Last month, I finally took a long-awaited trip to England. In addition to spending time with my daughter who is a student in Manchester, there were two things that I planned to accomplish during my visit: attending the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and visiting the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). Fortunately, I was able to do both during my trip and more.
Promenade concerts, better known as the Proms, were founded with the idea of “making the best-quality classical music available to the widest possible audience.” These are affordable concerts that you don’t have to dress up to attend. There are standing tickets that you can purchase on the day of the concert for a mere £6.00. On the night of the concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I watched in amazement as a large number of “Prommers” stood very still and attentively listened to nearly two hours of Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky. I love the idea of people with modest means being able to hear live performances of the top-tier orchestras in a beautiful concert hall. This is a wonderful tradition that I wish more concert halls all over the world could offer.
Hearing me gush about the Proms in London, my hosts guided me to the Last Night of the Hallé Proms in Manchester. This was in a much smaller hall with a smaller audience, but I sensed that something exciting was in store when I was handed a small British flag at the door. As it turned out, it is a tradition at Last Night of the Hallé Proms to feature an audience sing-a-long. For the second half of the program, everyone in the hall, old and the young alike, joined the wonderful Scottish tenor on the stage in boisterous renditions of Rule, Britannia, Jerusalem and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance while standing up and waving the British flag. Camaraderie, exhilaration, and patriotism filled the hall and made the night an unforgettable experience for me. This was another strong testament to how powerfully music can affect and unite people.
Besides hearing great music, I was most excited to visit the RNIB Library in Peterborough. NLS has a large number of braille scores that RNIB produced, one of the oldest being “Method of octaves, op. 48, book 2” by Theodore Kullak from 1897. RNIB has been a producer of high-quality braille music scores for more than 100 years, covering a wide variety of styles, types, and genres of music.
Although RNIB provides music library services to blind and visually impaired patrons as NLS does, RNIB is a charitable organization, so the scope and nature of their services differ from ours. When I visited RNIB library in Peterborough, I was able to talk to the library’s staff about the programs and services they provide. There are a couple that particularly stood out in my mind: one of the programs RNIB offers to encourage young braille music readers is the Gardner’s Trust Braille Music Literacy Awards. There are five difficulty levels of this braille music testing program in which students are required to name each symbol in a piece of music and perform the piece by memory. There is a cash prize for the best candidate at each level. Everyone who participates receives a detailed adjudication report and a certificate. I can see this type of program helping teachers and students set a clear learning goal each year and feel a sense of accomplishment while making steady progress in their braille music literacy.
I also heard about the customized braille book RNIB created for a flute teacher that greatly enhanced her ability to work with her students because of its detailed descriptions of the student’s print book. This was a labor of love which took painstaking work by the dedicated transcriber and was deeply appreciated by the patron. I was told that transcriptions are offered at a sliding rate and that costs are subsidized for professional musicians and teachers.
Members of the RNIB music staff were involved in a series of podcasts produced to raise awareness about braille music entitled Journey Through Braille Music. These are six podcasts on braille music for different instruments; braille music transcribing; history and resources; new technologies to transcribe braille music; and ways of learning braille music. If you are interested in learning about braille music, this series is an excellent resource, and each episode is about 12 minutes long.
My trip to Peterborough was brief, but I was glad to have met some of the faces behind RNIB’s wonderful programs and braille scores. RNIB and NLS are more than 3,600 miles apart, but the music staff at both organizations strive for the same goal: to help people with vision loss play, teach, learn, and enjoy music.
If you are interested in reading about the early history of the Proms, we have a braille book entitled The Story of the Proms, BRM25816, published by RNIB.
NLS has the following books written by English musicians and published in braille by RNIB:
- English Cathedral Music from Edward VI to Edward VII by Edmund H. Fellowes. BRM24155 (This book was originally published in the 1940s by the prominent English music scholar E. H. Fellowes, who traveled all over England to collect and transcribe sixteenth-century sacred and secular music.)
- Five English Folk Songs: freely arranged for unaccompanied chorus by R. Vaughan Williams. BRM29632-29635
- Carols for Choirs: fifty carols for Christmas and Advent, edited and arranged by David Willcocks and John Rutter. BRM24098
- Andante Religioso for Organ, op. 64 by Alec Rowley. BRM11851
- A Ceremony of Carols, Cantata for Treble Voices and Harp, op. 28 by Benjamin Britten. BRM30503
- Pomp and circumstance: military march, no. 1 in D. op. 39 by Edward Elgar, arranged for pianoforte solo by Adolf Schmid. BRM09158
I would like to thank James Bartlett of RNIB for his kind assistance in facilitating my visit.