Reading Music in Braille

Ayaka Isono, courtesy of  the pianist. 

Ayaka Isono lost her vision to a rare retinal disorder at age 29 and, devastated, figured her career as a pianist was over.

Isono had spent her adult life teaching and performing at a high level, playing professionally in chamber ensembles and with the San Francisco Symphony and the Oakland Ballet.

But now she was just trying to learn the basic skills of everyday life all over again, to live independently as a blind person. Perform with the ballet or symphony again? She was just trying to learn how to go outside for a walk by herself.

Depressed and unmotivated, Isono quit doing the things she loved most, the things she’d built her life around. She stopped playing piano, stopped going to concerts, stopped listening to music altogether.

“For three years, I didn’t touch any piano or play any music,” she said. “I was just focusing, learning to live as a blind person. Since I didn’t know any blind people, I didn’t know where to start.”

Today, Isono is performing and teaching again, using braille music scores and instructional material she gets from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), a program of the Library.

She is one of thousands of blind or visually impaired musicians whose work and passion depend upon the braille music collections at NLS — the largest source of such material in the world.

Those collections are a place to turn to for musicians in need of braille or large print versions of, say, a libretto for “La Bohème,” an instruction book for the accordion, a biography of Billie Holiday, a transcription of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata or even a lead sheet for “Achy Breaky Heart.”

NLS holds more than 25,000 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 music-related talking books and magazines.

The NLS Music Section filled over 7,000 requests for such material in the past fiscal year, an important resource for blind or visually impaired musicians trying to adapt to an impairment, learn their craft or make it in the music business — no matter their age.

Tristen Chen. 

Tristen Chen was just 21 months old when he lost his vision because of an eye nerve development delay. But he was a precocious kid, and his parents, Haiyu Chen and Renee Hu, soon noticed he had an unusual talent.

He could, they discovered, listen to recordings of songs, then play them on the piano. When he was 3, Tristen sat at a keyboard and, with no instruction and using both hands, played the Carpenters hit “Yesterday Once More” — the first song he ever played.

“That caught our attention,” Renee said. “He was very good at music, so we started looking for a music teacher.”

Tristen began taking lessons at 4 and, because he couldn’t see printed sheet music, still played by ear. If Tristen gets serious about music, the teacher told Renee, he would need to learn to read braille music. Classical music is too complex to play by ear — Tristen would need to read the notation himself to understand the nuances written into a piece.

“When you’re at a very low level, the kids probably can only remember the notes,” Renee said. “But when the music starts to get complicated, there is a lot of detail — dynamics and a lot of things — he has to read himself. Without braille music, he couldn’t get to this level.”

So, Tristen spent two years learning to read braille music and eventually began borrowing material from NLS. He is now 11 and has been performing in competitions and recitals since 2018, including several performances at venues in Carnegie Hall.

There aren’t many places to which musicians such as Chen and Isono can turn for material.

They could pay to have music transcribed themselves, but it’s expensive — Renee recalled a company charging over $100 to transcribe just four pages of music. Libraries for the blind in Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere commission transcriptions, and NLS buys some material from them. NLS also commissions 40 to 50 transcriptions each year — last year, it produced a braille version of the massively popular musical “Hamilton.”

All of that material is offered free to the public.

“The Library is the only resource I have, the place I can get the braille version of the piece,” Renee says. “We really appreciate this service. It helps a lot financially.”

Advances in technology have made it easier for musicians to access the material. At one time, NLS offered only a limited number of hard copies of braille scores that would be mailed to patrons. Now, about 20 percent of the collection — a figure that increases each year — is digitized and available via download.

All this was new to Isono when she lost her sight in 2001. She didn’t know any blind people, didn’t even know braille music existed. But she learned to read braille text, then taught herself to read braille music — a challenging task even for an accomplished musician.

Eventually, Isono made her way back to her place at the piano. She now performs chamber music with members of the San Francisco Opera, has done recitals in Japan and twice performed at a festival for blind musicians in Morocco.

“Without braille music, I can’t do anything I’m doing right now, including performing,” Isono says. That wouldn’t happen. It’s not possible.”

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