Where did the journey begin?
It’s been a long time since I have taken the time to update this blog. At the time, it was a journey… A journey of a short period of time as I prepared for my grade 8 piano. Now, I have moved on from that, and am teaching piano to a few students, listening and reading all I can about baroque and early music performance, all while recovering from 2 major surgeries from last year and family life.
But some may be asking… How did that journey begin? How does a blind person learn music? So I thought I would write a little about that here.
Music has always been a staple of my life, even before I can remember. Mum said I would pick out tunes on the piano at age 3. My first memories of music was spending hours at the piano during daycare, just mucking around and playing. It was a way to find something to do when I needed too. It must have been limited before aged 7, because my hearing impairment was not discovered until then. I didn’t speak much back then so it’s interesting I can grab what I could musically, although I don’t know what as with out my hearing aids I can nearly hear anything an octave above middle c.
My grandma apparently suggested to my parents I start lessons. I was about 12 at the time, and I learnt from a blind teacher. My experience of classroom music was not a good one as I couldn’t do the group work. There was also a requirement to learn violin, but I couldn’t because I cant hear a lot of the notes on the violin. I do remember Tata titi though but that is about it.
Anyway, I basically skipped most of the beginner stuff as I could already do it all. My teacher started me at the grade 1 level, and recorded the music, along with the fingerings on to tape. She also started teaching me braille music, and I also started reading the manual and teaching myself extra signs and composing my own work. I did grade 1 and 2 in one year.
I learnt my way around the keyboard by using the black keys as a reference for all the white notes. I use the pedals also as a reference, before playing any notes of the start of a piece to make sure I am orientated correctly. A part from that, my musical brain works a little differently. Our braille music uses octaves not lines and spaces as in printed music. So the C below the treble stave if fourth octave, an octave about that fifth octave, the c below middle c is third octave. We have no clef signs, just right and left hand symbols. We also don’t have the sharps and flat written out for the key. For example, our music will have 1 sharp sign, and the time signature. I know that music with one sharp will mean it is in the key of g major or e minor. And that I will have to look at the score to know which. I learnt the circle of 5ths very early on out of necessity. This helped no end with theory as it is automatic to me.
Another challenge for me is jumps. I have to practice those slowly and carefully as feeling around that quickly is not possible. Added to that, because I can not hear the top 2 octaves of the piano, I have to be even more careful. I well remember the time I performed the k545 Mozart with some runs a whole note out and I didn’t realise until later in the piece! I will play things down an octave, feel with one hand while playing with the other to make sure the notes are correctly positioned, and pray from muscle memory will work when I need it!
After high school, I studied composition at the school of music which created more challenges. We used time brackets etc, which I had to write out using text, as there is no braille music notation for that. I wrote a code for transcribers so they could transcribe my music from braille to print. For example, here is a simple bar of music. A4qb4qc5q. That’s a on the second space, moving up to b, then a c All lasting one beat each. A lot of my composition lessons were spent transcribing music, working out alternatives For writing scores etc. And to top it off, I did a year’s worth of music history in 1 semester as the braille materials had to be transcribed. Talk about burn out.
Now days, technology makes that side of things much easier. I can scan most non-graphical things in to my phone; i can send music via email to be transcribed in to braille. The challenge still remains how to get my compositions from braille music form to print. I don’t have money to pay a reader, and as yet I have not found accessible music notation software. Although there are developments in the works.
I hope this small post has given some ideas on how a blind musician functions. As always, comments are always welcome, and I always am open for questions… Stay tuned for my next post on teaching as a blind person.