Think of a blind musician, and you start to think of obvious choices like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder. And for some people, Andrea Bocelli comes to mind. If you're thinking of enlisting someone with a visual impairment for piano lessons, there are four traits they must have: a good ear, good coordination, the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, and a great deal of motivation. Most of these traits can be taught and developed, but not motivation.
Every teaching situation is different in its own way, even for blind students. But there are a few guidelines to consider when teaching piano lessons in this manner. No matter the nature of the student’s visual impairment however,, if they are motivated to learn the piano, there is no reason why they can’t do it. So, where do you begin? And are there any special techniques and technologies to help them along the way?
The Nature of The Student’s Visual Impairment
Knowing the nature of the student’s visual impairment determines how musical notation and the overall layout of the practice room will be presented. In order to plan the lessons to suit their needs, the following questions should be answered:
- Does the student have light perception?
- Is the student partially sighted? If yes, which areas of their vision are restricted and to what degree?
- Is the student’s upper or lower visual field restricted?
- Is the student’s left or right visual field restricted?
- Does the student have a loss of central or peripheral vision?
These questions are extremely important in order to adjust the lessons according to their needs. Simple changes to presentations and layouts can make their journey of learning more fun and valuable.
Teachers should display basic etiquette when working with visually impaired students to establish a positive environment, as well as a positive teacher-student relationship.
After getting to know each other, it’s time for the first lesson. Student should be asked if they would like to be guided to the room where the piano lesson will be taking place. After doing this, you can act as their sighted guide.
When acting as a sighted guide, allow the student to take hold of your arm. Once in the practice room, ask them if you can take their hands in order to show them where the chair is.
Throughout your lesson, it’s important to always ask permission before making any physical contact with them to show positioning. It can be distressing if someone suddenly taps you on your shoulder if you weren’t expecting it.
Don’t forget that continuous communication will be the key in their learning process for visually impaired.
Other Issues to Consider
Piano lessons to the blind have a few other issues to consider and to ensure the student gets the most from their learning session.
External Light Sources
Some visually impaired students get easily distracted by bright lights, while others may find discomfort in their eyes when the sun shines through the window. By taking these factors into consideration, position the piano for optimal playing surroundings.
If you’re unsure about any of this, talk to your student and their guardian to find the ideal position.
Visually impaired students rely on their other senses and can sometimes get distracted by the sound of other people entering the room. Rather than focusing on the music they’re playing, they become curious. For this reason, it’s important to keep any disruption and background noise to a minimum.
Presentation of Music Material
Depending on the student’s needs, there are different ways to approach the presentation of the music material. This is why it’s important to do some more research about the nature of the particular student’s visual impairment.
If you have a student with no functional vision, they can access music via Braille. However, many teachers find braille music quite challenging for students to learn because they will still have to memorize the piece before transferring it onto the piano.
The challenges that come along with braille music make teaching students, with no functional vision, aurally the better option. Many teachers work on a couple of bars during a lesson and record them onto a CD. This way the student can gradually build up the piece of music week by week.
Enlarged Musical Notation
For partially sighted students, enlarging the notation can sometimes help. However, this can also provide a set of challenges because of the difficulty that comes along with scanning the page from the one side to the other.
Students that have a loss of peripheral vision can read a single bar of notation quite well. But depending on the severity of their visual impairment, the reading can be limited to around one to three bars – which means it can be difficult for them to keep track at the speed of the music.
Students who can use written notation, either them or the music may need to be adjusted to an unconventional position. This will help the student to identify where they are in the music and improve the optimal vision.
Tactile Musical Notation
Even though you are teaching the piano aurally, it’s important to cover aspects of musical literacy.
In order to improve the experience for the blind student, many music teachers choose to use paper with raised tactile diagrams. This gives the student an opportunity to feel the stave and get a better perspective as to where the notation sits on each line/space.
When teaching students who are likely to take their music further, it’s important that dynamics, key changes, note lengths, and tonality are covered in their music lessons.
Music Technology Available Nowadays
Luckily, in today’s day and age, there are many different musical technologies and resources available that can be used to bring visually impaired students into the world of playing the piano.
Dancing Dots offers various resources to help teach blind students how to play the piano depending on their degree of impairment. These include:
GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator
The GOODFEEL enables you to convert sheet music quickly and accurately to braille. It also gives blind students the opportunity to review the sheet music with verbal and musical cues; assisting them when practicing at home.
The Lime Lighter
The Lime Lighter is a great option for students with limited sight and lets them read the music with more ease and comfort. It digitally enlarges the sheet music on a tablet or a computer screen, while color contrasts help them to distinguish between different notes.
Finding the best and most suitable technology for your student depends on the nature of their visual impairment. Make sure to do the necessary research!
The Musical Journey
The opportunity to learn how to play an instrument can be a wonderful journey for anyone with a visual impairment. It can provide them with an extra social outlet or recreational activity where they can improve skills like coordination, concentration, and perseverance.
But learning the piano might not be for everyone. So before embarking on this journey, make sure the student is ready for piano lessons.
No matter what obstacles you might face, hard work, dedication, and communication are what guarantee the success of your and your student’s journey.
About the Author: Helen Baker
I am a freelance teacher and writer based in Ann Arbor, MI. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, I spent some time teaching English in Paris and, thereafter, returned to Ann Arbor where I was involved both in the media and academics. Currently I am a stay at home mom, working as a freelance writer and teacher. I love all my guitars and I also have an affinity towards old grand pianos. I love singing, traveling, reading, writing, watching films and spending quality time with my husband.