The Braille Monitor                                                                                               May, 2002

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Knowing the Score

by Bill McCann

Bill McCann
Bill McCann

From the Editor: Living as I do in a small town that is home to one of the finest conservatories of music in the country, I have gotten to know a number of blind musicians through the years. Unfortunately not all of these young men and women have been proficient Braille music readers. Those who are have been far better equipped to compete with their sighted classmates. Bill McCann is doing what he can to provide blind musicians the tools they need to compete equally in the music world. This is what he says:

Mrs. Bettye Krolick, whom I fondly refer to as the Fairy Godmother of Braille Music, likes to tell a story about her first experience of transcribing music into Braille. It was 1970. She had studied hard and learned to transcribe her first assignment, some clarinet music for a local elementary-school student named Jeff. Soon after, at an early morning band rehearsal, she observed the student, Braille score on his music stand, playing one of the parts before practice began. A couple of the sighted students looked on, and one said to the other in admiration: "He plays from memory!"

On hearing this remark, Jeff sat up straight and tall in his chair and played on with greater confidence than ever. This simple but eloquent gesture by a blind fourth-grader motivated Mrs. Krolick to dedicate a substantial portion of her time and energy to this very day to transcribing, standardizing, and promoting the use of music Braille all over the world. She quickly realized that memorization comes naturally to the blind and that she could provide in Braille the unfiltered information the composer meant to convey to the player.

Certainly information is power. Having the information we need when we need it empowers us blind people to participate and even lead. Knowing the score gives us confidence to succeed. This young clarinetist has gone on to succeed in areas unrelated to music. But his positive experience and elevated self-esteem gained during his school band days certainly played a part in his subsequent success.

Literacy leads to inclusion and independence. For example, although seventy percent of the blind are unemployed, the vast majority of those who do have jobs can read Braille. No doubt the benefits of literacy are not confined to the sighted. Educators are increasingly aware of the importance of Braille literacy. Unfortunately we still hear of mainstream music educators and even vision teachers who sincerely believe that a blind student need not learn to read music. Some prestigious colleges and universities continue to confer advanced degrees in music on blind graduates who are functionally illiterate when it comes to reading music. We are beginning to see a shift in these attitudes, but we still have a long way to go.

So how do we create a ready supply of material in music Braille? We simply don't have enough Bettye Krolicks to produce Braille music for students and professionals. In fact, today only a few dozen active transcribers are certified by the Library of Congress. In my own study of music from elementary school through graduation from a conservatory I was constantly confronted with the challenge of obtaining music I needed to learn in the form of Braille notation.

By 1992, having worked for almost ten years as a full-time systems analyst for a Philadelphia-based oil company while continuing to perform as a part-time professional musician, I decided that it was time for me to pursue my dream of automating the process of transcribing music into Braille. In the early 1980's I began to hear of software that allowed sighted people to print music using a PC. I reasoned that, if we could print music with a computer, we could certainly Braille it out too. In 1992 I formed what would become Dancing Dots. In 1997 we released the first version of our GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator.

Now sighted people who know something about conventional staff notation can scan and edit music using mainstream software. Once the music they see on the screen agrees with the music on the hardcopy version, they simply pass the information to GOODFEEL, which produces the equivalent Braille characters and sends them to a Braille embosser or printer. The result: students and professionals receive their Braille scores on time, according to current production standards.

Blind users can also work with GOODFEEL and related technology. They can scan printed music too, although support from a sighted helper is sometimes required to clean up scanning errors. The results can be imported into Cakewalk, a mainstream music editor and sequencer. The blind musician can add title text and other annotations to the piece and pass the information on to GOODFEEL for conversion into Braille.

Dancing Dots continues to maintain its commitment to adapt and develop new technologies and related educational resources to support the blind musician. Last year we published a new course in Braille music-reading by Richard Taesch. Our CakeTalking scripts and tutorial give users of the JAWS for Windows screen reader unprecedented access to mainstream music software for creating audio recordings and printed scores. We are still improving GOODFEEL, now at release 2.5. We work with mainstream developers to integrate GOODFEEL even more closely with their products, particularly the SharpEye music-scanning program and the Lime notation editor that come with GOODFEEL.

In dozens of countries GOODFEEL's users are bringing literacy, independence, and inclusion for blind people to life by opening doors to the world of music. I encourage all lovers of music, of literacy, and of education to advocate for the appropriate use of Braille music for blind students in any situation in which their sighted peers are using printed notation. We at Dancing Dots stand ready to support you in your efforts.

For more information please see <www.dancingdots.com>, or call toll-free (866) 336-8746 (866-D-Dots-GO).

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