The end goal for most college music students is to develop and cultivate skills to prepare for a successful musical career after graduation. For some music students with visual impairment (V.I.), just getting through the college degree program can be challenging. Here are some common reasons:
- inability to learn a large amount of music quickly due to poor braille music reading skills;
- inability to complete writing assignments using the conventional staff notation; or
- inadequate support from the school
Some schools are better than others at providing the necessary support for students who cannot see. This past summer, I read about the assistive music technology (AMT) lab for blind and visually impaired students at Berklee College of Music in Boston and contacted Prof. Chi Kim, the instructor of the program and an NLS patron, to tell us more.
Q. Please tell us about your music education and work experience.
A. I am a Berklee alumnus and assistant professor of Music Therapy at Berklee. I also work as the chief technology officer and producer at Serotonics Music.
I started the Assistive Music Technology lab (AMT) to fully integrate blind students into the Berklee experience in the summer of 2010. Since the AMT lab started, we have had a total of 32 visually impaired students from 10 different countries who participated in the program.
Beyond the course on assistive music technology, I strive to ensure that blind students have the same opportunities at Berklee as their sighted peers. Accordingly, I led an initiative to convert all Berklee core music textbooks into braille and accessible electronic formats, collaborating with multiple departments and faculty, and partnering with other institutions.
Q. When you attended Berklee as a student, were there any programs specifically designed to accommodate students with V.I.? Can you provide some examples of the challenges that you experienced as a student with V.I.?
A. Berklee provided me with the general accommodations that you would expect from other colleges such as assigning a reader/scribe, extended testing time, allowing recording of lectures, and more. In addition, I had a computer workstation with the following software which made visually oriented computer programs more accessible:
- Jaws, a computer adapted screen reader program for the blind
- Sonar, a digital audio workstation that people use to compose, edit and record music
- CakeTalking for Sonar, a Jaws script that reads what’s on the screen out loud and provides keyboard shortcuts, thus helping blind users navigate and access the features and functionality on Sonar more effectively
CakeTalking was pretty much the only option for screen reader users who wanted to use a computer and record music at the time. However, no one at Berklee was familiar with CakeTalking since it is exclusively designed for the blind, so I had to teach myself through reading manuals and asking people online for help.
Another challenge in the beginning was print notation. I double majored in contemporary writing and production, and songwriting which required students to produce scores. I knew how to read and write braille music, but needless to say sighted people couldn’t read it. Fortunately I found a program called Sibelius Speaking which helped me to produce print scores for sighted musicians. Again, my sighted classmates were learning a different program called Finale but it was not accessible for the blind users so I had to learn Sibelius on my own.
Sibelius Speaking and CakeTalking were revolutionary, and being able to achieve the same things as my sighted classmates was great. However, having to use different tools to perform the required tasks was challenging since everyone else at the school was learning other programs.
Q. I read that Berklee traditionally attracts a higher number of blind students than other music schools. Could you explain why?
A. Music students at a lot of traditional music schools almost exclusively learn from print notation. Even though the Berklee curriculum heavily relies on notation, Berklee music education is based on contemporary music styles such as jazz, which has more freedom to improvise, and popular music which tends to be easier to learn by ear (as opposed to a classically-oriented school that stresses musical precision and sight reading). Thus the curriculum is more accessible for blind students in that way.
Q. When was the Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Students program at Berklee created, and what was the impetus for setting it up?
A. Berklee would occasionally have one or two visually impaired students in the past. However, more visually impaired students started applying around 2010. In an effort to educate those students more effectively, Berklee had a summit on teaching visually impaired musicians featuring experts in assistive technology and music educators with special education experience. One thing that every expert agreed on was that the students need to learn accessible music technology in order to become more independent. As a result, Berklee started an AMT lab in the summer of 2010 as a pilot program with students from Berklee and Perkins School for the Blind. After the success of the pilot program, Berklee decided to incorporate the program into the regular curriculum in the following semester.