Future Reflections Convention Report 1997, Vol. 16 No. 3


Music Education: Not Just a Frill

Dr. Ralph Bartley and Karen McDonald

Editor's Note: The following two items are edited versions of speeches given at the June 29, 1997, Seminar for Parents of Blind Children in New Orleans. Dr. Ralph Bartley, Superintendent of the Kentucky School for the Blind, is well-known and respected by members of the Federation and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. He is a former winner of the annual Educator of Blind Children Award, and an early supporter of Braille literacy legislation. Karen McDonald, wife of Ed McDonald, President of the NFB of West Virginia and former National Board Member, is becoming known in her own right as a talented musician and advocate for music education for blind children.

Dr. Ralph Bartley:

About a year ago we at the Kentucky School for the Blind began a process of examining the future direction of the Kentucky School for the Blind. One of the issues we decided to take a look at was the role of music education at the school.

Music has historically played an important role in the lives of blind and visually impaired students. From its inception to the present, the Kentucky School for the Blind has a long tradition of music instruction for its students. But in today's education climate every program must be examined and evaluated and plans for the future shape and direction of these programs must be formulated.

We put a group of folks together and said "What we want you to do is look at the music program at the Kentucky School for the Blind. Tell us what it has been, what it is now, and what it needs to be for the future. Because if we don't do something it may not continue to exist at all. We do not have a model music program right now. If we are going to have a music program for blind and visually impaired students, we want it to be a model for others."

Then we told the music sub-committee, "Get the hard data. We don't want to make a decision on emotions or history—give us the hard facts. We think we should strive for a great music program. Tell us if that's true and why." That was the job and challenge we posed to the music subcommittee of the curriculum committee.

What we found was that research documents the validity of the title of this panel presentation: "Music Education: Not Just a Frill." In recent years a significant amount of research has been devoted to the development of the brain and the effects of that development on subsequent learning ability of young children. It's now recognized that the listening to, and studying of, music enhances the ability of children to learn in other areas. This study was done at the University of California at Irvine. Preschoolers who were given piano and singing lessons dramatically improved in spatial reasoning as compared to children who were given no musical experience. The study concludes that music excites inherent brain patterns and enhances their uses in complex reasoning tasks.

As Peter Jennings stated when reporting on this study on ABC news "If you want a child to do better at math, not to mention all their other studies, they need more music."

We began with that data. Next we wanted to know if the music program at the school for the blind in the past meant anything. Was it important? For this data we surveyed the Kentucky School for the Blind alumni. Next, we surveyed our parents and staff in an effort to receive input about the importance of music to blind children today. We distributed almost six hundred surveys and received one hundred ninety-seven responses. That's almost a third or 33 percent. I wish I would have had that good a return when I did my Ph.D. dissertation. Seventy point sixty-five percent (70.65%) said that music was very important in the education of KSB students and another 26.63 percent indicated that it was an important part of the curriculum. So 96 percent to 97 percent of those surveyed said, in one way or another, that music was important. Only 3 percent said music instruction was average or unimportant. The overwhelming response from parents, students, staff, and alumni confirmed the importance of music education. We also asked the respondents about the quality of music instruction. Sixty point ninety six percent (60.96%) rated their instruction as excellent while another 30.82 percent rated their experience as good. So again an extremely high percent--91 percent—reported positive feelings about their music instruction at KSB.

Not satisfied with raw statistics alone, we went on to prepare a list of students and alumni who reported that music had played a significant role in their lives. One hundred and thirty-five individuals appear on this particular list. We also did an informal survey of our current students. We asked them if they were interested in music and, if so, to tell us what areas in music they would like to pursue. Without exception, all the students surveyed said they were interested in music and listed a wide variety of instruments—from drums to piano—which they wanted to learn how to play.

In conclusion, we discovered that at the Kentucky School for the Blind there are two important areas in which music and Braille music are particularly important. These are the areas of personal growth and academic growth. The data we collected and the results of the research from our own survey supports this. The members of the KSB Music subcommittee believe that the study of music enhances the personal growth of every student who participates. Discipline, responsibility, goal-setting, the sense of accomplishment upon reaching a goal, and the self-confidence required for performance are but a few of the qualities which are taught in the process of learning music.

In regard to the area of academic improvement, we noted that Individual Education Plans (IEP) goals for our blind students often addressed the student's need for one-on-one help. It's generally accepted that the child who is blind can benefit from small group or individual instruction, which is the way that most music is taught. Teaching instrumental music is a hand-over-hand process that fits in very well with the educational process which provides the greatest benefit and progress for many blind students.

Kentucky is in the midst of educational reform. Music education for all students in the state, not just the blind, is an important part of that educational reform. The KSB Music subcommittee reported that the study of music can play a substantial role in the ability of the Kentucky School for the Blind to meet the goals of that educational reform. Music, it concluded, has a connection with literature, history, geography, and a variety of other subjects. In short, it is an important part of the total curriculum.

The Music subcommittee made a number of recommendations as a result of its study. One of them was to identify teachers on the KSB staff who could teach Braille music. Another recommendation was that we find a way to make sure that students had access to Braille music. This highlights not just the importance of music instruction, but the need for blind students to be able to read music.

Perhaps the most important result of our study is that we have now initiated a music program for all blind students in the area. This includes students enrolled in the public schools and very young children in the Visually Impaired Preschool Services program. We went to these programs and asked them if they had families and students who would come, and the answer was "Yes." So, hopefully in about a month we're actually going to start a program of music for any blind student whether they are enrolled in the Kentucky School for the Blind or not.

Finally let me acknowledge all of the fine work of the staff of the Kentucky School for the Blind. Because of their hard work a fine Music Education will continue to be as much a part of the school's programs in the future as it has been in the past.

Karen McDonald:

Think back and recall your school days. Were you involved in your school band or choral group? Did you take piano lessons and play in a recital?

"Yes," you might say, "But I was never a very good musician. That's just something I did for fun. I never intended to make a career out of playing the saxophone."

Well, not every kid who plays high school football goes on to be a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Yet no one would disagree that for many students athletics are important ingredients in a well-rounded high school education.

By the same token, not every student who plays in the band or sings in a choral group goes on to be Ray Charles or Ronnie Milsap. Yet music is an equally vital part of a well-rounded education.

Music education is valuable in many ways: Performing music helps one develop a greater understanding and appreciation of many different styles of music. Playing in a band or singing in a choir teaches the value of teamwork. Practicing for performance deadlines helps a student develop a sense of responsibility for setting goals and working to achieve them. What's more, playing music can be just plain fun!

These things are true for virtually all students, whether blind or sighted. However, in the case of a blind student— especially one attending public school—music may take on additional value. For example, performing in a chorus or band alongside sighted students may give a blind student a sense of belonging and may contribute to that student's acceptance and respect by his or her sighted peers.

If we agree that music is such a vital part of a complete education, then it should go without saying that no blind child should be denied the right to full participation in any and all music education activities a school has to offer. Let me take a moment to say a few words about my personal experience with music education. I received my entire elementary and secondary education at a residential school. Therefore I have no direct personal experience with music education in a public school setting.

At the West Virginia School for the Blind, music was an important part of nearly every student's education. Many of us started piano lessons in first or second grade, and that automatically meant learning to read Braille music. By fifth or sixth grade, some of us began learning to play an instrument in preparation for joining the band. This also required a knowledge of Braille music. By seventh grade, virtually every student joined the chorus.

For those of you who may not know, Braille music is a system of music notation that uses Braille characters to represent the notes, expression symbols, and other information contained in a music score. Unlike print music, Braille music notation does not use the conventional staff. Rather, the notes and symbols follow one another—character by character and line by line—just like literary Braille. Unlike sighted musicians who can play as they "sight read," blind musicians must read the Braille music score and memorize it measure by measure in order to be able to play it. However, contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, Braille music is not some sort of esoteric code that requires a genius to interpret.

Let me be quick to add that it is certainly possible and not unreasonable for a blind student with some innate musical talent and the desire and commitment to succeed to attend college and major in some aspect of music. However, it is my experience as a music major with a degree in piano that a blind person could not complete such a program without the ability to read Braille music, just as a sighted person could not earn such a degree without the ability to read music in print.

But let's get back to the topic at hand: music education for blind children in today's public schools. As we all know, in recent years the education of blind children has shifted dramatically from residential to public schools. We also know that all too often blind students attending public schools find it necessary to fight for the right to equal opportunity and equal treatment in all academic areas, including music classes. As I said earlier, every blind child should have the same opportunity as his or her sighted peers to participate in whatever music education activities a school may offer.

Yet regardless of what the law may say and regardless of what we may know to be right or appropriate, parents will probably need to take positive steps to ensure that such opportunities are not denied. Perhaps the first step is to become as vocal about insisting on good music education as you have been in demanding adequate instruction in reading and writing Braille. But the problem, as we know, is that many so-called "vision" teachers lack proficiency in literary Braille. Therefore it's not very likely that many of them will be able to offer much help to a blind student who wishes to learn Braille music. Therefore, the next step might be to seek out blind persons in the community who happen to know something about Braille music and who may be willing to help a blind student learn it. I, for example, recently began working with a blind student in my community who wants to improve her knowledge of Braille music for piano. (This student happens to be enrolled at the school for the blind where -deplorable as it may be-the piano teacher is not adequately trained to teach Braille music.) Of course, one good way to locate such blind mentors in your community would be to contact your local Federation chapter or state affiliate. Also, our NFB Music Division is in the early stages of developing a mentoring program through which blind persons who know Braille music can be matched with other blind individuals who wish to learn it.

There are several other resources that may be helpful in addressing concerns related to music education for blind children— especially the matter of Braille music. For example, the Hadley School for the Blind offers both introductory and advanced correspondence courses in Braille music notation. These courses are available without charge to blind students who are already proficient in Grade Two literary Braille.

The American Printing House for the Blind sells some Braille music scores and lesson books for blind persons who already know the Braille music code.

The Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress is probably the most comprehensive source for Braille music information and materials, including a variety of teaching materials.

If a student already knows Braille music but needs to obtain the score for a particular piece, there are Braille transcription services which produce Braille music scores that are not otherwise available. An annual publication called "Individual Braille Transcription Services" is available from National Braille Press. This publication includes a listing of those services which transcribe Braille music.

A relatively new computer software company called Dancing Dots has developed a program known as GOODFEEL. The purpose of this program is to convert material from MIDI files or from the LIME notation program into the Braille music code. If this GOODFEEL program is as good as it is reported to be, it should help increase the amount of material available in Braille music as well as decrease the time required to produce it.

Much of what I have said here today has focused on Braille music. I recognize, however, that there probably are blind students attending public schools who know nothing about Braille music but who are participating with some success in various music education classes=FEplaying in bands and singing in choruses. Perhaps these students are learning their music from tape-recordings, from working directly with the teacher, or even from other students. Nevertheless, such methods, in my opinion, have their limitations. My argument in support of Braille music is essentially the same argument that the National Federation of the Blind has made for a decade or more in support of literary Braille. We in the Federation maintain that reading Braille confers the same benefits on the blind that reading print brings to the sighted. Similarly, I would argue that blind musicians would want and need to learn to read Braille music for the same reasons that sighted persons learn to read print music.

It may be possible for a student to get an education using face-to-face readers, tape-recorded books, and oral exams. But none of these methods provide the same flexibility and advantages that come with the ability to read and write Braille. Likewise, a blind student may be able to take music classes and get by with using tape recorders or other such methods for memorizing music. Yet none of these is equal to reading the actual music score.

We've all heard statements in recent years which have relegated the arts—including music—to the status of "frills" rather than staples in our education system. When budgets are reduced, all too often it is programs in the arts that get cut first. However, this very attitude has caused a lot of people to rally in support of the arts and arts education.

Similarly, when it comes to the education of blind children, we must not relegate music to "frill" status. We, as parents of and advocates for blind children, must recognize the importance of music as part of the total education picture, and we must insist that blind children receive the same quality of music instruction and services from the schools that they receive in all other aspects of their education.


Here is a list of Braille music resources cited in the preceding article:

* Hadley School for the Blind, 700 Elm Street, Winnetka, IL 60093 800-323-4238.

* American Printing House for the Blind, PO Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085, 800-233-1839.

* Music Section, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542, 800-424-8567.

* National Braille Press, 88 St. Stephen Street, Boston, MA 02115, 800-548-7323.

* Dancing Dots (producer of the GOODFEEL translation program), 130 Hampden Road, Third Floor, Upper Darby, PA 19082-3110, (610) 352-7607.

For more information about the NFB Music Division and its Music Mentors Program please contact Karen McDonald at 330 Hill Avenue, Keyser, West Virginia 26726, telephone: 304-788-0129