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We were in contact with approximately 400 visually-impaired musicians altogether; we collected specific questionnaire and interview data from 225 people, broken down as follows: interviews with 48 visually-impaired musicians/music teachers of whom 20 also completed our questionnaire; and interviews with an additional 6 sighted music teachers who work with visually-impaired learners (in private instrumental teaching, mainstream and special schools) (54 interviews in total). We also collected questionnaire data from an additional 171 visually-impaired respondents (so 191 questionnaire responses overall). The visually-impaired respondents had a wide range of sight conditions and points of sight degeneration from hereditary, congenital causes to accidents and disease.

Forty-two of the interviewees were from the UK, 6 from the USA, and 2 from Australia, with individuals from Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand. The mean age of the 51 who declared was 44.04 years (standard deviation, SD = 15.28), with the youngest interviewee being 18, and the oldest 73 years of age. Thirty-five of the interviewees were blind and 13 were partially-sighted. There were 78 questionnaire responses (40.84%) from the UK; 48 (25.13%) from the USA; 23 (12.04%) from Australia; 13 (6.81%) from Colombia; 5 (2.62%) from New Zealand; 4 (2.09%) from Canada; 2 (1.05%) from Austria, 2 from Italy and 2 from Kenya; and single respondents from Chile, Croatia, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Ireland and Russia. One hundred and forty-six (79.44%) classed themselves as blind, the rest partially-sighted. The age distribution was: 40 of 18–24 years; 50 of 25–34 years; 29 of 35–44 years; 27 of 45–54 years; 33 of 55–64 years; and 12 of 65–74 years.

Selected findings

History and traditions

There are worldwide traditions of "blind musicianship", which frame the way that society considers visually-impaired (blind and partially-sighted) people's musical participation. There have been visually-impaired musicians amongst: the Limba ethnic group in Sierra Leone; minstrels in the Ukraine; guilds of "blind musicians" in Japan reaching back to feudal times; other folk musics throughout history; in the early jazz of the US Southern States, as well as contemporary popular musics; and in classical music, including professional and amateur musicians around the world, some of whom attended our conference at the UCL Institute of Education, London, 10–11 March 2015. Surrounding all this is "social lore", too, such as higher religious wisdom being attributed to itinerant minstrels or the sighted person's assumption, correct or otherwise, that "in the absence of one sense another is augmented". There are diverse views on such matters.

Musical participation

Our expectation that visually-impaired musicians would be most heavily involved in genres or activities that rested less heavily on print notation than aural transmission, such as folk, pop, traditional music, or jazz was challenged: 53.93% (103) of respondents played classical music; 47.64% (91) popular music; 29.32% (56) traditional or folk music; 27.75% (53) jazz; 16.75% (32) early music; and various other types of music were also mentioned. They also played (and in some cases taught) a diversity of instruments including: voice; keyboard, stringed, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments associated with classical music; instruments used in early music, e.g. the lute, theorbo and viola da gamba; but also the penny whistle, the Indian harp, sitar, dhol and harmonium, the Iranian tar, didgeridoo, accordion, harmonica, electronic keyboards, the Japanese shakuhachi and drum kit, etc.

Technology use

Technology has increased the possibilities for music making amongst visually-impaired musicians, e.g. through the use of mainstream applications for music production (e.g. Digital Audio Workstations, engraving software, with the production of digital Braille) used in tandem with accessibility tools (e.g. text-to-speech screen readers [JAWS, NVDA], magnification software). This has created a diversity of ways in which the musicians can learn, create and share their music. However, the rise of digital music technology has also caused difficulties for some visually-impaired people, not least because it is considered specialist knowledge from which some people feel isolated. With rapid software release upon release, there have been applications of varying degrees of accessibility and some, after being used, become inaccessible. In audio production software, for example, there have been mouse-driven graphic representations of knobs and sliders on mixing desks that are displayed on VDUs without recourse to keystroke and screen reader control. Touchscreen technology has also presented its problems. We came across people developing access scripts for mainstream music software, or finding programmers to help them make applications accessible, or creating their own software to share. Technology has also had implications for music careers: there was some evidence the visually-impaired musicians are excluded from work in mainstream recording studios due to their use of applications on Mac computers, which have, until recently, been inaccessible to screen readers; this, tends to lock visually-impaired people into "project" or "home studios" on the PC.

Visual score media and deteriorating sight

For many with partial sight, scores were used but often with problems. This particularly affected musicians who wished to participate in classical music and ensembles such as choirs and orchestras. There were various specific problems for those who were accustomed to reading notation in the past and were losing their sight. People working from enlarged stave notation, perhaps with poor sight or reduced visual fields, faced the potential unmanageability of large sheets of paper, coupled with, say, a poor quality photocopy enlargement. The eye could not sweep across the score except for a few bars at a time; it became much more a process of the gradual memorisation of music, bit by bit. This was also true of digital scores on, for instance, tablet technologies that have emerged in recent years where just a few enlarged bars are displayed and prompted forward by a foot pedal.

Braille music and approach

Braille music could make sight reading challenging too, with obvious consequences for musical participation in contexts reliant on sight reading from sheet music (e.g. the orchestra). An instrumentalist working from Braille music would commonly iterate back and forth between touching and, separately, playing, whilst perhaps cross-referencing with audio. There were exceptions, such as the possibility for singers to have a Braille score in front of them whilst performing. Of course pianists need to engage one hand with the piano keyboard at a time, whilst feeling their Braille score with the other. Learning music from Braille was often a process of "chunking" though; a laborious process of absorbing small parts at first, until locked into the procedural memory. Sighted musicians may memorise similarly no doubt, but for the Braille user and advocate, this may be the primary way.

Braille music and its digital form

Our questionnaire revealed that 52.36% (100) of the respondents could read Braille music even if they did not use it, which does seem high given published research on Braille use [see Note 1]. Some of our respondents described Braille as "the right to musical literacy" whereas others felt music could be learned by ear anyhow so there was no need for it. Braille services for music and advocates like Lydia Machell (Prima Vista, UK) were supporting users, however Braille transcriptions from printed music notation were often thought costly and time-consuming to obtain; this, in turn, sometimes challenged musical participation in sighted ensembles. Prima Vista, Lydia's company, was working with some of the mainstream music publishers, who provided her with their digital production files of stave notation scores. With her software, she, then, turned them into a Braille Ready Format (.brf) digital file that could be used with, for instance, a digital Braille embosser or other device. The cooperation of music publishers in this way will increase access for Braille music readers.

Schooling and pedagogy

We discovered a wide range of opinions on whether or not mainstream or special schools for the visually impaired were the best place to be educated musically. A number of items on our questionnaire included a five-point rating scale from "Strongly disagree" (or 1) through "Neither disagree nor agree" (3) to "Strongly agree" (5). The statement "Sighted music teachers are generally aware of the needs of VI learners" produced a mean of 2.05 (SD 0.99, 137 responses) [Note 2], or an average response of "Disagree". Furthermore, "Visually-impaired people have better musical learning experiences in mainstream schools than special schools" produced a response of 2.76 (SD 1.08, 127 resp.). Perspectives were linked with where interviewees were themselves educated, and also the changing landscape of schooling for the visually impaired. In favour of special schooling, some respondents said it provided more expert help from music teachers with an understanding of the needs of visually-impaired learners, and skills such as literary and music Braille; a more supportive environment generally; and less likelihood of feeling "different" or being bullied thus withdrawing from group musical participation. In favour of mainstream schooling, issues such as more opportunities to take part in a greater range of activities and more opportunities to make friends with local children were cited.

Disability arts scene

Some respondents suggested the demands on independent mobility required for a music career made it difficult to be a professional musician, and others pointed to discrimination amongst employers or other musicians. The statement "Discrimination limits the ability of visually-impaired people to engage with music throughout their lives" produced a mean of 3.43 (SD 1.08, 143 resp.) or a measure of agreement. Such factors as dependent mobility and perceived discrimination have contributed to the formation of "disability ensembles" whose aim is to increase opportunities. These included: the Inner Vision Orchestra, from London, a world music ensemble, led by the Indian musician, Baluji Shrivastav; the British Para-orchestra, which played at the London 2012 Paralympics with the pop band Coldplay, led by conductor Charles Hazelwood; the Al Nour Wal Amal ("Light and hope") Chamber Orchestra in Egypt, which is comprised entirely of visually impaired women; the Korean Traditional Music Orchestra of the Blind; the Argentinian National Symphony Blind Band "Maestro Pascual Grisolia"; and, in Chennai, India, the St. Louis Blind Orchestra, which performs music from Tamil cinema.

Viewpoints on disabled music ensembles were mixed. Some musicians were fully in support of such ensembles. Many considered it impossible to divorce themselves from being a "blind musician" anyway; and some went further, to market themselves that way. As an example, one respondent, from Kenya, considered himself a "disabled rights activist" through his music, visiting schools and universities to perform it; he was a rapper and his music is about fighting the challenges of being visually impaired. Others reflected that grouping an ensemble together due to a disability was a terrible idea. One reason was that the amount of visually-impaired musicians was so small (a "low incidence disability group"), the musicians would be so diverse in standard and the quality of the music poor. Some wanted to be regarded as just "a musician", not a "blind musician": it was the quality of the musician that mattered, and "if you're good enough, visual impairment shouldn't matter" said one. One singer talked about being, in childhood, "the little blind girl who miraculously could sing so well" (something that sighted people thought was a special dispensation due to her blindness), and that had followed her across her life. She said it was like participating in "inspiration porn" but could never quite understand what she was inspiring sighted people to do.


Outputs from the VIML project have been:

  • a two-day international conference hosted at the UCL Institute of Education (10–11 March 2015) attended by delegates (e.g. representatives of charities, music examination boards, developers of accessible music technologies, academics and researchers, teachers from mainstream and special schools, and visually-impaired musicians) from around the world (see the conference pages of this site)
  • an interview for faculty.net about VIML
  • a co-authored academic book, Insights in Sound: Visually-Impaired Musicians' Lives and Learning (Baker & Green, in preparation)
  • a book chapter "Visually-impaired musicians, community music and the disability arts scene" (Baker & Green) for the Oxford Handbook of Community Music
  • an article "Visually-impaired musicians' narrative insights: Childhood, lifelong learning and musical participation" in the British Journal of Music Education (Baker, 2014)
  • an article "Perceptions of schooling, pedagogy and notation in the lives of visually-impaired musicians" for Research Studies in Music Education (Baker & Green, accepted for publication)
  • training for students at the Royal Academy of Music; and subsequent music education outreach within the visual impairment unit of Edward Wilson Primary School, Paddington, London
  • presentations in Australia (Sydney Conservatorium of Music/University of Sydney), Norway (Nordic Network on Disability Research conference) and in the US (Berklee College of Music, Boston, also filmed for staff training)

A bid for follow-on funding to the AHRC is currently being prepared, which will be a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education, the Department of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, Queen Mary University of London and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Additionally, David Baker will be travelling to India to research visually-impaired musicians under a British Council/Arts Council England grant, "Re-imagine India" in January 2016.

David Baker and Lucy Green
September 2015

Note 1: Published research on the UK indicates only 3–4% of visually-impaired children use literary Braille even (e.g. Keil & Clunies-Ross, 2002; and Morris & Smith, 2008 on children age 5–16 years).

Note 2: "SD" refers to the standard deviation or average distance of all the raw scores from the arithmetic mean.

Further information

For further information on the VIML project, please contact:

Dr David Baker
Room 628A
Department of Culture, Communication and Media
UCL Institute of Education
20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL
E-mail: david.baker@ioe.ac.uk

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