Sight, Sound, and Music in Hand

Noel Jones, of Frog Music Press, has discovered over the years that blind musicians are not just people who have no vision, but sometimes are sighted and see with varying degrees of difficulty.  Here is his interview with Catholic music director, Teresa Haifley:
Could you give us an idea of how to understand this?
 There are several different things that can be wrong with the eyes which means there are varying degrees of vision.  One person might have central vision but no peripheral and can read with magnification, while another has no central vision so is unable to read or recognize people.  Normal vision is 20/20 while legally blind” is 20/200 and someone with very low vision might have 20/500 or less.  Then there is total blindness which means a person may be able to see light or may not.  When I was a very small child I had 20/200, could read large print  and could walk unguided but sometimes didn’t see an object in front of me.  By the time I went to college I had 20/400, could read some with strong magnification, recognized faces closer up, used  braille for most things, and used a seeing Eye dog or long white cane to travel.  When my children were small I could see objects in contrast to their background but no detail.  Now I have only light perception on a good day.
How do you, yourself, read emails and pages on the internet?
I  have a software program on my computer, a screen reader, which reads everything on the screen .  I use a regular keyboard and control it with keystrokes.  The screen reader gives me access  to all my software
What makes it hard for a Catholic singer or organist to participate in a church music program?
There is a total lack of braille sacred music available.  Individuals have to either braille the music and/or words themselves as someone dictates it or try to get it all by ear, which isn’t a good thing.  I have had to resort to that on occasion and it makes it bad when the person next to you keeps singing a wrong note and you have no way of knowing for sure what the right note is.  I much prefer having the music in hand so I can read all the details for myself; dynamics, rests, etc.
You teach piano and play the organ.  What kind of special training was available to you to do this when you were growing up?
I learned to read braille  music when I  started piano lessons in 2nd grade.  That was the only “special” training I had.  I then learned the saxophone and played in the band; later adding flute, marimba, multiple percussion and organ.  In 4th grade one of the teachers stayed after school to teach me the folk guitar.
Has teaching Braille music changed since then?
Not really, but now I have the capability of teaching braille music classes via the internet.   
How is Braille choral  and organ music written out?    Can you explain in simple terms, how it is written in Braille? 
Print music is written vertically on a staff.  In braille, there is no staff and it is written horizontally.  For instance, in keyboard music the octave sign is given, followed by the note, followed by the interval(s) for the right hand with the left hand written on the line below it and the pedal below that.  All other information is included, like accents, accidentals, dynamics, etc.  For voice the words are on one line with the notes on the line below, though not lined up with the words as in print.
What kind of device prints the music?   
A  braille embosser embosses the music from a file in much the same way a printer would print the file.
In singing polyphonic music, are the vocal parts in Braille all together like printed music, or does each part have its own page? 
 Each part is generally on it’s own page for polyphonic music.  For simple 4-part harmony as in hymns, it works well to write the words on one line with the 4 SATB lines beneath them.  When I direct something polyphonic I have a system that works for me so that I can quickly find a voice if I hear a wrong note or weak spot.  Of course, I have to memorize all parts since I can’t read and direct with my hands at the same time.
How does a director tell a singer using a Braille score where they are when stopping and starting on a chant or choral piece?
 Rehearsal markers, measure numbers and print pages are included in the braille score. 
How can the sighted community help involve blind musicians in Catholic music programs?
 By directing them to our Catholic Braille Music email list.  We are there to share music files and to assist each other in obtaining music.  My dream is to make braille sacred music available to all who need it.  I have struggled for years to get my music in braille and I want to make it possible for blind singers, directors and organists to serve the Mass without the struggle.  We have the ICEL Chant Mass in braille, Richard Rice’s Simple Choral Gradual and a few other pieces available so far.  We are starting a project to put together a braille hymnal which includes all the voice parts and accompaniments.  The only braille hymnal which includes everything that I have ever been able to find is the St. Gregory Hymnal, copyright 1922.  There is a partial hymnal with words and melody line and two that only have words, and that’s all.  


8 Replies to “Sight, Sound, and Music in Hand”

  1. I have had the pleasure of having Teresa in my class at the Winter Chant Intensive this past January. This was an amazing experience for me. There is so much that those of us with sight take for granted…it was a challenge to attempt to teach and have to take into account accommodations for someone who could not see the board or my gestures, etc. I learned a great deal and am so grateful to Teresa for what she has taught me.

    I have heard from one other person who, since the Colloquium, has taken it upon herself to do transcribing into Braille. This is an incredible service to blind musicians, choirs, and the Church. Naturally, this kind of work takes a lot of time and certainly specialized knowledge. And like translation and other similar work, will seldom see any kind of remuneration that makes getting it done viable. Perhaps someone else who reads this post hear the call to get involved.

  2. Thanks so much for this! When I was growing up, one of the best soloists with the San Francisco Back Choir was a bass who sang with a braille score. Later I was at conservatory with a very vision-limited fellow piano student who could very slowly read through a work. After the one reading, she had committed all the notes to memory.

    I am so amazed at people who just go ahead and overcome obstacles.

  3. I am reminded of the great French organist and composer Jean Langlais (1907-1991) who was blind from the age of two. He succeeded Cesar Franck and Charles Tournemire at Ste-Chlotilde and his published works amount to over 250 opus numbers. Some years after his death his widow was interviewed on BBC radio and spoke of his anguish when the church authorities, in the wake of Vatican II, told him his music was no longer wanted. "His music is not sung in France" she said, adding somewhat scornfully "which is a good thing, since we no longer have choirs capable of performing it properly". However, shortly before his death she came across a new CD of his Messe Solennelle by the Westminster Cathedral choir and the old man listened to it with great satisfaction.

    His 'Incantation pour un Jour Saint', based on the plainchant Lumen Christi is always played as a recessional at the London Oratory Easter Vigil.

  4. I sing in my parish choir and am alto. I wish and pray for Sacred music to be transcribed. I have been asking for the Breaking Bread hymnal, but it is simply not available to us. Thank you for alerting us to the list and to this article. I generally have all of the lyrics on my HumanWare BrailleNote Apex because I have to write the lyrics to each piece of music we sing. I long to know Braille music, to be able to learn the alto parts, and to just pick up a piece of music to sing with my choir without having to constantly remind them that I don't hae words. Christy in California

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