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Authors of Audio Courses in the NLS Music Collection — Where Do They Come From?

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Don Hoffer was a dentist.

Bill Irwin was a salesman. He peddled organs.  The kind you play.

Barbara Kolb is an internationally renowned composer

These are just some of the people who are behind the instructional audio recordings in the NLS Music collection.  They didn’t merely create and write the narrative, their voices are the ones you hear when you borrow or download and listen to their productions.

 Each of those named wrote or developed courses specifically for the blind or visually impaired.  But in the case of Bill Irwin, he produced his Modern Harmony course specifically for the NLS program.  Bill had approached the head of the Music Section who quickly saw the qualities of his proposal.  Modern Harmony was the first such NLS title, and the first audio music theory course placed in the collection, in the mid 1970s.  It has circulated hundreds and hundreds of times.  Patrons have called and written many times expressing appreciation and thanks, often fervent, even up to the present, thirty plus years later.

How did that come about?

 Bill Irwin was —and still is— an alert, observant person.  He remembers when he was a child hearing in concert the blind Welsh pianist Alec Templeton, and listening to Art Tatum, a brilliant visually impaired jazz pianist. As an adult professional keyboard performer and staff artist to the Hammond Organ Co. —his sales job— he observed a blind teenager trying out an organ in the showroom during an exhibition. He immediately began to ask himself how he could help teach her how to play only with oral instruction, no written materials.  He was confident he could do so. 

Bill proceeded to build and develop his method, applying it right where he worked.  He taught the young girl who tried out the organ that day and she subsequently gave a performance at the same showroom. 


Photo of Bill Irwin playing the organ.
Photo of Bill Irwin playing the organ.


His method was not rote learning, rather teaching how to listen, understand, and then re-create music.  It was this method that persuaded NLS to adopt and sponsor Modern Harmony and the several other courses that Bill developed later (last year!) and is still working on.  All of them, of course, have strictly audio resources.  There is none of the commonplace audio-visual components of DVDs and VHS tapes.

We have more than a dozen of his works in the NLS music collection.  In fact, his organ and theory courses (DBM00701 and DBM00702) were among the very first  actual “courses” in the audio music collection.  Courses developed especially for the NLS program. And he is even now putting the finishing touches on a new title: A Light History of Piano Jazz, which will be available later this year.

He was a great salesman, and is a great teacher.  (There are many similarities between those two endeavors.)  He is also a first class musician and performer.  Keyboard Magazine voted him “Best Pop Organist“ four years in a row.  And he has performed and conducted workshops worldwide.  NLS is fortunate to have his works in its collection.




Comments (3)

  1. I have a lot of respect for what Bill Irwin knows about keyboard and organ work. My question is, did Don Hoffer teach and play guitar on the side while doing his dentistry work?

    • Matthew, we are unable to determine the balance in Don Hoffer’s work/play life. We suspect that at least in the beginning the guitar was on the side. But he got more serious and established Creative Services for the Blind by the 1980s, if not earlier. Avocation may have overtaken vocation.

  2. I am one of the many who have benefitted greatly from Bill Irwin’s Popular Organ Instructions from the 1970’s. He taught me more about music than my live teachers. And his influence on the way I play is still alive in what I do. I have all his courses on one flash drive, for me to work with anytime I need to refresh my skills. Thank you, NLS, for making al this available.

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