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Piano Lessons Made-to-Measure: An Interview with Dr. Leslie Jones About Teaching Visually Impaired Students, Part 1

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This blog is intended as a resource for sighted music teachers who may feel intimidated by the thought of accepting blind or visually impaired (VI) students into their studio due to lack of knowledge of how to best serve these students.

Dr. Leslie Jones, Director of Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg (FMDG) Music School in New York. Image courtesy of FMDG Music School.

Recently, I reached out to Dr. Leslie Jones, who has been serving as the director of the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg (FMDG) Music School in New York for the past 21 years. As some of you may recall, I wrote about my uplifting experience attending a teacher training workshop and observing student lessons at the FMDG School last November.

As well as being an administrator, Dr. Jones teaches piano and has played an important role in establishing the assistive music technology center at the FMDG School. In spite of being in the middle of the school’s annual Performathon, she generously shared her experiences and knowledge in this two-part blog.

DK: How did you become a music teacher in the field of visual impairment?

LJ: I was a piano professor at Montana State University and Ithaca College before moving to New York City. After moving and settling into the city, I was freelancing in performance, coaching, and arts administration while completing my Doctor of Musical Arts degree. I answered a New York Times ad for a [position as] director of a community music school. There was no mention of vision loss nor Lighthouse International [in the ad]. When I interviewed, I asked why I was a candidate for this position if I had not had previous experience working with visually impaired students. The response was a challenge and provided insight on what was indeed needed in the field: “We are looking for a qualified person who understands excellence in music and a community of students of all ages. We [Lighthouse International] will teach you what you need to know about vision loss and the students themselves will teach you what they require in accommodation.” That was all I needed to hear. I accepted the position.

DK: What was your first experience working with a blind student like? How did you prepare for the first few lessons?

LJ: I prepared as I would for any student. I determined what their level of playing was by requesting the student to play a familiar and/or studied piece. I asked how they learned it: by rote (learning through imitation and repetition) or by reading. If it was reading, braille or large print?  I would have my score in print notation while my student read the music in braille or large print.

Rote teaching can take many forms, but the subsequent lesson after learning that the student does not read may include technical work, putting musical labels to what the student is already doing, and starting to introduce the musical language gradually. Before a student begins braille music, they need to be familiar with literary braille.

DK: Please describe some typical first lessons with a beginning music student who happens to be blind or VI.

LJ: One has to determine what size large print is readable for the student with low vision. Also, is there enough lighting to read and what type of lighting is needed?  If you are at the piano, as I would be with my students, does the music desk pull out to be close enough for a student with low vision to read?  If not, there are clips that can be procured to put on the music desk to bring the music close to their eyes.

When the student was blind, we first learned the geography of the keyboard. One cannot describe by sight, such as black and white keys but by topography. Playing by ear in the beginning stages of anyone’s early development is just part of the process. The keyboard is integral to everything in learning to read braille music. Braille music is based on left-right orientation—Middle  “C” is fourth octave “C”. Middle is an application that sighted individuals use to describe the note between the staves.

DK: A large part of learning is through visual cues. How do you teach piano techniques that are typically taught by the student observing and copying the physical movements of the teacher?

LJ: By touch and description. First, one has to alert the student that the teacher will be touching their hands, arms, shoulders in learning to play the piano, or the student will be asked to put their hands on top of the teacher’s for demonstration purposes. Secondly, the teacher must become adept at description of movement and intent.

DK: Should the sighted teacher know braille music in order to work with a student using braille music? And if so, how well?

LJ: Knowing the principles of braille music is important, but knowing how to read braille music is not necessary. For instance, a teacher needs to describe what clefs are to the student who is blind because the student is studying music in a sighted world. However, clefs have no relevance in braille music. All is based on description of where a pitch is located on the keyboard, e.g. 4th octave “C” is middle “C”. I know the principles of braille music and can read it a bit but certainly not fluently. I have enough knowledge and language to be able to relate to the student who is a braille music reader.

At our school, beginning braille music students learn from our braille music instructor. However, the braille must be reinforced immediately by the student’s primary instrument teacher. In this way, the students instantly see the value of applying the braille music knowledge to what piece of music he/she are working on. Sometimes the braille music instructor and the primary instructor are one and the same but if not, the two teachers working in tandem bring the most benefit to the student.

DK: Although everyone learns differently, what are some approaches to teaching music that are unique to blind students?

LJ: Honestly, the more creative and flexible you are as a teacher, the better you will be in teaching students with vision loss. Verbal description is particularly essential. Comparing music to other sensory stimulation is an aspect which I have always found helpful. In other words, are there ways to describe a piece imaginatively—using tactile representations, olfactory stimulation, time period of the piece, etc.

DK: You have probably worked with students who are advanced musicians who never learned to read braille music. Do you teach them to read braille music when they come to you? If so, how do you convince them that braille music literacy is important?

LJ: Yes and no. With advanced students, it is dependent on a number of factors: age, associated health conditions (like diabetes which is often accompanied by loss of sensation in the finger tips), and recreational or professional aspirations. If a student intends to study music education and/or performance in college, braille music is a must. If a student wishes to participate in fast-learning choirs or bands, braille music is a must. On the other hand, if it is an amateur chorus and sighted singers do not read music, then a student who is blind or has low vision would not be expected to read either. Our music school fosters music literacy as much as possible. It allows all students to have parity to their sighted counterparts.

Please read the second half of this interview in next week’s blog.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for this insightful post! As a piano teacher, I learned some strategies here that will help me teach sighted students, too. Though some sighted students are “visual learners,” so many of them benefit from verbal and phyisical cues just as VI students do.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear that you found this post helpful to your teaching.
      I agree with you that these strategies can be applied to teaching all students.
      Please be sure to read Part 2 next Thursday.

  2. Very informative. It’s like how we teach piano vs how we learn guitar. i.e. piano is a theory first, playing music comes later. Guitar, you learn 3 chords and you can make music right away. I’m pulling my son out of his piano lessons because I need a different approach for him

    • Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you found this post informative.
      As you know, there are many different approaches to learning to play the piano. It is important to find out how your son learns best and find a teacher who is suitable for his needs.

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