2003 Conference Proceedings

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Teaching Braille Music with SAL

William R. McCann
Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology, L.P.


The SAL (Speech-Assisted Learning) device is a stand-alone system that offers the student a multi-media, interactive environment in which to learn to read braille. The light-weight, portable unit lets you place a standard page of embossed braille over a flat touch screen. When the student presses lightly on any braille character, SAL responds with auditory feedback. SAL has a study mode and an activity mode. It incorporates a braille keyboard for input of answers to activity questions, Eloquence synthetic speech, and a player for wav and mp3 audio files. SAL reports students scores after completion of each activity and has an option to log responses in a journal file for an instructor to review.

Dancing Dots has created the Music Touch courseware for SAL. Music Touch exploits SAL's multimedia facilities to present material from Richard Taesch's An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student: A Course in Braille Music Reading. In early 2001, Dancing Dots published Part I of Taesch's course in print and braille editions. The first courseware offering in the Music Touch series is based on the Lesson Exercises from Taesch's course.

In this presentation, Mr. McCann will give the audience some background on the challenge of promoting braille music literacy to the mainstream music educator and vision teacher in the U.S. He will describe the basics of braille music and Taesch's courses. The session will finish with a demonstration of Music Touch and a question and answer session.

Description of Music Touch Courseware for SAL

Each page from Taesch's Lesson Exercises has been prepared for use with SAL. Only minor changes to the original page lay-out needed to be made. A prompt line was added to the bottom of each page to take advantage of SAL's ability to issue verbal descriptions and instructions for activities.

The student begins by exploring each page of the lesson in SAL's study mode. A sighted teacher refers to the print edition of the Lesson Exercises to guide the student. A blind teacher can use the hardcopy braille edition.

Taesch's course teaches a traditional method of sight singing called solfeggio. Each of the seven degrees of the western musical scale is assigned its own syllable: do for C, re for D, mi for E, etc. This system was made famous in the popular song from The Sound of Music, Doe, a Deer.

Pressing on an individual braille character, triggers a verbal description of that braille music sign and, where appropriate, a musical tone. For example, pressing on do or C prompts SAL to say: "Do, eighth." This announcement is followed by the sound of the note played on a piano. If the student presses on a sign such as an octave sign or double bar, SAL describes that character. An entire measure of music can be played by pressing just to the left of the first braille character in that measure. Pressing on the exercise number triggers a musical performance of the entire exercise. The student sings along with the musical performance using solfeggio syllables.

When the student is ready to begin activity mode, he presses on the prompt line at the bottom of the page or presses a foot switch accessory. Music Touch activities instruct the student to answer questions by pressing on the correct braille character. For example, press on a quarter note sol. If the correct answer is chosen, SAL responds with an affirmative "re-inforcer" message such as "Correct!" or "Good!" If the wrong answer is chosen, SAL gives a negative response such as "Incorrect", "Wrong", "No way!" Music Touch also employs nonverbal re-inforcers such as the sound of a fanfare of trumpets for a correct answer.

Other activities ask the student to key in the correct response using SAL's braille keyboard. Sometimes the student is asked to listen to a brief musical passage and find the corresponding measure on the page or to enter the corresponding notation via the braille keyboard. The process of playing a musical passage for a listener to notate is called dictation.


Over the past fifty years or so, the trend toward mainstreaming blind and visually impaired students in the United States has had many undeniable benefits. However, one clear casualty of this trend is braille music literacy. When the majority of blind children attended specialized schools, study of braille music was a natural result of passing through a well-rounded course of study. Students were expected to learn to read and write in music braille in the same way as sighted children enrolled in general music classes or participating in school ensembles.

As more and more children were mainstreamed, it became less and less common for blind students to learn literary braille, let alone braille music notation. In far too many cases, music educators on the local level did not even know that there was such a thing as braille notation! Those who did know had a very vague understanding and had no resources for learning and teaching the system. Fear of the unknown often led to misguided decisions to forgo literacy for blind students. Even today, too many well-intentioned but uninformed educators penalize talented young musicians with the unfounded rationalization that, since these students possess such an excellent memory and keen ear for music, there is no need for them to learn to read music notation! These educators usually reconsider after being asked if they take away written music from any equally gifted sighted students. Of course, reading music notation is just one of the skills which any schooled musician needs.

Nonetheless, those mainstream educators who did advocate for literacy for their blind students encountered difficulty in finding resources. One excellent introductory work is Bettye Krolick's "How to Read Braille Music." Available in print and braille editions, this concise book continues to help get many people started. But Richard Taesch, a great admirer of Mrs. Krolick's work, found that many educators and new braille readers wanted a method that introduced braille music reading together with concepts of music theory such as singing scale degrees with traditional solfeggio syllables, the basics of harmonic structure and other music fundamentals such as rhythm. Whereas Krolick's handy book tells you how a quarter note f, for example, is written in braille music, Taesch's curriculum explains to you what a quarter note is, how it is expressed in braille and its function in numerous examples shown both in traditional staff notation and in a braille font for the sighted educator with many annotations to assist the teacher in answering questions from the new braille music reader.

Dancing Dots introduced Taesch's new curriculum, "An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student, A Course in Braille Music Reading", during a presentation made to the sixteenth Annual CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in the year 2001. This year, we share our work to develop multimedia content that supplements and complements the lessons and examples in this thorough curriculum.

Developing multimedia content to support Taesch's curriculum is a logical extension of the mission of Dancing Dots: to promote literacy, independence and inclusion for the blind musician. The company supports blind musicians and those who educate them through development of new technology, adapting mainstream music technology and by offering training in blending assistive technology and mainstream music technology to benefit the blind musician. See www.dancingdots.com for more on the GOODFEEL® Braille Music Translator and Dancing Dots' JAWS scripts and tutorials for digital audio/MIDI products from Cakewalk Music Software and notation programs including Sibelius and Lime.

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