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Braille Music Transcriber and Renaissance Woman, Karen Gearreald, Part 2

Continued from last week.

Part 2

Q. What percentage of students who enroll in the program become LOC certified braille music transcribers? What are the most common obstacles to successfully completing the program?

Karen Gearreald. Photo courtesy of Karen Gearreald.

A. After concentrated study for a length of time ranging from several months to several years, about 50% of enrollees achieve certification in braille music transcription.  Success requires a rare combination of time, knowledge, motivation, and perseverance. I always applaud braillists who complete any part of the course, even if they eventually choose to pursue other aspects of braille, other aspects of music, or personal dreams that have nothing to do with braille or music.  As my mother always said, “no learning is ever lost.”  Besides, I enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to become acquainted with each student.

Q. Are there other countries that have similar certification programs for braille music transcribers?  Are the braille music producers in other countries currently following the Music Braille Code, 2015 that was adopted by BANA (The Braille Authority of North America)?

A. The Canadian program of braille music certification is similar to ours.  The United States and Canada also cooperate as the principal users of the 2015 BANA music code. Outside of North America, every country has the freedom to follow national preferences for certification and transcription. Authoritative reference books, used throughout the world, are Bettye Krolick’s International Manual of Braille Music Notation and Dictionary of Braille Music Signs.

For decades I have enjoyed reading, playing, and singing from European as well as North American transcriptions. My shelves include treasured braille music from England, France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, and Russia. Once a correspondent in China sent me a braille transcription of a melody-and that too made sense.

Q. Typically, the beginning method books for children are full of illustrations such as the correct posture, the names of the different parts of the instrument, correct hand positions on the instrument etc. How do you show these illustrations in the braille version?

A. Although embossed tactile graphics are sometimes helpful, a transcriber’s explanatory notes and descriptions may be even better.  In addition, we often remind new learners to seek hands-on help from a teacher.  Physically relating to the instrument is more important than embossed graphics or words of explanation.

Q. There are computer programs that can translate print music to braille music. What are their limitations? What are some of the elements in braille music transcriptions that you believe can always be done better by human transcribers than any computer programs?

A. I am delighted that automated translation programs have increased the availability of braille music. In my opinion, however, braille music transcription is an art as well as a science. If the printed music is complex or not readily scannable (*so that it cannot be accurately translated into braille music by the computer software), or when the braille reader wants only an extract, such as a specific vocal part, a human braillist is definitely needed. I also believe that an expert certified braillist should proofread and edit any transcription that is intended for wide distribution or permanent archiving.

Karen at a transcribers’ meeting in 2016. Photo courtesy of NLS Music Section.

Q. Some print editions of music in the public domain contain musical markings that are not found in scholarly editions, that recent scholarship may call “not historically informed.” When transcribers detect such markings, do they have the freedom to correct them or are they required to stick to what’s found in the print edition they are transcribing from?

A. To minimize such problems, the transcriber should-whenever possible-choose the best available printed edition. As prescribed by section 1.15 of the 2015 BANA music code, any deviations or corrections in the braille score should be explained in transcriber’s notes.

Q. There are many piano books that are in formats that our younger patrons do not use such as bar by bar or paragraph formats. Do transcribers re-transcribe existing braille music into a format that’s more user friendly so that our younger patrons will be able to use them?

A. Yes.  The modern formats are welcome and necessary, especially in standard keyboard repertoire. Instead of simply retranscribing an old edition, we prefer updated print editions so that the braille reader can benefit from current scholarship as well as modern braille formatting. Recently, for instance, I was delighted to acquire a bar-over-bar transcription of Brahms’ Op. 119. Complete with measure numbers and bar-over-bar alignment and editorial guidance, these four piano pieces will now be ever so much easier to study than they were in my old bar-by-bar edition.

Q. I’ve learned so much from your answers. Would you like to add anything that I did not include in my questions?

A. I would like to say to anyone who has ever transcribed-or thought about transcribing-music into braille, thank you–a million times over—for caring so much!

Sentences with * were added by me for clarity.


  1. Jenny Brown
    January 22, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    I have had the amazing opportunity to learn and correspond with Karen Gearreald over the course of 7-8 years! She is very patient with my slow progress, as I am a mother of 5 working full time as a Braille transcriber for San Diego Unified, and possess very little music experience. But I find it fascinating and challenging, sometimes frustrating – Karen has a way with her written words to personally encourage and simplify – it keeps me going! Such a humble soul, if not for this article, I wouldn’t know what an accomplished woman she is, though I did know her involvements in LOC and musical expertise.
    Such a fascinating woman, I only wish the article was longer!

  2. Donna Koh
    January 23, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Thank you for your comment. Your observations about Karen are shared by many.
    I admire your perseverance and hard work and wish you success with your studies.


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