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Braille Music Transcends Prison Walls, Part 1

This year, the Library of Congress celebrates the 100th year of its braille certification program.  Students can receive certification in literary braille, mathematics, music braille and braille proofreading through this program.

Folsom State Prison. Source: The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

As a participant in the literary braille transcription program, I can attest that it is a rigorous program that requires hundreds of hours of study and practice. Submitted lessons that contain any mistakes are returned for correction and resubmission. Successful completion of this program calls for discipline, dedication, attention to detail and tenacity.

For music or mathematics certification programs, students must already be certified in literary braille. In addition, the music student must be able to read print music notation fluently, be familiar with musical terms and possess knowledge of music theory. If you think the music braille transcription program has stringent prerequisites for enrollment, the actual program is far more rigorous; consisting of more than thirty lessons and a final exam, the course requires months, if not years, of dedicated study.

With that information, when you picture a braille music transcriber, what kind of person comes to your mind? It is unlikely you would envision inmates in correctional facilities toiling in a room for months learning braille music code, poring over print copies of music and typing and retyping on their brailler or computer.

As some of you may recall, Stephanie Pieck, a pianist and music instructor who is blind, mentioned in her interview that when she was a child, she had a braillist who transcribed children’s books for her from prison. She sent him a letter in braille and he returned it with the mistakes marked, saying he would answer her when she  rewrote it perfectly.  Clearly, Stephanie’s braillist was committed to her literacy and imparted the importance of brailling accurately.

As the Detroit News recently reported, there are quite a few incarcerated braille transcribers who are quietly giving back to society. In this blog, Karen Gearreald, our braille music certification instructor, will share her wonderful experience working with the incarcerated music transcribers and will describe the important contribution they make to the braille music collection at the NLS Music Section.

DK: What was the genesis for the braille music certification program for incarcerated braillists?

KG: Because of the critical shortage of music braillists, the Library of Congress asked several well-established prison groups to recruit literary braillists who were willing and able to learn to transcribe music.  Our first successful candidate was certified in 2004 at the Folsom Prison. Many incarcerated braillists—men and women—have been certified in music since then, and new students continue to be enrolled from numerous prisons.  Actually, since I began teaching the braille music transcription course in 2003, the majority of the students have been transcribers from prisons, although I also work with many non-incarcerated braillists from all parts of the United States.

DK: Is the music course different for incarcerated braillists?

KG: The prerequisites, rigorous course requirements, and continuing expectations are the same for all aspiring music braillists, whether in prison or in the free world.  All students use the same textbook.  Lessons are sent to me as e-mail attachments in braille format; I respond with extensive printed commentaries, including answers to the students’ questions.

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

Happy Fourth!

On this Independence Day, I thought it would be nice to review some of the patriotic tunes we have in the NLS Music collection. In previous posts I’ve discussed the music of George M. Cohan and John Philip Sousa. We also have some posts about the Ohio State School for the Blind’s marching band by […]

New BARD Additions–March & April 2019

Read about the braille music scores and books that we’ve added to BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) during the past two months!