by Julie McGinnity
From the Editor: Julie McGinnity has twice been the winner of a National Federation of the Blind scholarship, which made her a tenBroek Scholar in 2013. She is active in the Missouri affiliate as the recording secretary, as the chairman of the state dog guide division, and as a member of her chapter. Here is what she has to say about the challenges involved in becoming a blind performer:
It's the beginning of my second semester of grad school. I have been consulting with my university's office of disability services, my Braille music transcriber, and my professors in order to make the transition into a new semester as seamless as possible. Thankfully, our efforts have been successful. My professors and I are discussing strategies for teaching me performance skills, coordinating the transcription of music for classes into Braille, and working with me to ensure that I have the same access to materials as my fellow students.
After four and a half years, I may have finally found a successful method for acquiring the accommodations I need as a blind music major. But I won't lie; it can be a complicated and difficult process. I certainly have made mistakes along the way and had to work even harder to keep myself on the right track.
Here I bring you some important things to ponder if you are considering a degree in music or may simply wish to take music classes during your time in college. Keep in mind that these ideas and suggestions stem from my own experience as a music major, though much that I have found has been confirmed by other blind musicians.
The first thing I am always asked by sighted musicians is, "How do you read music?" My answer to this question has changed over the years. Although I learned Braille music as a teenager, I was deceived into thinking that I would not be able to acquire it easily or learn it well enough to keep up with my colleagues. I was also deceived by the common stereotype that blind musicians all have exceptional (some would say magical) musical skills and could learn anything by ear. For me this proved false, as I discovered in my first semester of music school. In order to save my grades and my dignity, I chose to fight for Braille music and eventually began to use it in all my classes.
Looking back, I believe that I should never have had an excuse to leave myself out of learning how to read music. I was musically illiterate, which is not a choice for sighted musicians. They all began learning how to sight read on the first day of classes, but I had to memorize and learn by ear. This is no substitute for learning how to read the notes on the page, whether they are in Braille or print. I have heard of those students who have graduated successfully without learning how to read music, and I am amazed at their musical ability. I would not, however, recommend this method for anyone. We should not be accepted into music school as blind students if we do not learn all that our sighted colleagues do; we should be accepted as equals with equal rights and responsibilities.
Braille music is no more difficult, tedious, or irritating than print music. Many people will tell you that it is nearly impossible to learn, but many blind musicians conquer this task successfully. There are instructional books and tutors available to teach Braille music to those who wish to learn it. Additionally, a wealth of Braille music scores is available from the Library of Congress, and Braille music transcribers exist all over the country. These transcribers can be costly, but, if Braille music materials are required for a class, you will be able to receive them with the assistance of your university.
Another important aspect of our lives as musicians is performing. Whether you are in marching band, the top choir or orchestra, or wish to be a solo performer, performance skills are a must. You need to learn how to interact graciously with those who think that walking across a stage is too difficult for you, while at the same time strategizing with those you trust and using your own experiences to develop a repertoire of alternative techniques for the stage and in other performance settings. Here are two life rules that might be helpful when working in your performance classes:
Honesty is your friend. You need to have a few trusted teachers, friends, and/or colleagues to tell you what you look like. I was surprised to learn that even sighted people need to do this. Yes, they look ridiculous on occasion, and they don't see it. The truth is that not everyone will be honest with you. Some teachers and friends won't want to hurt your feelings, so develop an honest relationship with those who will give you constructive feedback. Each person has to develop his or her own repertoire of gestures. Don't let this frighten you. We all have gestures that we use every day. Learning how to manipulate these gestures and movements on stage is simply a matter of molding them into the right contexts and learning what they might convey to an audience member. Sighted people benefit from videos, mirrors, and pictures, but we need another pair of eyes as well as our own intuition and knowledge of ourselves to learn these skills.
Know your own strengths, weaknesses, and limits. Stage work can involve anything from climbing on platforms to dancing around the stage. Therefore, it is important to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, I can tell you that I feel safe climbing on platforms if I get a chance to navigate them ahead of time with my cane, but, if I were asked to dance around the stage, I would feel very uncomfortable because my dance experience is zero. Again, sighted people deal with this in performing as well. But it is particularly important that we as blind musicians know ourselves as performers for two reasons.
First, we need to be clear about what we can do. If the professor says that I cannot be on the top level of the risers in a choir concert, I can honestly say that I am personally comfortable with this limit for me. It would be wrong if the professor set this limit based solely on my blindness, without taking my actual abilities into account. But, on the other hand, it would be irresponsible of me to claim that I could do anything and everything he could ask of me in a performance. We need to be responsible. Claiming that we can do any stunt and act as super blind performers is not honest and negates any responsible, truthful advocating that could be done. College should be a safe place where we can express our worries and fears. If we have not learned how to navigate platforms of different lengths, lead a marching band, or work on stage without our canes or dogs, we should learn how to do so in our classes. It may sound like a lot of extra time will need to be devoted to developing some of these skills, but with the right teachers, some motivation, and connections to some fellow blind performers, it is possible to learn and be successful.
One of the greatest concerns for blind and sighted musicians alike is the ability to secure a career after graduation. This is uncertain for the fine arts more than most other fields, since much of the work performing and teaching we musicians encounter is unsteady. In many cases musicians move from performance to performance, and students come and go in our studios. Full-time jobs are particularly difficult to obtain these days, and we all know about the unemployment rate among the blind.
Sighted musicians augment their musical careers by doing things like retail work and food service. Unfortunately, I do not know many local blind store clerks or waitresses. But there are many different options to give us better marketability and career possibilities. For those of you who may be interested in majoring in a topic besides music, this is a great way to gain experience in another field. You can also apply for jobs as a student at which you can learn particular skills. For example, I currently have a position at my university testing websites and technology for accessibility. I would encourage any blind student to gain job experience in college to boost your resume and give you work experience, but for musicians it might be even more important for us to look outside our field. Think about possible volunteer opportunities, on-campus jobs, such as tutoring or receptionist work, and taking classes outside of the music department to widen your interests and knowledge.
A large network of blind and sighted musicians who have experience in many career paths are willing to mentor current students. From opera singers to music therapists, a wide range of careers is represented by members of the blind community. I am willing to answer any questions about being a music major and to help those who are interested to connect with other musicians.