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Monday, March 13, 2006

Musical Musings

Many blind people enjoy music.  Many blind people enjoy music so much that they choose to learn to play instruments, to sing and do so regularly as a job, hobby or just to annoy the neighbors.  I wonder, then, why so few music instructional materials get published in such inaccessible formats.  I also wonder why so many electronic musical instruments and the software to control them also remain inaccessible.

I will jump right in and say that our friends up at DancingDots provide the best solutions for blind musicians and composers.  DancingDots, however, makes a true professional tool that requires one be able to read Braille music and afford a boatload of hardware and software components including JAWS, a Braille embosser, Sonar, Sibelius and the musical instruments themselves.  This solution can do everything a professional, like Stevie Wonder or the late Ray Charles, would ever need.  For a hobbyist like myself who enjoys playing around with his Kurzweil piano, his MIDI drum machine and blowing on his acoustic harmonica, the DancingDots solution would take more time to learn than I would spend just playing.

While in grammar school and junior high, I took piano lessons from a woman named Mrs. Smith.  On day one, she tried to teach me to read music.  I wondered why my teacher focused on reading before speaking but, not knowing any better, I followed her instructions.  After a few years, I could not play a single song with any level of competence from start to end.  She never taught me the “why” of music, just the “what” and a little of the “how.”  She discouraged me from experimenting with the instrument and I just assumed that I had no talent for the subject.

Years later, while working as a software engineer in Cambridge, I decided I want to learn to play blues harmonica.  I went to a music store near our house and got a copy of David Harp’s “Instant Blues Harmonica for the Musical Idiot or Zen and the Art of Blues Harp Blowing.”  On the tape, Dave tells his listeners, that he will teach you a basic blues twelve bar in less than three minutes.  Dubious, I continued to listen and, roughly three minutes later, something was coming from my harp that almost sounded like music and definitely with a blues structure.

Since then, I’ve read a lot of books and listened to all sorts of CDs about blues and rock harmonica playing.  Unfortunately, most of the audio materials come complete with a book and the tape and the printed text refer to each other.  Thus, without vision, I have hardly been able to find much audio only music instruction.

Bill Brown Music by Ear sells a number of really excellent lessons for piano, guitar and, perhaps, other instruments in an audio only format.  He also has some introductory material produced specifically for people with vision impairments that includes some supplementary information that would usually be visible on an instrument.  I’ve exchanged a few emails and talked to Bill once or twice, he is a PPO sponsor and a terrific guy.  So, check out his web site for lessons in a purely audio format.

While Bill’s lessons can teach you a lot, you might want to explore techniques he doesn’t offer or learn an instrument that he doesn’t teach.  Here begin the real problems.  If you don’t want to learn Braille music, a system with which I have no experience and, therefore cannot comment on, you must find lessons either from a human music teacher, which can run to terrific expense, or you can find some recorded lessons and start there.  If you are just starting out and you want to learn one of the instruments Bill Brown teaches, go to his site and order his products.  If you want something more advanced or to learn a different instrument, you may find yourself struggling.

If you google on music lessons, audio, type of instrument, etc. you will get hundreds or even thousands of hits.  Unfortunately, virtually all of these require that the audio and print work together.  Some piano lessons claim to teach one to learn by ear but also include some kind of color coded template to put above the keys, thus leaving us blinks out.  Others include a simplified “tab” system of describing notes and chords that do not require one to learn music, unfortunately these also require vision.  Nobody, to my knowledge, has done a Daisy music book that could provide both audio and textual information that, by using the Daisy timing features, could actually synchronize the sound and text in a manner that a blind person could probably understand.

I’ve discussed doing making Daisy books with David Harp’s harmonica lessons and with Bill Brown but other projects always seem to get in the way.

Moving on from books, CDs and tapes, we can find mountains of software products that claim to teach one to play an instrument or sing properly.  Unfortunately, of the dozens of these that I’ve downloaded trial versions of, absolutely none even reach the minimal level of accessibility with JAWS or Window-Eyes (I haven’t tested with any other screen readers but I would assume the results would be identical or, perhaps, worse).

If you have already learned an instrument and want to get into the world of electronic instrumentations, you may find this world even more difficult than the inaccessible lessons.  I have a Kurzweil SP88X, a really cool electronic piano that sells for around $800 at Musician’s Friend my favorite source for all musical devices not related to harmonicas which I buy from The Best Lil Harphouse in New Jersey.  This piano has an excellent sound and feel with nicely weighted keys and the voices that made Ray Kurzweil’s musical instrument businesses so successful.

My SP88X has tons of features.  I can use a handful.  The manufacturer buried all of the others in multi-level menus that require me to memorize seemingly random sequences of key presses.  My drum machine, a pretty standard unit from Alasys, has the same problem but, as it has many more voices, built in styles and such, I find it even harder to use much more than the simplest of its functions.

I made the assumption that MIDI might hold the answer.  There seem to be hundreds of devices and software packages that serve as a MIDI sequencer and controller that can send instructions to the various boxes around my musical system So, I bought a Tascam MIDI controller/very high end external USB sound card so I could hook it all up through any of the PCs we have in our house.  I ordered some MIDI cables and started checking out the software.

To my great disappointment, none of the owner's manuals that came with any of these gadgets used accessible PDF and made reading about how these items connected very difficult.  The software presented an even greater challenge.  Sonar, with the scripts that Bill McCann sent me for evaluation purposes made it fairly usable (the hard part for me was learning my way around this very complicated program).  Nothing else, though, seemed to work with screen readers and the computer seemed to have constant trouble deciding which audio device to use so something’s came out through the speakers attached to my computer and others through the amplifier attached to the Tascam MIDI controller.

I tried lots of other software products for Windows and GNU/Linux but none could talk worth a wit using a screen reader.  In Some, I could use the JAWS cursor to get to some features, other programs would have accessible menus and dialogues but nothing in the main windows that proffered information in a meaningful manner.  Frustration set in.

Just for fun, I installed a sample program that came with my MIDI controller called GigaStudio.  A friend of mine said that GigaStudio is a killer software music synthesizer and, from the number of add-on products available for it, it seems very popular.  My friend, also a JAWS user, said that by poking around the GigaStudio interface with the JAWS cursor that one could do most anything with it.  I learned that I had a newer version of the software which had an interface less accessible than its predecessor.

For the most part, I’ve given up.  When a friend I play blues with comes to the house, we hook up the MIDI system so we can have backing tracks for our harmonica, piano and voices but, on my own, I can use one instrument at a time which is fine for the piano but the drums get pretty boring after a while.

I have searched for a guide for setting up and using MIDI devices and some of the software products that would be useful for a blind person to read?  Does anyone know of such a tutorial or manual or collection of articles that I could get so I might stumble a little further along in creating the Blind Christian Blues Orchestra?  Keep in mind that I am only a hobbyist so I don’t need to learn all of the details that a pro would want to know.  

To conclude, I suggest to all publishers of music lessons that they  take a look at the Daisy format.  If anyone knows any of these people, please send them my contact information and I can point them to people who make Daisy books and even some with very strong music backgrounds that can be applied to making such tutorials work even better.  I also ask that manufacturers of musical instruments make their documents accessible and add something like UPNP so a screen reader user could use navigate through the instrument’s menus without needing to memorize a set of silent sequence of button presses.


Anonymous Sam said...

Have you checked out the New Directions for Harmonica video? While very visual, I find that Levy gives excellent aural descriptions because the camera can't obviously zoom inside his mouth while he's playing. I'm sure the tongue X-rays look interesting, however. Besides, why wouldn't you want to learn from the best harp player on the planet?

4:35 AM  

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