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Braille Music Transcends Prison Walls, Part 2

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Continued from last week

Part 2

Karen Gearreald taking a break during the filming of a BBC documentary, August, 2018. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Dudley

DK: What motivates your incarcerated students to enroll in the braille music certification program, especially after toiling for months or years to achieve literary braille certification?

KG: The opportunity to work in a prison braille program is a high honor which the prisons award to inmates who demonstrate ability, commitment, educational achievement, and good character.  The music braillists share a love and appreciation for music as well as an understanding of the great need for their transcriptions. Prior to their incarceration, most studied music privately or in school.  Some obtained college or postgraduate degrees in music; some have had extensive experience as performing singers or instrumentalists. Looking forward to the possibility of parole, braillists enjoy the prospect of music transcription as part of their employment in the free world. Meanwhile they produce music scores and textbooks for individual requestors, for students in schools and colleges, and for various organizations. In prison groups where there is more than one certified music braillist, the inmates enjoy the camaraderie of working together on complex projects. In 2005, when I visited the Folsom prison in California and the Gatesville women’s prison in Texas, I was deeply impressed by the courtesy, dedication, and talent of everyone I met.

DK: What special challenges do incarcerated braillists face since they have limited freedom in their correspondences and activities?

KG: Because inmates do not normally have access to the Internet, they routinely rely on reference books for information about music theory and musical terms. Inmates cannot send or receive e-mail directly; therefore they correspond with me through their supervisors, who monitor all communications.  In addition, computers and other braille equipment are not accessible outside of normal working hours.  At night and on weekends, inmates study independently, sometimes writing out their exercises by hand in grids which they have developed to represent the braille page.

DK: How have incarcerated braillists contributed to the music collection of the Library of Congress?

KG: The first downloadable contribution was the Mozart Adagio for Glass Harmonica (BRM32880), a short piece adapted for the piano.  Since then the contributions have included major multivolume works:  Psalms for All Seasons (BRM36050); Just Standards (a comprehensive “fakebook” of popular songs—BRM36374); Art Song in English (BRM36783); and the complete Schirmer vocal and keyboard score of Handel’s Messiah (BRM35422). Recent contributions include solo instrumental pieces for violin and piano. We look forward to many more additions.

DK: Lastly, are there any special experiences you would like to mention about working with this population?

KG: Regardless of status or location, each of my music students is unique and special.  All are deeply appreciated, and some have become close friends.  I thank the supervisors who enable me to work successfully with the incarcerated braillists. There is great joy as the inmates grow in knowledge and character and as many of them prepare for a happy, productive return to the free world.  Music transcends the barriers of prison walls.

I am grateful to Karen for this interview and for her tireless work in instructing the next generation of braille music transcribers.

Please read more about the free braille music transcription program here.

If you are interested in learning about how braille music works, please visit the NLS Music Section Website to access these titles in both print and braille.

  • Introduction to Braille Music Transcription, Second Edition 2005, by Mary Turner De Garmo, revised and edited by Lawrence R. Smith, Music Braille Transcriber
  • Who’s Afraid of Braille Music: A Short Introduction and Resource Handbook for Parents and Students by Richard Taesch and William McCann

The following instructions on reading braille music are available from the Music Section:

  • How to Read Braille Music: An Introduction by Bettye Krolick (LPM00638; BRM29811)
  • An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student by Richard Taesch:
  • Part I (LPM00662, v.1 -3; BRM34079, v. 1-4)
  • Part II (LPM00664, v.1 & 2, BRM34080 v. 1-4)
  • Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, Revised Edition (BRM36087)
  • Dictionary of Braille Music Signs, First Edition (LPM00428)

Below is a selection of accessible materials mentioned in this blog

  • Art Song in English: 50 songs by 21 American and British composers. For low voice. In 3 vols. (BRM36783)
  • Just Standards Real Book. A comprehensive “fakebook” of popular songs. In 9 vols. (BRM36374)
  • George Frideric Handel. Messiah: an Oratorio. The complete Schirmer vocal and keyboard score. 13 volumes. (BRM35422)
  • Psalms for All Seasons: a Complete Psalter for Worship. For voice and piano. 19 vols. (BRM36050)

You may download them from BARD, or you may borrow braille or large print copies. Just send us an email ([email protected]), or call 1-800-424-8567, then press option 2 for the Music Section.



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