A recent email came to us from a young aspiring piano teacher in Indonesia. She had been advised by her instructor that blind people should not attempt to teach the piano. The teacher was especially critical of the teaching of sighted students as, without sight, 'they would not be able to spot faulty hand positions, etc.' It was indeed inspiring to see the wonderful support mail and differing views that continued on in the following days. (See the MENVI Website, "Discussions" page for transcripts of some of the comments.)
Discourse ranged from protests, to a valid possibility from one MENVI Advisor who felt that not all students are equipped to teach music, and perhaps the teacher's view might have been based on this particular person's aptitude and abilities. In this case, however, the teacher's comment was clearly a blanket statement that 'blind people should not try to teach the piano.' Of course we do know that the planet earth is covered with successful blind music educators, not to mention Louis Braille himself who was a blind organist and a music teacher! Perhaps when we finally invade that mysterious frontier of space, we will find little green piano teachers everywhere who have no need for such primitive senses such as eyes. (This editor might add that an experienced music teacher can often detect poor technique by listening to his or her student play without observing hand positions first.)
(Winter Quarter 2001 MENVI News Journal Issue 13 contained another such list discussion that began with the question: "... how do you impose yourself on those who think a blind teacher cannot teach an instrument?" The response was: "You can't impose yourself, but you can give examples, and MOST OF ALL, let them know that your curriculum is IN BRAILLE! You have the ability to function with sighted or blind students as well as ANY sighted teacher can. But your teaching resources and materials MUST be in place first, and you must be able to prove it!)
Not more than a few hours following the first discussion, another explosive message described a situation in Texas that permitted blind students to participate in performance competitions, but banned them from the sight reading portions of the event. It did not take long for information to be fired back that there might develop some sentiment to challenge the "powers-that-be" to a sight singing duel between their sighted students and certain of our blind ones. Since the HIGHEST grade in all of Southern California for the Royal American Conservatory Examinations (Toronto) was a blind student who does "sight read," we clearly think that it might not be a fair fight. (Has anyone ever heard of the Braille Challenge?)
If we have whetted your appetite for advocacy - even a little bit - that was the intention. Join the on-line discussions list and help us out. Give your opinions and join the struggle against this kind of prejudice. Help to bring exciting new possibilities into the careers of music teachers who might otherwise use the word "CAN'T" with respect to our blind kids who can't fight back. We're not only advocating for the kids, but helping a lot of good music teachers to use the word CAN much more often.
Among those who helped advocate for our Indonesian student and to encourage her and her teacher, was Stephanie Pieck. Ms. Pieck is a concert pianist and distinguished piano teacher who just happens to be blind! She conducts a very successful piano studio in New York and maintains a very large roster, much of which is made up of sighted students. She is a MENVI Specialist and Advisor, and often tours the world impressing audiences whenever she performs.
Stephanie has prepared this fine article for us. As a stellar example of a career music educator who is blind, we felt her article might be very timely.
As a piano teacher who happens to be blind, I have encountered all kinds of attitudes among students, parents, and colleagues regarding the abilities of blind musicians.
There are those who believe, falsely in my opinion, that, if you're blind, then you're automatically a musical genius. Well, there may be a few of those folks out there, but my hours of practice to prepare for recitals and competitions lead me to believe that I, and most other blind musicians, can't be counted in this group. No matter how many times I explain the merits and necessity of good training, high expectations, and just plain hard work, they just don't get it! For the most part, this view is an annoyance and can be ignored as long as their awe doesn't translate into making special exceptions to the general rules and requirements of society because of it.
The second attitude is that blind people are helpless, incapable of independent participation in society, especially through employment. These people feel that the best place for the blind is somewhere they can be taken care of, or, barring that, somewhere that their influence on and contact with the sighted can be kept to a minimum. This attitude is highly dangerous, first because it poisons all its followers' dealings with the blind, and second, because it is too often unwittingly taught to the blind themselves. It is based on fear and misunderstanding.
The third attitude I have come across is one of acceptance, equality, and respect. While many people who come to this attitude have initial questions, doubts or concerns, they can be reasonable in changing their perceptions when given the opportunity.
You may wonder what this has to do with music. Quite a bit, I think. Many parents, whether their children are blind or sighted, see the value of musical instruction and encourage their children to pursue it. We as educators must be aware of the attitudes our blind students will encounter in their lives. We have the responsibility to act as role models, teaching independence and respect to children, acting as advocates when we must, but ultimately giving the blind the tools and skills to advocate for themselves.
Among my own students (who are all, at this point, sighted), my primary goals are to teach independent thought, respect, and an appreciation for music. I don't spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the aptitude of each one: they are as varied as any group of children and adults.
When I have taught blind students, my goals and expectations don't change. They must work just as hard as everyone else, play the same recitals, practice sight-reading, and perform to the best of their ability. But with many of them, I have had the additional challenge of trying to change attitudes.
I have no foolproof way to bring people to a balanced view of the capabilities of blind people. I can only try to instill it in each of my sighted students and their families, in the blind people I teach, in colleagues who might hear one of my recitals. Actions speak louder than words. And for the times when actions alone aren't enough, let the music do the talking. Expect nothing less from a blind student just because of blindness. At the same time, don't assume they will be prodigies. We are human beings, just like everyone else, with all the strengths and weaknesses the human condition brings with it.Ed. Note:
Ms. Pieck is also composer of the piano series, "NEW DIRECTIONS." It is a beautiful collection of her own compositions, masterfully graded for her students, and published in braille and print editions. Contact her at: for information.
After a year-and-one-half of silence, the SCCM Braille Music Division has re-opened its doors to eager blind students in West Hills California. The new satellite of the school - originally established in 1972 - is once again in full operation. There are three simultaneous classes for blind students per hour, lasting from 10 am until 4 pm each Saturday. A new Yamaha piano lab consisting of eight fully-weighted, state-of-the-art, electronic pianos accommodates an exciting Keyboard Geography lab and creative composition experiences. Aural Skills (ear-training) classes prepare students for entry into the world of braille music reading, and the Listening Lab presents a full curriculum graded and designed to open ears and develop musical awareness.
SCCM Outreach to the Frances Blend School in Los Angeles is also being revived and in first stages of application. Those who still feel that blind students should not teach music might want to note that three SCCM blind students are now on paid staff positions, and are conducting several of the classes! One is a recent graduate of USC School of Music.
SCCM wishes to recognize the B.C. McCabe Foundation, The Rochelle Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund, and the Patel Family for their substantial financial support of its blind students with special academic needs.**NOTE: Got news of special programs or events such as the one above? Be sure to send them along to headquarters for publication.
Just a little reminder in that it's the end of the year. Your Supportingmembership for MENVI can be a tax deduction for 2004!
Some teachers of braille music have asked what is the best order to present signs when teaching the music code to a new reader. Following is a progressive list that has been used successfully in the SCCM Braille Music Division. We hope that it is helpful:(4th octave marks are used for all notes here)
Remember that the solfege syllables would mean different notes in new keys where moveable do remains scale-step 1. But for now, this can get us started for the early lessons. We will continue the list in next issue. Let us know if you would find a series of suggested lessons and pedagogy useful to you.
Sometime ago it was announced that a help forum for those using the Dancing Dots course for braille music might soon appear on line. Although no formal venue appeared, there has been continuing on line help for the courses available from MENVI Headquarters. A good forum for those active in "An Introduction to Music for The Blind Student," Part 1, or "Introduction to the Piano for The Blind Student," is the MENVI subscribers' list available to registered members of the Network. If you have questions while in the courses, go to the list and share them with everyone. (Who knows, the author himself may appear with the answers that you seek.)
The addition of braille music literacy and reading skills has been considered to take its place with the renowned "Braille Challenge." Perhaps situations such as the one described in Texas may one day be only a memory once we are able to expose the fine music reading skills of so many of our blind students to the world at large. Showcasing the musicianship of blind musicians through the Braille Challenge could change the course of history for so many who still think that blind people don't read music.
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