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By Victoria Ward, Assistant Principal Curriculum, Teaching and Learning

Blog published 3rd May 2017 | Category: Supporting VI Students

One of the things that I am really passionate about is that we should equip our students with the skills they need to become independent learners. We are fortunate at NCW to have many very talented musicians who, with the help of our fantastic team of visiting instrumental teachers, have the opportunity to become very accomplished – particularly if they put in the required hours of practice along the way. Aptitude alone is never enough when learning an instrument. Lots of hard work is also necessary to become really good – whether visually impaired or fully sighted.

Music Braille Collage

For most sighted musicians the reading of musical notation is introduced at an early stage and so the relationship between sound and symbol forms part of the learning journey. If you think about it, musical notation actually helps the musician to make sense of the music. What I mean by this is that in a complex rhythm, for example, quavers and semiquavers are neatly beamed together so that each beat of the music is more easily deciphered and understood. We can see the patterns that are formed by notes rising and falling and the relative spaces between the notes. The eye can take in a lot of information in the briefest moment and this means that a skilled sight-reader can perform pretty much instantaneously what they read on the page.

Many of our students will have learned to play an instrument in the early stages by ear rather than from notation, even for those who have some sight. Many manage very well without ever learning how to read music and that’s fine by me if they are enjoying their music-making and don’t feel that they are being held back. However, if you really think about it, being shown how to play something and reading it for yourself are two very different processes. I’m one of those people who simply doesn’t enjoy listening to audio books. I don’t want someone else’s voice with their interpretation and pace. I want to be able to read it for myself, to re-read, to ponder and to …well, be independent. When you read a musical score you are decoding a language without someone interpreting it for you. This can include fingering, phrasing, dynamics and articulation as well as the actual notes. Braille music can convey all of these things perfectly well.

I do understand the reasons why students might not have been given the opportunity to learn how to read Braille music, after all, it is an area of specialism that even most qualified teachers of the visually impaired wouldn’t necessarily have. It can be difficult to get hold of music in Braille and in the early stages of learning, aural methods are convenient and effective in achieving the same result. I understand all of that and I confess that when I first started teaching music at NCW I found the prospect of learning to read music braille daunting. However, the pressing need to teach students analysis of A Level set works meant that I had to just get on with it. Even now, I openly admit that I sometimes need to look things up and I have some students who are far more proficient than I am! What I’m trying to say is that you don’t need to be a genius to get to grips with it and there is probably a lot of mystique around it being “really hard”.

Not convinced? Braille Music is actually very logical and there are only seven pitches to learn. Ok, so there’s more to it than that but there’s a lot you can do with single line melodies. The difficulty probably comes in piecing together information presented in a linear way but the students I have encountered seem able to cope with this. What I will say, however, is that they develop the most amazing memory because it is not possible (unless you are super-human with three hands) to read and play at the same time. How many sighted musicians play complete pieces from memory?

At NCW we are keen to spread the word about Music Braille. We encourage and support our visiting instrumental teachers to learn so that they can support our students in their lessons. I have the most fabulous group of students learning Braille Music with me at the moment and a great by-product is that we are also learning a five-part madrigal along the way. It’s great fun and we all get a huge sense of achievement even though we only get through a short section each week. Confidence is growing and I know that these students are more independent learners as a result. NCW offers Outreach events aimed at professionals working with students with a visual impairment where we can share some tips, give pointers on how to get started and look at resources. Take a look at our Outreach events list and get yourself booked in for a beginner’s session in Music Braille!

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