By: Courtney Morgan
August 24, 2020
Music students spend a lot of time studying musical notation, terminology, and theory. Of course, many musicians don't read music while they perform, so this emphasis on reading is obviously not related to one's ability to play their instrument. Rather, it's about learning the language that musicians use to communicate, and that is an important part of music education that we shouldn't neglect.
However, some beginners aren't able to read music, or they aren't able to learn to do so using traditional methods. It is therefore necessary to allow them to adapt, whether that means learning entirely by ear or approaching notation differently.
Beginners who are blind or visually impaired, as well as teachers, family, and friends, might believe that they are disadvantaged. However, the problem isn't their condition but rather how other musicians communicate with them. There is absolutely no reason that a visual impairment should prevent someone from learning to play an instrument. However, music teachers and musicians who perform in ensembles with someone who is visually impaired should communicate in order to be understood, and that means not using visual explanations.
One of the greatest struggles for beginners with normal vision is that they rely on their eyes too much. They try to watch their fingers instead of using their ears, and they need to learn to trust their other senses before they can learn with something other than visual input. Sometimes, I will tell a beginner to wear a blindfold in order to train them to use the right parts of their mind and body. This wouldn't be a problem for a visually impaired beginner. In fact, it might be an advantage.
However, whether you read Braille or have enough vision to maybe puzzle through standard notation at a slower rate, it's going to require you to stop playing in order to read, and that can be extremely frustrating. In addition, an English speaker who reads standard notation might use a different set of terms than someone who reads Braille notation due to something Braille readers refer to as "code switching."
Standard notation uses universal symbols and borrows terms from French and Italian that are also universal, but the names of pitches vary from one language to the next. English speakers use letters, but Romance languages generally use do, re, mi, fa, etc. Since Braille musical notation actually originated in French rather than English, what we call "C" in English is "D" for "do" in Braille, and the letters continue in order from there. So if you learn Braille notation, you therefore have to read D, E, F, G, A, B, C with your fingers, but for your sighted English-speaking ensemble mates, you would verbally say C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
Most English-speaking musicians also learn "do, re, me, fa, etc.," which we call solfege, but it is often taught with what we call a moveable "do." In other words, unlike languages that always use "do" for the pitch an English speaker would call "C," our "do" changes when the key changes. In C Major, "do" is C, but in F Major, "do" is F. While a more experienced musician will have no trouble making the adjustment from a moveable to a fixed do, this might be difficult for beginners.
Therefore, it is probably better for a blind or visually impaired beginner to learn entirely by ear and simply memorize their repertoire. If you doubt such a thing is possible, think for a moment about how much music you have memorized without even trying. You can probably hum countless melodies, whether or not you remember the lyrics, and there are probably other songs you don't really know, but you would recognize them if you heard them. If you can absorb all that music without even trying, it is possible to do so much more than that if you are trying.
One final note for beginners who are blind or visually impaired: I absolutely do not recommend buying an instrument from any source other than a violin shop. It needs to be set up properly when you receive it. Some online sellers ship violins in pieces, and it's going to be pretty much impossible for you to assemble a violin when you have no prior experience with the instrument and no model for how the pieces should fit together. Therefore, if it is at all possible for you to travel to a violin shop, that's what you need to do. If it isn't possible for you to go to a violin shop, then I recommend calling Southwest Strings, rather than buying an instrument from a website, so that you can talk to someone who can make sure you have everything you need. Their phone number is: (800)-528-3430.