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Braille Music Transcriber and Renaissance Woman: Karen Gearreald, Part 1

Part 1

Karen Gearreald has been an NLS patron since 1951, and when the Music Section was established in 1962, she enrolled for music services. She currently serves as a braille music advisor and instructor for the Library of Congress (LOC) Braille Music Transcription Certification program. While I initially contacted Karen to interview her about her work at LOC, I was awed to discover her multifaceted and fascinating career.

Karen Gearreald reading braille music at the piano.  Photo courtesy of Karen Gearreald.

Karen has been active as an actress, a lawyer for the U.S. Navy Civil Service, an advocate and speaker for Lions clubs and the Rotary Foundation, an educator, pianist, singer, administrator, braille proofreader, and a 1966 General Electric (GE) College Bowl contestant. She holds a Ph.D in English from Harvard University and a law degree from Duke University School of Law.

I was particularly excited to find a video of Karen’s GE College Bowl match on YouTube. Karen’s team consisted of four young women from Agnes Scott, a small liberal arts school for women in Georgia. In the video, her team takes on four Princeton men and beats them, with Karen shouting out the last correct answer that puts them ahead of Princeton just before the final buzzer goes off. When I mentioned this video, Karen said the Ivy leaguers had never heard of Agnes Scott and thought it was a riding academy. Karen considers this match a highlight of her life.

When I read Karen’s answers to my questions on braille music and transcribing, I was invigorated by the same enthusiasm, intelligence and poise I experienced in her college bowl video from over 50 years ago. I hope you will also be inspired by her answers.

Q. Why is braille music important?  Can’t blind musicians just learn by ear?

A. Sometimes (by necessity or by choice) blind musicians may learn solely by ear through recordings or live performances, may devise personal systems of notation, or may rely on dictation from a coach or teacher. Having tried all these alternatives, I find that, though the ear is always crucial, standard braille music is essential for acceptable performance of everything from hymns and Broadway songs to the sublime works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven.  Braille enables me to study the nuances of the music, review doubtful points, and develop my performance according to my best understanding of the composer’s intent.  Braille also enables me to make the best possible use of precious time when sighted colleagues, coaches, or teachers are available to help me. I prepare beforehand by learning the basics of the music through braille so that my sessions with helpers can be devoted to the finer points of technique, interpretation, and collaboration.

I would like to say to a blind musician who already knows literary braille but has not yet learned music braille, “You live at a wonderful moment in the history of braille. Through computerization we can study, produce, archive, and disseminate braille in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.  Take full advantage of these fabulous possibilities so that you can derive maximum joy and success from your musical experiences.”

Q. You’ve been an instructor for the LOC Braille Music Transcription Certification program for a number of years. What are the prerequisites for enrolling in the program?

A. The prerequisites are U.S. citizenship, certification in literary braille, and the ability to read standard printed music in the treble and bass clefs.

Q. Why is it important that program applicants have Library of Congress literary braille certification?

A. The braillist must be able to transcribe song lyrics, editorial explanations, prefatory material, and any other textual information that appears with the music.

Q. Besides being able to transcribe print music into braille accurately, what are some of the most important skills that a transcriber has to possess and develop?

A. First, meticulous proofreading is crucial because even one incorrectly placed dot can significantly change the music. The braillist must also be willing to keep growing in the knowledge and understanding of music theory, styles, and terminology. If the symbols of the printed music cannot be clearly interpreted, the braillist must try to determine the composer’s intent and if necessary, seek help from colleagues and other musicians.

Secondly, braille music transcription is the process of converting printed music (which is basically vertical and graphical) into the horizontal, cellular matrix of braille; therefore the braillist must develop imagination, discernment, and if possible, rapport with visually impaired musicians who seriously use braille music and can answer questions about the finer points of transcription.  Consulting with experienced braille music users can help transcribers braille complex passages in clearer and easier-to-read ways. (*For example, contrapuntal passages where multiple parts are played simultaneously can be transcribed in more than one way. They may all be correct but not necessarily intuitive.)

Ideally, the braillist should become comfortable in creating and editing computerized braille documents. The truly adept transcribers become expert in the technicalities of computerization, such as setting and maintaining the correct parameters for formatting.

Part 2 will be posted on Thursday, Jan. 14.

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