Braille Technologies for Musicians

Article source: About: Assistive Technology
By Alex Krauth

Blindness is no barrier to learning, sharing, and teaching music. I was born blind due to Retinopathy of Prematurity and have no light perception. However, from the age of two, when I began tapping out melodies on a toy piano, I knew music would be a shaping influence in my life.

Music comes easily to me. I love all genres, from classical to Klezmer, as well as rock, country and even some rap -- so long as there's an important message in the lyrics.

I also have perfect pitch, which means I can sing any note with no external reference and identify by ear both individual pitches and the tones of a chord.

As I finish my coursework at Keene State College in New Hampshire, I thought I'd share some of my experiences on how technology -- both assistive and mainstream -- has helped ready me to reach my career goal of teaching music to elementary schoolchildren.

Converting Sheet Music Into Braille

Perfect pitch and the ability to play basic songs by ear only takes you so far. To really "know" music, you must learn musical notation -- it's the only way to be on the same page as everyone else, be they classmates, bandmates, or your students.
For the sighted, notation conjures images of clefs and little ladle-shaped notes -- blank and blacked out -- set along the lines of a staff, along with key signatures, rhythm dots, rests, and tempo signs and commands.
Since I can't read music with my eyes, the sheet music must be translated into braille. And since nearly all of the people I work with are sighted, I also need a way to create standard notation to complete assignments and share compositions.

Braille Music Project at Keene State

To make music accessible, Keene State's Office of Disability Services (OSD), through its Alternative Textbook Program, created a five-step system to convert sheet music into braille for me. Here's how it works:
  1. A professor emails an assignment, often in the form of a PDF file, to an OSD aide
  2. The aide opens the assignment and readies it for braille conversion using a popular notation program called Sibelius
  3. The Sibelius score is then converted into braille using translation programs from Dancing Dots called GoodFeel, Limewire, and Sharpeye to scan, edit, and prepare the score to be embossed
  4. The score is then embossed (printed) on braille paper and given to me
  5. I study the assignment -- e.g. writing variations on a given key signature and chord of resolution -- and return to ODS and tell the aide what notes to enter into the computer. The completed Sibelius file is then emailed on to my professor
Working one-on-one with the ODS aide is where perfect pitch comes in handy, as I can hear each note as it's entered (Sibelius provides audio feedback) and know immediately whether or not it's correct..

Other Ways to Access Braille Music

This system has worked well for me, though it's not the only way that blind people can access braille music.

Persons with qualifying print disabilities can, for example, access over 30,000 audio, braille, and large-print music scores, texts, and instructional materials from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).

On the technology side, Sibelius add-ons may put more of the braille conversion process in a student's hands provided they have access to an embosser.

There is Sibelius Access, a set of JAWS scripts and plugins that make the program screen-reader compatible; PhotoScore lets you scan sheet music into Sibelius; while Scorch, a plugin, lets you import scores downloaded from the web.

You can then convert files into braille with a translation program and print them out.

Mainstream Technologies Connect Blind Musicians

Not all the technology I use is "assistive." In fact, sites and applications that seem highly visual have been crucial to my growth as a singer, musician, and teacher.

For example, I've put 42 videos up on my YouTube channel. I just flip open my laptop, hit "Record," and then play a Beethoven sonata, teach intervals, or maybe belt out some Glee-inspired karaoke -- usually in one take.

Sometimes you see my face, sometimes just my elbow, or a wall. It's the sharing, not the framing, that matters. That sharing has helped me hone my skills, build a following, and generate over 56,000 video views.

I can't wait to post the video of my senior recital -- which took place in October -- and share the YouTube link via Facebook. I'm also sending concert DVDs to friends and family who couldn't attend.
I've used to Skype to organize "kanikapila" (jam sessions) with my Hawaiian friends (I love Hawaiian music!), do vocal coaching, and listen to and discuss videos and movies with friends and colleagues.
Such high-tech collaboration is vital for those of us with limited mobility. The web is also an ongoing source of feedback, ideas, and inspiration that gives me the courage to try new things.

Technology for Blind Music Teachers

While my ear is my most important teaching tool, I know I'll rely on new technologies -- especially mobile apps for my iPhone -- to plan lessons, organize music, and track students progress.

After college, I plan to apply for teaching jobs in private schools in southern Maine and around Keene, New Hampshire. I also look forward to taking online music technology courses (including sound mixing and notating music for sighted students) designed for blind persons.

In closing, I'd just like to say that one of my guiding philosophies is that we all have a responsibility, whenever possible, to make music, and not just enjoy it.

College has taught me that technology makes this paradigm of shared creativity more possible with every passing month. I can't wait to welcome kids into this dynamic, new world.

About Alex Krauth

Alex Krauth is an aural skills tutor at Keene State College, where she will earn a BA in Music (with a specialization in Music for Elementary Teachers) in May 2013. She has also taught music to children with autism in the York School System in the Maine county where she grew up.

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