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Piano Lessons Made-to-Measure: An Interview with Dr. Leslie Jones About Teaching Visually Impaired Students, Part 2

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This is the second part of my interview with Dr. Leslie Jones.

DK: What tools and skills should these students be taught in order for them to be successful independent learners?

FMDG Music School students performing at a concert in New York City. Image courtesy of FMDG Music School.


  • Learning the language of any musician: music theory—pitch, rhythm, keys; using the measure numbers as points of reference in rehearsals, lessons and practice.
  • Listening to music with guided tools and language.
  • Stage deportment and etiquette through mobility, description and familiarization of surroundings.
  • Advocacy for themselves. Request that music be transcribed into braille or large print. Cite ADA compliance, it is their right.

DK: What kind of support can parents provide for their child who is blind or VI to study music?


  • Seek a teacher who is creative, flexible and open to students who present from a variety of backgrounds and levels.
  • Research resources that are available online today.
  • Every state has a government-related Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Begin with that agency if possible.
  • Most public school districts provide “teachers of the visually impaired” (TVI) to work with students and families. Ask the “TVI” to help with finding music education resources for the student.
  • Register with the National Library Service!
  • Seek transcription, teacher training workshops or intensive summer workshops. Parents need to be aware of a multitude of resources, as does the TVI in the schools working with a student with vision loss. However, the one point that is challenging for most parents is advocating strongly enough for materials for the child with vision loss. The school district or community ensembles should expect to help the child access music in their preferred or required format. This may mean paying for materials to be transcribed or to be replicated if already in braille or large print format. The parent should not be expected to foot the entire transcription cost, but rather what a sighted student would have to pay for the same materials in print notation. Providing workshops and training for teachers and parents is something FMDG believes is essential in our role as a community music school for students with vision loss.

    An NLS patron and FMDG student Simon selecting one of the winners of a raffle prize at a school event. Image courtesy of FMDG Music School.

DK: Are there any special materials, equipment or electronic devices that a blind music student needs in order to facilitate learning music?

LJ: Students with vision loss should always come prepared with a hand-held recording device. Other devices include braille note takers, braille displays, computers with screen readers or enlarged type face capabilities. If the student does not own a braille embosser (printer), most likely someone in the school district, university or community resources will have one which may be available to print braille music.

For a student with low vision, please remember that enlarging music on a copier is not a substitute for producing the music through print notation software. Often those low vision students need staff lines thickened, need fewer measures on a page, need compressed or expanded scores. Large print music scores need to be proportional.

DK: What suggestions do you have for a music teacher who may feel inadequately prepared to teach blind or VI students?

LJ: Often music teachers fear working with students who have vision loss. Most are tied to the printed score and do not understand how a student could possibly learn in any other manner except rote. This is just not the case. Today, through music technology, we are able to produce scores and accommodate those students who wish to have music in an accessible format. One point that teachers need to be aware of: while music transcription is done very quickly today, there is still a requirement of input, transcription, editing and proofing. Lead time is absolutely necessary, which requires planning!

While some students who are musically talented find reading braille music tedious, that does not preclude the student from needing to become literate. That student may use the braille music scores only as a resource. However, those playing with individuals who are blind or those teaching the student still need to have a score in print or have the music theory assignment transcribed from braille and printed out.

Lastly, seek out the advice of professionals who are accustomed to working with students who have special needs such as vision loss. Tips on accommodation and expectation management is something that we can offer nationwide and even internationally.

DK: Please feel free to add any other comments or suggestions that were not covered.

LJ: While teachers may fear or be intimidated by the thought of a student with vision loss presenting themselves, it is one of the most rewarding educational and humanistic experiences that one could ever have. Allowing a student with vision loss to have parity in learning through accommodation brings so much joy, self-esteem and confidence to a student, their families, and the teacher. Remember: vision loss can and does happen to ANYONE. Today we are fortunate because there are solutions and much happiness to be had when working with a student of any age who has vision loss.

DK: Thank you, Dr. Jones for a very informative interview. I hope this blog will be a good resource for teachers seeking advice about working with students who are blind or visually impaired.

Books on Learning Braille Music for Sighted and Blind Musicians     

  • DeGarmo, M. T. Introduction to Braille Music Transcription. Available through the NLS website
  • Jenkins, Edward. Primer of Braille Music. BRM29158 (braille) and LPM00608 (large print).
  • Krolick, Bettye. Dictionary of Braille Music Signs. BRM26334 (braille) and LPM00428 (large print). Available through the NLS website
  • Krolick, Bettye. How to Read Braille Music: An introduction. BRM29811 (braille) and LPM00638 (large print).
  • Taesch, Richard. An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student: A course in Braille music reading. BRM34079 (braille) and LPM00662 (large print).
  • Taesch, Richard. Who’s Afraid of Braille Music: A short introduction and resource handbook for parents and students. BRM32949 (braille) and LPM00660 (large print). Available through the NLS website


Comments (2)

  1. I would like to learn more about your approach to teaching the topography of the keyboard. Are there any particular resources for this specific task?

    • Dear Mr. Rodgers,
      Thank you for your question. Jennifer Apsel and Dalia Sakas of FMDG Music School kindly provided these answers.

      Jennifer: A lot of the pre-reading pieces that can be found in various method books are good to introduce the patterns of black keys, taught by rote. An activity for getting kids more acquainted with the patterns of black keys is putting some object on all the groups of threes, and a different object on the twos. For low vision students I have used different color post-its. A great example of a piece that I love to teach by rote is by William Gillock, Fog at Sea, and is so good for keyboard orientation. It blocks groups of black keys, as well as breaks them, and also blocks the white keys surrounding those black keys. Also I have used a lot of the Faber & Faber pieces for these early stages of learning by rote. Some improvising using intervals that the student is learning is fun, while also teaching a gesture like a two-note slur, for example. For half steps: A ‘creepy’ piece where the right and left hand take turns playing a half-step, two-note slur all over the keyboard. Every interval can have its own theme/idea.

      Dalia: I agree with Jennifer and Leslie that it is important to do many exercises using the black key groups, either playing them together or doing various patterns on the groups of two black keys or the groups of three black keys. When the student has learned several positions on the piano, broken chord exercises become an efficient way to get comfortable with the “feel” of different keys. Alternating broken triads up the piano crossing hands is a good exercise and can be done with regular triads in the tonic position or inversions. Pieces, like Helicopter Ride by Mark Nevin, are useful addenda when practicing this technique. Chromatic figurations are sometimes daunting for a piano student who is blind. Chromatic scales, Czerny exercises that focus on chromatic patterns, and pieces that employ chromatic figurations are very useful. Developing an innate sense of interval size by the hands is also important. Pieces that focus on thirds or sixths or patterns of similar chords are useful (for example, Toccatina, Op. 27 No. 12 by Kabalevsky).

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