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A Community Music School for Blind and Visually Impaired Students

Part 1

When I first read about the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School’s workshop for accessible music technology and braille music, I felt that it was something I needed to do very soon. The Music School holds an annual teacher training workshop with an added bonus of observing the youth program. As a librarian who believes strongly that we are educators facilitating learning, I wanted to explore how students with vision loss learn and how they are taught so that the NLS Music Section can better accommodate the patrons we serve. So early one Friday morning, I boarded the train to New York City.

A technology specialist helping an adult student use Lime Lighter.  Image courtesy of Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School.

The Music School is located at the Lighthouse Guild building near Lincoln Center in the heart of New York City. This community music school, which serves students with vision loss, has been in operation since 1913. Currently, the music school is looking for a new home, as Lighthouse Guild will no longer be their parent organization at the end of this year. This is concerning, as more and more organizations that offer music programs to blind and visually impaired students are downsizing or disappearing altogether. However, Leslie Jones, Executive Director, and Dalia Sakas, Director of Music Studies, are seasoned administrators who have been through similar experiences before, and are determined not only to survive this upcoming transition, but to thrive in spite of it.

Increasingly, I feel the imminent and desperate need for a better music education system for children who are blind or visually impaired. Many public school music programs are not equipped to teach students with vision loss and lack the resources to provide music materials in accessible formats. It seems that this group of children increasingly has to resort to finding opportunities outside their school system to receive adequate musical training; therefore, organizations that meet this need should be valued and supported.

On my first day at the school, I undertook training in creating and reading accessible music formats. The first part of my training was dedicated to learning how to create large print and braille music scores using Lime notation editor and GOODFEEL. I could either enter the notes in the staff, or play them on a MIDI keyboard and see the notes appear on the screen in both staff notation and braille music code. I discovered that you can emboss and print the music immediately from the same computer. For blind users, Lime Aloud works with JAWS (text-to-speech software) and you can also connect your refreshable braille display to tactilely read the music after you create it.

I was also introduced to Lime Lighter, which enlarges print music and displays it on a thin portable tablet that can be mounted on a music stand. The notes of the music can be displayed in different colors for an optimal contrast between the notated music and the background.

A teacher creating accessible music with Lime Notation Editor at the school’s technology lab. Photo courtesy of Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School.

The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School is especially impressive because it is self-sufficient when it comes to supplying their students with the music they need. In addition to its large braille music library, they can transcribe braille scores and produce customized large print music on site, as needed. They have technology specialists, who, in addition to producing music in accessible formats, also train their students to do it.  Teaching the students to be self-reliant in this regard is a thoughtful, long-range plan that will help them for years to come.

The afternoon was spent reading braille music. Since I already had some braille music background, I was given a number of short tunes to sight-sing. The instructor (a Music Section patron whom I frequently talk to) and I sang tunes notated in braille music and it was fun but at the same time challenging.

I appreciate the school’s efforts to train the teachers so that they are better equipped to work with students with vision loss. I remember a conversation I had with a teacher for visually impaired students. She confided that her school has a software program to convert staff notation to braille, but nobody knows how to use it since the teacher who was responsible for the task left. This kind of situation can be prevented with a few hours of training. Even if only two or three teachers from each state attended a short training program and acquired the software to produce music in accessible formats, they could make a huge difference in how students with visual impairment learn music.  In addition, more college-bound music students with visual impairment would be fluent braille music readers and proficient in braille music technology, allowing them to complete their music theory assignments and share their music compositions with their sighted peers.

One of the highlights of the day was meeting several of the Music Section’s patrons in person. Because music librarians talk to many patrons on a regular basis, I often imagine what they are like in person. On this trip, I met five of our patrons who greeted me with warm handshakes and hugs. I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning as I learned who they are and was able to briefly chat with each one of them. I was truly delighted to meet them.

Continued next week, November 15, 2018

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