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Keyboard instruction of blind musicians relies much more upon the careful selection and occasional modification of techniques used with sighted students than it does upon the cultivation of new techniques. In support of this viewpoint, we sight a remark made by Edward Isaacs, a British concert pianist and teacher of this century who was blinded in the middle of his career. In A Handbook for Blind Teachers of Music (London: Royal National Institute for the Blind, 1945) he states: "When I knew my sight was gradually leaving me for good I told myself that I must learn to play and to teach anew.
By the time I was able to reappear in public, encouraged thereto by many opinions that I need not ask for allowances to be made on account of my blindness, I discovered that I had not learnt anew, but that I had simply adapted all the principles and habits of good sighted playing and teaching to my new condition" Of course, in selecting and adapting "the principles and habits of good sighted playing," one must remember that just as no two sighted people come to an instrument equally equipped in talent and skill, neither do any two blind people.
This can be disconcerting to anyone seeking an easy teaching formula, but it can be an exciting venture which challenges both teacher and student to evaluate previous methods of instruction and to explore new ones. The teacher who expects and engenders responsibility, confidence, initiative, and creative problem solving in all students, whether blind or not, increases the student's chances of success in the music world and in the world at large. The area of mobility offers an excellent example of the correlation between improved attitudes of self and improved keyboard proficiency. In observing blind keyboard students, we have seen an uncanny relationship between one's ability to travel freely and without fear and the relative freedom a student posssses in "getting around" the piano or the organ console.
We would like to suggest two reasons for this apparent connection. By developing good mobility skills, the blind student need not rely on another person for matters as simple as locating the piano in his teacher's studio to those as involved as attending concerts on his own, getting to the library, and, in short, participating fully in musical events. We suggest that the confidence that comes from this kind of self-reliance will carry over into one's methods of study and manner of playing. The second reason for this connection between mobility and keyboard proficiency is much more overt.
The cultivation of space perception or the ability to judge distances will have an obvious effect upon keyboard instrumentalists. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the matter of negotiating leaps. True, many sighted players will assure you that they never watch their hands while they play. Most, however, when pressed will finally admit that, although they do not look over ninety percent of the time, they are most likely to take a quick glance before a crucial jump in order to gauge the distance.
The proficient blind pianist or organist will compensate by developing a mental picture of the keyboard. The development of this mental image, complete with all the appropriate spacial relationships, is an arduous task which must assume maximum importance from the very first lesson. To be sure, the techniques are precisely those used with sighted students; the only difference may be in the degree of strict adherence to them.
The student cannot develop good perception if allowed to sit improperly at the instrument. Teachers should be particularly aware of the tendency of some blind players to sit too close to the piano. This may be due to a fear of losing physical contact with the instrument.
Still another bad habit requiring immediate correction is that of feeling for the notes at a crucial jump. This is cheating and cannot be permitted despite all manner of protests by the student; if it is tolerated, it will reduce greatly or even eliminate the student's chances of developing spacial judgement. Moreover, if a blind pianist is busy feeling for notes, he will have compromised any proper attack of the note after the leap.
Organists, equipped with a good piano background, should already have confronted this problem before arriving at the console. However, there are new spacial relationships to develop here, and these must be treated in the same way. The teacher should discourage the blind student from "checking out the scenery along the way" when making manual jumps, reaching for stops, changing pistons or developing pedal technique. There are some practical suggestions for iimproving keyboard mobility. At the risk of making our point too strongly, we remind you that none of these are techniques foreign to the sighted student.
One should always be conscious of where the thumb is. The thumb is important not only in balancing the hand during performance, but also in serving as a reference against which the spacing of the other fingers is measureed. Thus, for example, if one wished to land upon the fourth finger after a leap, he should prepare the thumb as well as that finger. In establishing any distance, whether it be between two notes or in locating a stop or piston, the student should move swiftly and assertively to the desired note, stop, et cetera, making certain to follow the most direct path it, before touching it. Only when the leap has been executed accurately should the student play the note or pull the stop. This practice method forces the one to think about what one is doing and should help to eliminate wild, haphazard movements whose poor results can only serve to undermine confidence. In performance, this method will take on the form of one consolidated movement. In confronting a variety of organ consoles whose dispositions differ strikingly, a blind organist must learn to make constant use of this procedure. Because, however, organists often do not receive as much time to adjust to a new instrument as would be ideal, they must decide which risks to take in practice and which they will not take in performance.
One very effective way in which our teacher, Andre Marchal, simplified adjustment to a new console was to chart the location of pistons by means of notes on the manual. Thus, he might note that Swell 1 sat directly below the D adjacent to middle C on the swell, that Swell 2 was below F, Swell 3 below A, and so on. We used to think this was one example of a technique developed especially for the blind. However, we later learned from William Hays and Eugene Roan who, at the time, were members of the organ faculty at Westminster Choir College, that Alexander MacCurdy used precisely this method with his sighted students at the Curtis Institute of Music. Already, we have mentioned the bearing that a blind person's self image is likely to have upon the success rate as a keyboard student. Now, let us turn our attention to some poorly conceived images of blindness harbored by many sighted people. There are two such misconceptions most prevalent among the sighted; both seem to stem from feelings of fear or inadequacy which the unimpaired person imagines he would have if he were to lose his sight, suddenly.
This kind of projection is most often erroneous since it is applicable neither to the situation of the many visually impaired people who were born blind and who never had to make an adjustment to the loss of sight, nor to that of many others who lost their vision at an early age and who were flexible enough to learn new ways of accomplishing those things important to their lifestyles. People who represent the first of the two falacious points of view assume that, due to a disability, a person without sight cannot be expected to perform as well as his sighted colleagues, or that, if he does as well as they, he is worthy of greater admiration for his accomplishments despite greater adversity.
Those who favor the other misconception see blind people as endowed with inherently better senses of hearing and touch and a higher spirituality to compensate for their lack of vision. Perhaps this is why in Greek mythology, blind people are seen as prophets and poets -- that is, those blind people who were not left as babies to die on the Acropolis. In this category are those who expect blind people necessarily to be better musicians with perfect pitch, greater aural retention, and greater facility in ear-training. To follow this line of thinking confuses talent, which is endowed with acuity, which is developed. Basing your approach to a blind student upon either of these misconceptions may, in the final analysis, jeopardize your effectiveness as a teacher. Some concerns of sighted teachers about teaching a blind student result not so much from misguidance as from anxiety of the unknown. "Should I avoid references to sight?" and "How do I know if I'm offering too little or too much help to a blind person?" are two questions reflecting this anxiety. In almost every case, there is no need to guard against "sight" words in speaking with your blind student. Struggling to avoid phrases like "take a look at your score," or "do you see what I mean?" only wastes time and energy which could be spent better in teaching; it also tells the student that you feel terribly uncomfortable. When situations arise that seem to warrant special attention, and you feel uncertain of how to approach them, simply ask the student to tell you when, and in what ways you can be of most help. This will eliminate unnecessary worry and second-guessing and will allow the student to be in charge of the situation.
Another possible cause for anxiety arises from the greater need for physical contact between the teacher and the blind student. Quite simply, the reliance of a blind person upon touch as a primary medium for gathering information challenges directly certain mores of our society which guard against physical contact. Once one has overcome this reticence, he will have opened up a new channel of communication for all students, not only those who are blind. We cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of overcoming this barrier. In being comfortable enough to establish a good physical rapport, the teacher and student will be able to shorten and clarify many pedagogical explanations immeasurably through "modelling" and "positioning."
In "modelling," the teacher assumes the desired posture which he or she wants to convey. The teacher, while holding the pose, can make pertinent comments or ask questions such as: "notice where my elbows, are in relation to the rest of my body," or "do my shoulders feel relaxed to you?" In "positioning," the student sits at the keyboard and the teacher moves the student into the correct posture or comments when a correct position has been achieved or lost. In this way, a student can develop an awareness of his or her own posture and a sense of what feels correct. These methods can be of particular value in organ instruction where pedal technique must be demonstrated.
Communication by touch also serves as a tool for teaching blind students at those times when a teacher would have been inclined to conduct a sighted student. While tapping on a table or snapping one's fingers can establish the beat, they contain no information between the beats. By tapping upon the student's shoulder while the student is playing, the teacher can transmit not only the pulse, but also the mood of the piece by means of a light or heavy touch. This method is also effective in discouraging rushing or lagging, in suggesting accentuation, and in outlining the shapes of phrases by indicating rubato or accelerando.
All that we have discussed thus far presupposes the student's ability to learn the actual notes of the music by one means or another and the ability to retain that information. The establishment of good habits of note-learning and memorizing are at least as crucial, if not more so, in the education of blind musicians than they are in the education of sighted musicians. A sighted person can conceivably play without having memorized a score; a blind person cannot. Too often, teachers adhering to that old misconception that all blind people have perfect pitch and superhuman ears allow their students to choose not to learn braille music notation. Consequently, these students attempt to learn all of their music by various aural means. We will quickly point out that these aural means, when used in conjunction with a knowledge of braille music, can be of great service. Used by themselves, however, they deprive the student of one of the best means of memorizing, (literal memory), force the student to rely on someone else's interpretation, and offer less accurate information.
Let us examine these aural learning methods with an eye to their benefits and their drawbacks. Certainly, the most commonly used aid is the commercial or home-made musical recording. Recordings can be quite useful in providing an overall sense of a piece, serving as a substitute for sight-reading, since acquiring a cursory knowledge of a score by reading through it is not very practical in braille music. After the student has begun the note learning process, however, he or she would be well advised to listen to the recording only sparingly, if at all. We offer this advice to guard against the student becoming too strongly influenced by another's performance. At any rate, the recording will prove to be of little assistance in actually teaching the notes; the performance simply moves too fast.
One can, however, borrow tapes from the National Library Service, Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped which contain keyboard works recorded at extremely slow speeds. These, we feel, might be of use to someone with a hobbyist's interest in playing the piano or organ, or as a temporary method for teaching a recently blinded student.
In the long run, though, their reliance on a means less precise than actual notation for transmitting musical information does not recommend them as a substitute for braille music. Homemade tapes can, however, provide a service for those who need to learn music which they do not care to retain for a long time, and which they must learn quickly. A church organist, for example, may need to learn a hymn for the following Sunday and does not have the time to locate a volunteer braille music transcriber. (Of course, with the development of braille music embossing software, the process of transcribing print music into braille has become far more automated.) In making tapes for the purpose of learning a musical composition by ear, we have found it easiest to divide the piece into logical sections and to subdivide those by determining what will be taken by the left hand and what by the right. That accomplished, one may proceed to record section one, left hand followed by section one right hand, proceeding section by section until the entire work is on tape. In the event that there is a third staff for a pedal part, you may choose to record it separately or--if you wish to save time and tape--withthe right hand. If you do it separately, record section one of the pedal part ahead of the same section for the hands. Then continue in this fashion, section by section. We caution you not to record the pedal part with the left hand; occasionally, it becomes difficult to distinguish the pedal from the left hand, since their registers often overlap. In dealing with chordal writing, try rolling the chords up from the bottom note in the left hand and either up from the bottom or down from the top note in the right hand. This choice in the right hand parallels the two schools of thought which exist in the transcription of right-hand chords into braille music. In the final analysis, it is merely a matter of preference on the part of the user of the tape.
During lessons, a teacher can provide various degrees of aural assistance. It may be as little as teaching the student a measure or two by rote or as much as playing the entire piece. In the latter instance, we urge you to reserve this practice for introducing a new piece and to refrain from playing it too often. This should be more a means of supplementing learning by braille than teaching by ear. In fact, although any or all of these aural means may assist the student from time to time, they are no substitute for a knowledge of the actual score. In our opinion, it is imperative that the student have a solid background in braille music notation if he or she is to function well as a musician. The braille score provides a quick and easy reference when uncertainties arise concerning the notation. This is bound to happen since the student must memorize all music before playing it. If a blind student with little or no facility in braille music notation should come to a teacher who does not possess this skill, we recommend strongly that the teacher direct the student to someone who can offer solid braille music instruction. However, once students have the ability to decipher their own music, there is no obstacle to their studying with a teacher who is unfamiliar with braille.
In such a situation, the student may refer to one of several notation manuals in order to clarify an occasional problem. A few which we can recommend are the Primer of Braille Music, New Revised Edition, 1960 with 1971 addenda, compiled by Edward W. Jenkins, the more extensive Revised International Manual of Braille Music Notation, 1956, compiled by H. V. Spanner, and the dictionary of braille music compiled by Bettye Krolick. You may wish to contact the music section of The Library of Congress's national library service for the blind for more information by calling 800-424-8567 or by visiting their web site. Legally blind, registered patrons may borrow music materials free of charge and may download any of the library's music materials which have been produced in electronic braille format.
An important prerequisite for the study of braille music notation is a thorough, working knowledge of literary braille; without it, the user has no way of reading the title, performance directions, or editorial comments. To be sure, the path to proficiency in reading braille music is not one whose mastery can be taken as a light pastime; perhaps it is because of the rigors of the braille music system that volunteer music transcribers are such a rare breed. Nevertheless, its challenge need not be an intimidating one. Students who understand the importance the notation will play in facilitating their musical growth, will probably be able to make a greater effort and commitment to learning it. At this point, it seems fitting to discuss the braille music system, briefly.
The scope of this paper confines us to concepts which, by themselves are insufficient for instructional purposes; we merely intend to introduce some basic principles that may be helpful in understanding the rest of this paper.
Let us begin by examining the braille cell, the building block of all braille characters. Each braille cell contains six dots, arranged in two vertical columns of three dots. For identification purposes, we number these dots, one, two, three from top to bottom in the left-hand column, and four, five, six from top to bottom in the right-hand column. Eighth notes require the use of only the four uppermost dots in the cell, that is, dots one, two, four, and five. The particular combination determines the pitch of each eighth note. Thus, if we see dots one, four, five we know it is c an eighth; if, instead, we read dots one and five we know it is d an eighth. The configuration, then, indicates both the pitch and the duration of the note. The eighth-note patterns can be changed to quarters simply by adding dot six to them. Dot six, you will remember, is the bottom dot in the right-hand column. Whereas dots one, four, and five connote c an eighth, dots one, four, five, and six comprise c a quarter. If instead of adding dot six, we had added dot three to the eighth-note patterns, we would have half-notes; and if we had added both dots three and six, we would have whole notes. How do we create sixteenths and thirty-seconds, then? This is achieved primarily through context. When there is more than one "whole note" in a four-four measure, for example, they are to be regarded as sixteenths rather than as whole notes. In the same way, half notes become thirty-seconds when there are too many of them in a measure to be counted as halves. When both half notes and thirty-seconds exist within the same measure, a sign must be placed in front of the half note to alert the reader that it should not be regarded as a thirty-second.
An octave sign must be placed in front of the first note of a melodic line to indicate whether that note, (let's say "g" a quarter), is the first "g" above middle "c" or a "g" in some other octave. On page ten of the braille edition of the 1960 Primer of Braille Music, the rules for octave markings are stated precisely as follows: "The first note of a melody is always preceeded by an octave mark. Between notes, the step of a second interval or the skip of a third is not marked. . . A skip of a fourth or fifth is not marked when its notes are in the same octave. . . A skip of a sixth or greater is always marked." In braille music, the lowest "c" on the piano is first octave "c"; middle "c" is fourth octave "c," and so on. Just as the octave marking immediately preceeds the note, the fingering sign immediately follows it. There are numerous additional signs to convey all the necessary accidentals, ornaments, and pedagogical markings. These appear in a specific order before and after the note in question.
Three examples of pedagogical markings are string signs, organ pedal markings, and any information concerning phrasing and articulation. A couple of braille notation procedures resemble print notation practices prevalent in the Baroque era. The braille equivalent to beaming reminds one a little of the Baroque performance practice called "notes inegales" in that the notes on the paper are not meant to be played precisely as they appear. In braille, a group of four sixteenths beginning on the beat is written as a sixteenth followed by three eighths, but it is played as four sixteenths beamed together. There are some exceptions to this rule which we shall not explore here. To write chordal harmonies, the notation employs interval signs which follow the note and which indicate what note or notes sound along with the written note. A c major triad in root position in the left hand might be written as third octave "c" a half, third interval sign, fifth interval sign. This method recalls to mind figured bass notation. Where two or more contrapuntal parts occur in one hand, each is written out separately and connected to the others with a concordance sign. Strongly based, as it is, upon conventional harmony and rhythm, braille notation lags behind print notation at least as much as print notation lags behind composition. Hence, there is still no common practice in braille for indicating notes of indeterminant value, quarter tones, and many aleatoric devices.
Braille volunteers did achieve a noteworthy break-through when they developed an embossed, pictorial score of Ligetti's organ composition, Volumina. A number of formats for presenting braille music exist. Occasionally, where a piece is available in more than one format, the musician has the luxury of choosing the one he or she prefers. In some formats, the interval markings figure up from the lowest note in either hand, while in others intervals in the left hand figure up from the lowest note and work downward from the highest note in the right hand.
Presentation of the music may be bar-by-bar, bar-over-bar, or phrase by phrase in a paragraph style. In bar-by-bar format, one measure of the left hand stands just before the same measure of the right hand with a bar line following them. This process continues for the duration of the piece. In the bar-over-bar method, one measure of the right hand appears directly above the same bar for the left hand.
We consider paragraph style to be the most useful to a keyboard performer who is more interested in memorizing entire phrases than in learning measures one at a time. Since the blind musician must use one hand to read what is being played with the other, he will probably find it quite a nuisance to have to skip every unwanted portion of a measure in the bar-by-bar and the bar-over-bar formats while maintaining a steady tempo.
Paragraph style permits a blind musician to follow an entire phrase in one hand without moving his reading hand quickly between disjunct points on the page. This ensures a smoother reading with less chance of losing one's place. By playing what he is reading, the blind musician can simultaneousby reinforce literal, kinesthetic, and aural memory of a piece. As he or she reads the score, the student should make a conscious effort to remember exactly how the music looks on the page, thereby developing literal memory. In playing the notes with the other hand, he should be consciously working out a logical fingering, providing him thus with motor memory. Hearing the notes as he plays them will enhance his aural retention.
This technique proved quite a contrast to an equally valid method suggested to us by William Hays, our organ teacher at Westminster Choir College. He encourages his students to select something brief and not too difficult, and to attempt to memorize it away from the keyboard. One can divide the piece into sections, but he cannot bring any section to the keyboard until he has memorized it away from the keyboard. This forces the student to develop literal memory, an avenue too often neglected by blind musicians, and one denied by total reliance upon aural aids. To be sure, progress will be slow at first; however, the end results will be well worth the time spent. The basic assumption behind this rather strict discipline is that one's security in playing from memory will be greatly enhanced by knowing precisely what the notes are and how they appear on the page. After all, it is conceivable to imagine how the piece sounds and what it feels like to play without really knowing on what note it begins.
Another advantage of learning away from the instrument is that one need not be near a keyboard in order to memorize. Equipped with a facility in braille music, the pupil may learn music on a train, on the beach, or in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. We think we have struck a workable compromise between these contrasting approaches to memorizing. Usually, we first take a piece or a section of a piece to the keyboard in order to hear individual voices and to arrive at a workable fingering. This accomplished, we try not to return to the instrument with that piece or section until we have memorized it thoroughly away from the keyboard. By the time we return to the instrument, we hope to have a good grasp of that section.
We proceed in this fashion, section by section, until we have completed the work. However, even after subjecting these learned sections to extremely slow practice and to memory-enforcing techniques (such as playing them in various rhythms or playing every other measure), we continue to reexamine illusive passages away from the instrument. Of course, each student will have to find his own balance between memorizing at the instrument and away from it, depending upon his aural acuity and his facility with braille music. However, we urge you to have your students strengthen their literal and aural memories until they are both self-sufficient.
Cognitive memory, defined as any knowledge of the piece not tied directly to aural motor, and literal memory, often receives too little attention. It may include awareness of overall form, a thorough understanding of diverse styles, harmonic and melodic analyses, and recreating in one's mind the total experience of playing a piece. This mental reconstruction of the performance is probably the same kind of experience a sighted person gets from conducting himself in an imaginary performance. For us, it includes hearing all the notes and knowing their proper note names as well as visualizing the attacks and releases of those notes on a mental keyboard.
As you can see, neither these memorizing techniques nor, for that matter, any of the techniques we have described is specific only to the blind. Indeed, that is the most important point we wish to make. If you recognize some of these suggestions as standard teaching techniques which ought to be used with blind and sighted students alike, you are well on the way to a sound approach to teaching your blind students.
If other suggestions were foreign to you, don't be afraid to try them out. Any insight you gain by trying them will benefit not only your blind students, but your sighted students as well. This is especially true of establishing a better physical rapport between you and your students. In general, allow no major distinction between teaching methods for the blind and for the sighted. What you develop for one student can almost always be adapted to meet the needs of another. Treat your blind student as a student who happens to be blind rather than as a blind boy or girl who happens to be a student. With these things in mind, you and your students, be they sighted or blind, are likely to see that good playing and teaching habits are applicable to everyone.