A Blind Student’s Guide to Music Education in College
College can present many challenges for a blind music student. Such challenges may include:
limited access to course materials
lack of support from teachers
insufficient access to comprehensive music technology training
In addition to these commonly encountered difficulties, I have received numerous questions related to blind students’ access to music education. These questions include:
What do I do if a teacher isn’t accommodating?
How do I complete projects for my music theory classes?
How do I learn my music for band/orchestra?
In general, how can I best advocate for myself in school?
These are all valid concerns, and if unaddressed, these questions and issues can lead to a stressful college experience for a blind student. Therefore, I hope that this article will be a helpful tool for students and teachers as the transition to college begins.
First, it is important to discuss a few basics concerning the rigorous expectations of any course of study at music school. Regardless of the chosen major, students are required to complete a certain number of private lessons, ear training and theory courses, as well as ensembles before pursuing their chosen field of study in depth. Depending on the student’s concentration (i.e. composition), requirements can vary. For instance, a composition major will need more music theory and arranging classes. Similarly, a student majoring in music performance will take more ensemble classes and private lessons on their principal instrument. A blind student needs to have some key fundamentals in place to ensure a successful and enriching experience.
1. A keen ear for music. Often, blind musicians are not encouraged to use braille music, either due to lack of available resources (i.e. braille music transcribers or materials from the Library of Congress). For this reason, the ability to figure out parts by ear can be beneficial.
2. A basic level of proficiency in music technology. One of the most important software programs for a blind student to be familiar with is Sibelius, which is a music notation program. This program will allow for independent completion of music theory assignments, and it will also enable a student to build composition skills. It is important to note that at this point, Sibelius 5 is the only version of the program that will work with a computer screen reader, such as JAWS for Windows. Other important programs include those used for recording, such as Protools, Logic, and GarageBand. Knowledge of basic recording skills is essential, as a student will need to record assignments, lessons, rehearsals, et cetera. Personally, I have found a smartphone or tablet, such as an iPhone or iPad to be a useful tool for these recording projects. Speaking of the iPhone, it is worthwhile to discuss a few apps that are particularly helpful for other aspects of majoring in music. The Amazing Slowdowner is an app that can slow down music for someone who is learning by ear. The sound quality is excellent— there is little distortion when the audio is played back at a slower speed. Furthermore,this app is very accessible to those who are blind. Keeping in mind the important skill of reading music, there is also a program, Lime, distributed by Dancing Dots, that allows a blind musician to read a piece in braille on a refreshable braille display. Lime also supports note entry so can be used for composing. Goodfeel allows for the music to be embossed on a braille embosser if the student does not have access to a braille display.
I encourage students considering music study in college to make obtaining technology skills a priority, and if possible, to do so before beginning at your university or college of choice. It will make life easier in many ways. There are some summer programs that teach these skills to high school and college students The most comprehensive is the five-week summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Those students attending Berklee as majors enjoy continuing support by taking music technology courses during the regular school year, and there is no limit to the umber of times a student can take the course; moreover, it is possible for the course to be tailored to meet a student’s particular needs concerning all of the above mentioned software. Besides Berklee,some schools for the blind and certain locations of the Lighthouse for the Blind offer introductory courses in music technology. Another option that blind students have is to request one on one training from their state rehabilitation agency. These agencies are also required to purchase any equipment and software necessary for use in college, which will assure an equal playing field for blind and sighted students. in school.
3. A basic proficiency in braille music is important because it helps a blind student to understand the way that notation is presented to sighted musicians; moreover, reading music actually enhances the ear, as well as abilities as a composer. Some students choose to rely almost completely on braille music for learning, which can be a time-consuming process, and there are times when braille music is not available; therefore, it is advisable to find a balance between learning music by reading and learning it by ear. Braille music training is also offered through the avenues previously mentioned. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, offered by the Library of Congress, is an excellent resource for obtaining braille music. There is an ever growing catalogue, ranging from solo literature to orchestral scores; jazz musicians can find lead sheets and other pieces from the repertoire. If a student has a strong preference for using braille music, it is imperative to find a certified braille music transcriber.
It is important to note that careful planning is necessary when having music transcribed; for example, if a student has a band audition in a month, the transcriber should have the music two months in advance. This will give the student ample time to learn the music without having to rush.
4. Be a strong advocate! This is probably one of the most important skills (and certainly one of the most practical and frequently used skills) for a blind music student to have. By communicating specific needs effectively to teachers, band directors, and other people at the university, a blind student will find the most success and ease throughout the time of study. (This skill will certainly carry over into many other aspects of life in college and beyond; we as blind people must continually advocate for ourselves in many situations.) Speak with the teacher on the first day of class and talk about strategies for making the course and the assignments as accessible as possible; attending office hours frequently (once a week if possible) is also extremely helpful, as it keeps the lines of communication open throughout the semester. Attending office hours is especially in theory and ear training courses, where extensive analysis of musical examples is a regular part of the routine. I found that teachers were understanding and eager to give me the best possible experience; however, this is not true in all situations. If a teacher seems reluctant to accommodate or unsure of the best methods, it is advisable that the student set up a meeting with the disability services coordinator at the college, who should be able to mediate a discussion, to make suggestions and to bring in other parties if necessary. Time is of the essence when resolving these issues, though; a student should not get too far behind in coursework. If it is determined that a particular teacher is not the best match for the blind student, it may be necessary to take the course from a different teacher. On a related note, if a student has a hard time learning music for ensembles, the student should first ask their private instructor to help them learn the material. For example, if a student needs to learn a part for an orchestral piece, the instructor can record themselves playing the student’s part over an existing recording. This method allows the student to hear their part in the context of the entire ensemble. The disability services office could possibly help facilitate the recording of parts for a blind student by hiring a work study student to record; this work study student should be proficient on their instrument and have good site reading skills. If a blind student uses braille music as their primary method of learning, they are encouraged to use braille in conjunction with recordings to expedite the process of learning parts. This combination of reading and listening will help to facilitate the development of the student’s ear while sharpening their reading skills. Having as many options as possible to learn music, especially for a demanding ensemble like band or choir is important.
5. Strong orientation and mobility skills. Everyone is overwhelmed when first stepping on to a college campus; while a campus can be challenging for a blind student, with proper orientation and mobility instruction, the student can learn to navigate the winding paths and large buildings confidently. Students can obtain this instruction through their state rehabilitation agency. The amount of time required to complete orientation and mobility training will vary based on the individual; some may learn the campus within a couple of weeks, while others will need a few months of work with an instructor. Independent travel skills are invaluable to a blind student; they will get to and from their classes punctually and will also be able to fully engage in campus life wherever it may take them.
Teaching a blind student can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, and you will find that it is not much different from teaching a sighted student. As long as there is effective communication between you and the student, you will find that only a few modifications to your teaching style will provide a successful learning experience for the student. For instance, if you rely heavily on a chalkboard or projector to present examples, consider reading these things aloud, or sending the material to your blind student in advance so that they can follow along in class. Also, if a student has a limited amount of vision, encourage them to sit at the front of the room if this would help them see the written examples. If such examples consist of notation, consider playing through them on the piano so that the student can hear what is happening and engage in the discussion. When it comes to submitting assignments, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your student; there may be more than one way for the student to complete an assignment effectively, depending on the student’s skills with music technology and proficiency in braille music. In some cases, it may make more sense for a student to complete an assignment by dictating it to you in an office hour. (This method of dictation may also work well for exams.) Keep in mind that it usually takes a blind student longer to complete assignments; therefore, it may be necessary to reduce the amount of homework you give them. A student will gain a better understanding of material if they are not weighted down with time-consuming work. For example, if a homework assignment is to provide analysis for ten chord progressions, and then to voice lead or fill in voices for five other exercises, consider reducing the analysis portion of the assignment by half, and then give the student two or three voice leading exercises. Have the student come to your office hour to complete the analysis portion of the assignment, and ask them to complete the voice leading examples on their own. This will ensure that the student is using all of their skills and not solely relying on dictation; moreover, you will be able to ensure that the student has a good understanding of the way music is presented visually.
Hopefully, this article has been helpful for blind students and teachers and has provided some useful strategies for success as a music major in college. There are some unique challenges,but with proper support and skills, students will have an enriching experience full of growth and learning.