcribes braille music from scanned printed music and from midi files. You can also enter music into a file directly.
Opus Technologies
13333 Thunderhead Street
San Diego, CA 92129-2329 USA
Toll-free Phone: (866) OPUSTEC or (866) 678-7832
Telephone: (858) 538-9401
Fax: (858) 538-9401
Website: Opus Technologies:

4. Other Musical Links

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has a fascinating report on the field of music, including information about salaries and working conditions.
United States Bureau of Labor Statistics:

American Federation of Musicians of the U.S. and Canada
The largest musicians' union in the world.
American Federation of Musicians of the U.S. and Canada:

The Cook Music Library of Indiana University has assembled a collection of links to music resources. It is organized into several categories including the following: individual musicians, composers and composition, research and study, and journals and magazines.
Cook Music Library of Indiana University:


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