Teaching music to the blind
September 22, 2006 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to give music lessons to a young blind boy. He has been blind since birth, and he is a music fanatic. Please help me figure out the best approach to take in teaching him about music.

He's about 5 years old, and is blind due to Norrie disease.

His parents want me to hang out with him and play around with music. I am a guitarist and a singer. He is into basically anything that will make a sound. He writes songs, with melodies, using the ringtones on his telephone as backing tracks (it's really quite something).

I guess I'm looking for advice from any blind people, or those that teach the blind, with regards to music instruction.

Please feel free to ask for clarification if I haven't been specific enough.
posted by davey_darling to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Lighthouse in San Francisco is a fantastic resource. I would email someone on their staff.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:36 AM on September 22, 2006

Wow, please follow up or blog this, it is quite interesting. This had better not be viral marketing for a heartwarming movie about a jaded music tutor and the sweet disabled boy who heals him. Just kidding.

The American Federation for the Blind has forums discussing this, but the interface is crappy. I think you have to register to read the threads.

posted by mecran01 at 8:46 AM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is pulled out of nowhere, but a high quality xylophone might be a great way to spatially represent the relationships between notes for someone who can't see. Then you can move him to a melodica. Also, empire music sells a great tenor uke, the TR400, that is $43 shipped, indestructable, and has a nice wide fretboard and easy nylon strings. I would string it with concert strings and a low-g tuning.

Finally, musician's friend has a $40-50 Rogue acoustic that sounds fine, and has an easy action. I'm just throwing out these sources for playable cheap instruments so the kid can have a range of stuff to work with, without incurring too much expense if he tires of a particular instrument. I can imagine a decent Korg as something he could get lost in for months.

According to what I have read in preparation for teaching my own kids, you want to keep the lessons short so he is left wanting more each time.
posted by mecran01 at 8:55 AM on September 22, 2006

If simple is better, look up
"Play Piano in a Flash"
which is basically a quick introduction to how to use fake books.
posted by dragonsi55 at 8:57 AM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hmmm...the unique challenge is representing the relationship between movement and music-making. Have him hold lightly onto your wrist or gently place his hand over your fretting hand as you play guitar, maybe? Or even just hold onto your guitar at first.
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 AM on September 22, 2006

dragonsi55, how could the kid read a fakebook if he is completely blind? If it were in braille, he would need both his hands to play the piano.
posted by matildaben at 9:44 AM on September 22, 2006

A musician at a church I once went to was blind, he played the piano *beautifully* while reading braille on top of the piano with one hand from time to time, moving it back and forth from the keyboard to the braille.

I'm going with Mecran01 on this, however you may even want to extend the idea to a piano (assuming you can play). I think this is the reason blind people tend to be such awesome piano players (Ray Charles, et. al.). Starting with the guitar might be a little more difficult.

But, if that's what you're doing, maybe consider blindfolding yourself and playing on the guitar a bit before sitting with him - give yourself an idea of how he's approaching it.

I would guess that at the end of the day you'll be the one doing more learning.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:55 AM on September 22, 2006

I would guess just try imitation games. You each have an instrument, you play a series of notes, then he has to try to imitate that series. He'll have to figure out which notes/strings are which; he'll develop his musical ear (in trying to remember which notes you played). Kids at that age play a lot of memory and matching games, so you'd be doing a similar thing with music. Simple instruments, including percussion (dry beans in a tupperware will work for maracas).
You could also, as things go, introduce him to Peter and the Wolf or other music that tells a story. You could also get a book of simple folk songs and have sing-a-longs with him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:24 AM on September 22, 2006

Is the focus here to teach him how to perform a physical instrument, how to teach him theory, or both?

Although I don't think being blind is going to keep you from playing a physical instrument (the aforementioned Ray Charles, for example), if the goal is to teach him things about music there are other ways.

If he has a computer that is equipped for him to use, there are a lot of ways for him to compose electronic music. Most mainstream music programs are not that blind-accessible due to their reliance on visual interfaces, but lots of composition tools might work. There's a guy in music.metafilter.com, for example, that composes music for various console emulators, etc, using notepad. There may be some midi-editing programs that he can use.

If performing a physical instrument is desired then I think piano is a good choice.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:27 AM on September 22, 2006

If money is no object, you might consider a small harp. The student can physically touch the strings, and can the length corresponds directly to the pitch. Also, since there are seven harp strings per octave, they are "in tune" with the key, and it's difficult to make a dissonant "bad" sound (a drawback in certain types of music). The sound of harp strings, plucked, can be mesmerizing.

Also, the most famous harper of all time, Turlough O'Carolan, was blind.

Disadvantages - it's a "real" instrument, so it's expensive. It also goes out of tune almost instantly (real wood). This latter could be a good thing for a slightly older student, since they can develop ther ear by tuning the thing, but I guess the same can be said of guitar. I also don't know how easy it would be to find a child-sized harp.
posted by amtho at 10:40 AM on September 22, 2006

Another suggestion for a cheap-ish, interesting instrument: A 20-button concertina is pretty neat. I believe Hohner (the harmonica people) make a very affordable model (although, like anything, the sky can be the limit on price for quality models). It only plays in they keys of C or G (the simplest major keys, in terms of accidentals), so it's nearly impossible to play something that sounds *bad*, even when you're just playing around with it. I think that it has staying potential for a younger student because it's pretty much instantly gratifying -- you're a natural! -- more so than other, more complicated instruments. Further, the push note is different from the pull note for each button, and the design of the instrument is so comprehensive to most songs that it draws some interesting associations between Western music and what sounds "good" to Westerners (and why). I think it would be a clever and natural way to inherently learn theory (on the basis of instinct), as well as the "moods" of chords (in a much easier way to execute than a piano or a guitar).

Plus, you can be a pirate.
posted by penchant at 11:42 AM on September 22, 2006

Maybe bring a harmonica ($3 at Bob Evans or Cracker Barrel) and make a little blues together...?
posted by orangemiles at 11:59 AM on September 22, 2006

but lots of composition tools might work.

Things like csound and maybe supercollider might be interesting -- they are more or less (text-based) programming languages for sound. I did find csound to be a little unapproachable without knowing more about synthesis etc. though (I haven't tried supercollider).
posted by advil at 12:16 PM on September 22, 2006

Re: the harp suggestion, try an autoharp instead. Cheaper, more durable, stays in tune.
posted by desuetude at 12:46 PM on September 22, 2006

Here's a brilliant resource for introducing the orchestra, and classical music, that might be targeted to a little older audience than your student, at the moment, but which he will tremendously appreciate having soon. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts work well for visually impaired kids, as they generally depend more on putting structure to sounds demonstrated, than they do to visual content.
posted by paulsc at 12:54 PM on September 22, 2006

Someone at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind can surely point you to a variety of resources.

Also material for the blind can be mailed free of charge (see link for the details).
posted by winston at 6:53 PM on September 22, 2006

The National Resource Center for Blind Musicians has lots of info for teachers of blind students and says it's "always happy to talk with you about your particular needs and interests."
posted by mediareport at 7:09 PM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

matildaben, yah, he'd need help to get the chords at first; but the fakebook simplifies the song to its basics. So you take three to five chords to start, usually, and then start working the song.

This lets the player start to play almost immediately, especially with the recorded piece or with someone else. By being rapidly rewarding it encourages practice.

It's not appropriate for classical pieces, but can be used for guitar.
posted by dragonsi55 at 8:38 PM on September 22, 2006

Incidentally, meant to include this tidbit on music and blindness earlier: the music teacher at my elementary school was an awesome, imperious 65-year-old woman who had grown up black in the rural south of the US during segregation. She was one of 12 children. Their mother taught them all to play piano blindfolded so that they could support themselves if they ever became blind. (Muse for a moment about the general ass-kickingness of her mother. My god.) She said of 6 of the siblings ended up being music teachers, because they could watch the classroom with an eagle eye while still playing. (As far as I know, none of them did become blind)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:02 PM on September 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Player Piano.
posted by hortense at 9:04 PM on September 22, 2006

I forwarded your question to a professional musician who is also blind. I'd also note that he has trained children who later became professionals themselves. Here is his reply:

At his age, keep it fun. If he wants to learn, or practice 5 minutes at a time, or an hour at a time, let him.

It sounds as if he has an excellent ear. That is all well & good but regardless of how basically talented he is, there is no substitution for discipline -- learning correct music theory & for learning and practicing scales & exercises with correct fingering.

This is not to say that he should not be able to experiment & do his own thing. But that is only part of it. Correct fingering, exercises, scales, etc is very important. Natural talent will only get him so far. As he becomes older, his
understanding of music will mature. But if he does not practice the correct things now, he will not be able to play what he hears should be played, later.

Even though he is blind, he should learn self discipline. He should learn to practice the correct things, & then be able to experiment & play his own thing.

It would be great if he could learn Braille music but that could be hard for you to teach to him. you'd have to learn it yourself. If he is playing classical, Braille music can be a huge help to him. If he ends up leaning more to pop type of music, then his ear might be to good & Braille music would slow him down.

It is a real art being a good teacher & an even greater challenge to teach a handicapped child. But, regardless of how talented he is, he is still only 5 years old & should not be expected to play like he is 15. By the same token, if he does not get the right fundamentals now, when he is 25, he'll still be playing like he did when he was 15. Even Benny Goodman took lessons right up until his death in his 70s.

Hope this helps.
posted by Manjusri at 4:04 AM on September 24, 2006

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