[Menvi-discuss] Blind music major questions

Chris Smart csmart8 at cogeco.ca
Sun Sep 17 11:58:16 EDT 2017

Hi Janis.

Below, are my experiences. I'm sure other folks will chime in with theirs.
What works for one student may not work for others.

I hope there is some sort of guide for new 
post-secondary music students who are 
visually-impaired. If there isn't, there should 
be. A lot of these more general things probably 
apply to everyone: self-advocacy, getting book 
lists early, what technology is available, etc.

At 10:19 AM 9/17/2017, you wrote:

>1. What technology do you use for music theory, 
>music history and aural skills?
When I was in college, I notated answers to 
harmony, counterpoint and other assignments in 
Sibelius. These days, I would probably go with 
Lime and Lime Aloud from Dancing Dots. You can 
find out more about that package by visiting their Website at:

  There is no reason why she can't produce 
notation on paper for sighted instructors, band 
members etc. although it might be helpful to have 
a sighted friend visually check things before 
handing them in, keeping an eye out for crowding, 
overlapping items etc. To me, working 
independently is easier, cognitively, than trying 
to orally dictate  something complex like a 
counterpoint assignment to a sighted helper.

I used to record classes in audio form or take 
notes, depending on which class it was and the 
kind of material being covered.  For instance, if 
a class such as jazz harmony contained many aural 
examples, it was better to record that and 
re-listen to it later. A class like music history 
was a lot more about writing down facts, dates, 
etc. so I took notes using a notetaker.

I completed most tests and exams with sighted 
help, that is, someone to read me the questions 
and write down my answers. As you can imagine, 
this requires holding lots of information in your 
head. "What was that last note I gave you in the 
tenor part? Ok, now I need a B in the alto, an A 
in the bass" etc. is how the conversation usually went.

If she isn't that clear on how notation looks on 
paper, just the simple stuff like what the staff 
is, what leger lines are, transposing 
instruments, the ranges of the various clefs etc. 
she should try and learn that sooner rather than 
later.  You can't always tell a sighted helper or 
instructor about octave and interval signs or 
other peculiarities of Braille, and assume they 
will understand what you mean, especially if that 
help is another classmate. Learn what you need to 
know to communicate effectively, if someone is 
writing down your answers - learn to speak their language.

For some reason, for years growing up, I had no 
idea what the staff looked like for sighted 
folks, or even what a "note stem" felt like. 
Finding this stuff out gave me more confidence 
talking to sighted musicians. Heck, I didn't know 
there was such a thing as "beaming" notes until I went to college.

I'm not saying this directly affects how we 
understand things - I still think in terms of 
Braille, octaves, intervals, etc. - but most of 
the people you're interacting with are sighted, 
and they're using different terminology.

About tests and exams, doing things independently 
would have been easier, had my college been 
equipped to produce things in music Braille, and 
allow me to produce my answers on computer and 
print them out. But, since they wern't able to 
produce music Braille on site, and professors 
often didn't have tests prepared far enough in 
advance, it seemed easier at the time to work 
with an assistant and they would read me 
questions and write down my answers.  In 
hindsight, I should have advocated more for what 
I needed to work independently and most effectively.

This help was often in the form of well-meaning 
classmates, who also have busy schedules, social 
lives etc. so, what I did at the time was apply 
for whatever bursaries, grants, etc. were 
available, no matter how small, and used that 
money to pay my helpers a little.  You'd be 
amazed how quickly people can find time to work 
with you once you're offering a little cash. 
Schedules suddenly clear and you go from no 
volunteers available to having a choice between 
several.  If money isn't an option, people respond well to food. :)

Again, I was going to a smaller college, and a 
rather under-funded music program at that. 
Ideally, I would have been meeting with 
professors or teaching assistants to do exams, or 
having said exams transcribed into Braille. But, 
for my particular situation, it made more sense 
to find someone willing to volunteer a couple 
hours hear and there and just get things done.

>2.  How do you get your music theory assignments from your professors?

Sibelius and Finale, the two popular notation 
programs, can both produce music XML files, which 
can then be imported into whichever notation 
software the student is using. Again, I would 
talk to the folks at Dancing Dots about this. 
Also, ask them about the Goodfeel music Braille translator.

>3.  What technology do you need to use to turn in your music theory homework?

Use notation software such as Lime and Lime 
Aloud. There are probably other options that 
others here can list, but we don't have many 
notation programs we can use. The two I know 
about are the aforementioned package from Dancing 
Dots, or Sibelius 5.2.5 and some Jaws scripts for 
Sibelius that were developed several years ago. 
Do a google search for "sibelius access". 
Unfortunately, only this much older version of 
Sibelius has been made accessible in this way.

>4.  If you had to take a pre-test for music 
>theory as an entrance exam, how was it made accessible for you?

In one case, a college accepted prior 
conservatory theory grades as equivalent. In 
another case, when I auditioned, one of the 
professors played me things on piano that I 
identified aurally: chords, scales, intervals 
etc. (This was for a jazz program. I have no idea 
what goes on for classical schools)

>5.  How did you get your textbooks in braille and audio?
I obtained a book list for the upcoming semester 
or year well in advance, and the college's office 
for students with disabilities would see if any 
items were already available in alternate 
formats, or if they needed to be produced. As you 
can imagine, producing books in Braille takes 
lots of time, so get the list of required 
textbooks early, really early! You certainly 
can't show up on the first day of class and go "hey, where are my books?"

>Advocate for yourself. Assume that some people 
>will not get things to you soon enough, or know 
>what format you need, and be ready to tell them 
>otherwise. Be polite but firm.

>You may also run into issues and attitudes such as, but not limited to:

* Sighted help, a classmate for instance, feels 
bad about your disability and really wants you to 
succeed, so they offer you an answer or two, 
during a exam situation. Bad! Don't go along with 
this or let people assume, wrongly, that you 
cannot do things. Don't take the easy way out.

* If you are able to produce things on paper for 
folks, do it. If this means learning how to use 
new software, do it. Don't go along with 
anybody's faulty assumption that you can't do 
something, because you are blind. (and don't try 
to learn your notation software while in the 
middle of a busy semester. I learned this one the hard way haha!)

The rest of this is probably not relevant, but I 
need to write about it somewhere, and this seems as good a place as any.

Here's a brief cautionary tale.

As I was finishing a three-year jazz program, 
another student who was blind was in their first 
year. I immediately started hearing strange 
things from peers and professors alike.

Chris, can I ask you something? You took my sight 
singing class a couple of years ago. How did you read the textbook?

What do you mean? I had the book in Braille. It's 
already transcribed, so your student needs to 
just call the disability office and ask for it. 
It's probably sitting on a shelf. It turns out 
the student had received the book, even, he just 
wasn't reading it, taking it to class etc.

The professor couldn't remember how things were 
done before all that clearly, and was probably 
thinking "how on earth is this new kid going to complete my class"?

Then, a classmate came to me with the following:

Chris, um, can I talk to you about something?  I 
was helping X with an exam the other day, and he 
kept asking me for answers.  I didn't want him to 
fail, so I "helped". Note the quotation marks around helped.

He felt horrible being put in a jam like this. 
His well-meaning response was to help this guy cheat.

If you encounter well-meaning but bad attitudes 
like this, people who offer to just do things for 
you, when you clearly haven't studied or don't 
know the answers, don't go along with this. It's 
tempting, but it poisons the environment for 
whomever follows you; it erodes any accumulated 
good will you have built up, or people who came before you built up.

and, I wasn't a great student either. But, when I 
failed something, I did so honestly.


"There are two means of refuge from the miseries 
of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer 

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