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Aiming Beyond Graduation: Creating Inclusive College Music Courses for Blind and Visually Impaired Students, Part 2

Continued from last week.

Q. What do the students learn at the AMT lab ?

A. Primarily we teach three things: digital audio workstation (DAW), print notation software, and braille music.

For DAW, we teach a mainstream sound recording and production program called Pro Tools. All Berklee students are required to use Pro Tools, and now visually impaired students can use the exact same tool that other students are learning. Recently, I collaborated with one of my former students and an audio engineer who is also blind to develop an open source product called Flo Tools. In Pro Tools, there are multitudes of buttons that sighted people can simply use the mouse to select. For those with a V.I, a screenreader would have to read each button out loud until the user reached the button they wanted to select. Flo Tools streamlines and automates tasks by using keyboard shortcuts instead of scrolling through each menu button, allowing people using VoiceOver on Mac to use Pro Tools more efficiently.

Chi Kim helping students with music production at the assistive music technology (AMT) lab for blind and visually impaired students at Berklee College.

For print notation, we teach Avid Sibelius with Sibelius Access, a Jaws script. This allows students to produce print notation they can share with sighted musicians and their instructors. For those entering the program with less than sufficient braille music literacy, we provide remedial lessons in braille music reading.

In addition to teaching the essential tools for students, the AMT lab has a dedicated lab space with staff to convert print materials to accessible formats. For inaccessible text documents, we use ABBYY Fine Reader Pro on Mac and Openbook on Windows.

In general, I try to promote universal design for learning (UDL), emphasizing that everyone can benefit from UDL, not just students with V.I. For example, I encourage instructors to play the music examples they write on the board in lectures whenever possible. This helps visually impaired students perceive and understand the music, and sighted students can also benefit from the auditory experience.

Through the lab, we try to raise awareness and push accessibility campus wide. We also provide consultation outside the college.

Q. Can students with limited exposure to technology learn these skills? 

A. Having basic computer skills is essential. However, the Berklee curriculum is 100% based on Mac computers, and we get a lot of students with no prior experience in Mac. We help them to catch up with basic Mac skills and Voiceover, a built-in screen reader on Mac. Having experience with computers such as being able to type definitely helps students to learn faster.

Q. It seems that the knowledge and skills learned in this program can help the students not only with their school work, but after they complete their degree and start a career.  Could you provide some examples of how this program has helped visually impaired students in their professional lives?

A. The goal of the AMT program is to help the students to successfully complete the Berklee curriculum as well as giving them the skills to become independent musicians creating and performing music at the highest level.

Prior to this program, most visually impaired students majored in performance. Now, we have students majoring in film scoring, jazz composition, songwriting, contemporary writing and production, music therapy, and many more. It definitely widens the career options for students. Even if you’re a performer, being able to record music and produce print scores are huge assets. For example, one of our alums is very active in New York City as a guitar player, but he utilizes the technology skills that he learned in the lab to collaborate with other people when he’s not playing on the stage. Music technology is a crucial skill in the music industry now, and Berklee requires all students to have certain technology competencies regardless of their majors.

Q. Do you have any advice for visually impaired high school students planning to attend a music school? What should they do to prepare for their college coursework?

A. Learning braille music as early as possible is very beneficial. From my experience, learning and mastering braille music takes longer than learning technologies. Also connecting with other visually impaired musicians and keeping up with the latest tech and trends is essential. There are various online groups such as Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired (MENVI) and specific technology focused mailing lists that students can join.

Lastly, there are different summer programs for visually impaired students, and participation in those programs would be beneficial in preparing for college.

Thank you Prof. Kim for a very informative interview.  I hope it will help students with V.I. become aware of the assistive technology programs that are available and to prepare for a successful college experience.

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