Ayaka Isono lost her sight to a rare retinal disorder in 2001 at age 29 and, devastated, figured her career as a pianist was over.
“I couldn’t see the score, I couldn’t work with conductors, I couldn’t play ensembles, I couldn’t write new music,” says Isono, who performed in chamber groups with some of the top players in the country and occasionally performed with the San Francisco Symphony and Oakland Ballet Company.
Depressed, she didn’t touch her piano for three years. She never played, never went to concerts, never listened to music.
Now, Isono performs again, using braille music scores for solo piano and chamber ensembles that she downloads and prints at home. She teaches, too, using braille instructional material.
Isono is one of thousands of visually impaired musicians whose work depends upon the collections of the Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a program of the Library of Congress.
“I can’t imagine my career without them. I really can’t,” says Isono, a native of Japan who now lives in the Bay Area. “I get so many materials from them.”
World’s Biggest Collection
The music collections at NLS represent the world’s largest source of material for visually impaired musicians and music lovers – more than 30,000 braille transcriptions of musical scores and instructional texts; large-print scores, librettos, reference works and biographies; instructional recordings in music theory, appreciation and performance; and talking books and magazines.
Each year, the Music Section fills between 2,500 and 3,000 requests from a wide range of people who suffer from blindness or low vision – professional players seeking scores to perform, blind students or teachers in need of instructional material, or aficionados who just want a good book about a favorite musician.
Very few sources exist around the world for braille musical scores and instructional texts, says John Hanson, head of the Music Section.
NLS commissions many braille transcriptions of scores and instructional material – such commissions represent about half of its acquisitions each year. Libraries for the blind in Italy, Great Britain and Switzerland, for example, also commission material, and NLS makes the balance of its acquisitions each year from such institutions.
“They regularly add to their music collections, and I buy them whenever I can,” Hanson says. “Otherwise, there is really no where else to turn.”
Still, much more material is available today than in decades past.
Paul Kurtz, a retired counselor and computer programmer who was blind from birth, first took up the trumpet as a seventh-grader in the mid-1960s.
At the time, he could find only one braille instructional text for his chosen instrument, a 1933 Arban method book he got from NLS.
The dearth of material – even through the 1970s and ’80s – discouraged him from pursuing a music career. The time he spent tediously transcribing braille music and text for his own use cut into the time he would have spent teaching or playing.
“It hindered any professional aspirations I had toward teaching,” says Kurtz, who today plays with several bands in his native Jacksonville, Fla.
Though NLS will have specific pieces transcribed on request, Kurtz and other musicians often pay to have pieces and texts transcribed into braille and donate them to the Music Section – an effort to ensure future generations of visually impaired musicians have the material they need.
Kurtz alone has paid for the transcription of more than 20 method books.
“I stand on many long-suffering shoulders of people who got us to here,” he says. “That’s why I don’t mind doing my part in the braille music for trumpeters project. The Library is the fountainhead and the producing engine for all of the future efforts to come out, in braille, large print and audio.”
A Lifeline for Musicians
That material provides an important resource for blind musicians trying to adapt to their impairment, learn their craft or make it in the business of music.
Jessica Bachicha was born blind, took her first music lessons at 12 and decided as a teenager to pursue a career in music.
But Bachicha, a soprano, didn’t know music theory or read braille music. Instead, she just memorized everything. A session at a music institute in Connecticut showed her the limitations of that approach.
“I went into my first jazz piano class and was completely left in the dust,” says Bachicha, a native of New Mexico. “I was in tears by the end of the class because I had no idea. That really inspired me to learn theory. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a whole new world.”
Part of that new world was learning to read braille music. A teacher told her of the collections at NLS, and Bachicha began to make use of its braille instructional texts, histories and scores.
Inspired, she earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of New Mexico, a master’s at the New England Conservatory and a doctorate at Catholic University.
Having a source of braille musical material at NLS helped her develop as a musician in ways she otherwise couldn’t, Bachicha says.
“When I went off to college it was a lifesaver in my theory classes, in my history and in my voice classes,” she says. “I began to learn a lot more volume of material as well.”
Bachicha now works part time at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore while she pursues music.
In recent years, she played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” at Catholic University and Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” with the Bel Cantanti opera company. In January, she made her New York debut at Carnegie Hall.
The biggest challenge now, she says, is convincing people not to be afraid of her blindness and to give her a chance in what already is a highly competitive field.
“I’m still waiting for that conductor to come along,” Bachicha says. “It’s just waiting for somebody who can not only say, ‘Oh, yeah, I think you can definitely do it,” but somebody who can say, ‘I know you can do it and I’m going to pay you to do it.’ ”
Access Better than Ever
Advances in technology make it easier than ever for visually impaired musicians such as Bachicha, Isono and Kurtz to access material.
At one time, the Music Section offered only a limited number of hard copies of braille scores that would be mailed to patrons around the country – a problem if the music was already checked out or if a patron needed a piece quickly.
Now, about 10 percent of the collection – and growing each year – is digitized and available via download.
The Library’s Web-Braille format makes braille music scores, for example, available in an electronic format via the Internet. Patrons can download a score and either read it with a braille display device or print a hard copy with a braille printer.
Portable braille “note-taker” devices allow the musicians to store entire music libraries and transport them to use during rehearsals or classes.
“It is better today, and it is getting better by leaps and bounds,” Kurtz says.
All this was new to Isono when she lost her sight – she didn’t know any blind people, had never even heard of braille music.
But a teacher who taught her to read braille text also told her about braille music. That led her to the collections at NLS and, eventually, back to her place at the piano.
“I told myself, ‘I can do this. I can read braille music,’ ” Isono says. “I didn’t expect myself to be back in this professional music field again. It really feels good to do full-time music again.”