This is the second part of my interview with Stephanie Pieck.
Q) Explaining your teaching philosophy, you wrote, “I faced many instances in which the general opinion was that a blind person couldn’t learn. But I also had many very dedicated teachers who knew this wasn’t true; all that was needed was a different way to learn.” Could you provide some examples of “a different way to learn” that helped you?
A) A lot of what students learn is picked up as they watch their teachers and other students do things. That won’t work for someone with limited or no vision. Also, the helpful pictures in beginners’ piano books don’t work, either. So I had a lot of hand-over-hand (and hand-under-hand) modeling** to learn proper technique and fingering. The best lessons I was given were the ones that taught me how to listen. Every motion we make on our instruments creates a different effect, some more desirable than others. Learning to listen critically and analyze what I was hearing, then making the changes in my technique needed until I got the sound I wanted—I try to pass this on to all my students, sighted or blind.
**Hand-over-hand modeling is when the student places her hand over the teacher’s hand/wrist/arm to learn the physical movement needed to produce the appropriate sound or to feel what a correct and relaxed hand position is. Similarly, the teacher may also place her hand over the student’s to help develop a proper technique.
Here is another example. For years, at the school music solo festivals where students were evaluated on their instruments, my sight-reading was waived. I would get a token single point subtracted from my score because I couldn’t do that part of the exam. As a teacher, I found an International music examination board that offers all their sight-reading tests in Braille or by ear, and blind candidates are expected to take sight-reading and get graded for it just like everyone else. Bravo to that! The funny thing is that as I’ve sent both blind and sighted students through the exam process over the years, the blind ones routinely surpass their sighted peers in sight-reading scores!
Q) In your experience, what are some of the differences in how a blind student learns music from a sighted student?
A) Sighted students can skim pieces for weeks or months before they have to memorize, if they ever do. For blind students, the memorization starts with the first reading. I used to think it took blind students (including me) longer to learn music. Now I’m not so sure. Since we’re memorizing up front, I think the time spent probably evens out, or maybe even tips toward blind musicians’ advantage.
Q) Could you provide some tips that would be helpful in teaching visually impaired students?
A) First, have high expectations. Blind students are a cross-section of society. Not everyone is a musical genius or even above average. Have the same expectations for blind students that you do for sighted ones.
Second, if you can’t read Braille music yourself, don’t just opt to teach everything by ear. I use a combination of reading and aural learning for all students because both skills are essential. There are lots of great resources for learning Braille music out there.
Third, become comfortable describing things, or physically showing students how they should be playing. For blind students, music is much more of a hands-on thing. Have them feel what you’re doing with your hands, arms, shoulders, how you’re sitting or standing. The eyes are the entry point for most people when they gather information. For blind and visually impaired students, other entry points have to be used. Making the lessons physical—moving in rhythm, doing large or small movements to experience the difference between loud or soft—all these are things that can benefit all students, but blind and visually impaired ones especially.
I am thankful to Stephanie for sharing her experiences and valuable insight with our readers.