Technology Gives Blind Students a Better View of Music

November 21, 2010

Wayne Pearcey, a trumpeter from Texas, has perfect pitch and more than enough "chops" on his instrument to be admitted to the Berklee College of Music, where he is now in his seventh semester.

But Mr. Pearcey's experience at the college has not been the same as that of his peers. Because he is blind, he has not had a way to complete much of the written work for his courses. For some classes, such as ear training, teachers have met with him individually, Mr. Pearcey says, to allow him to complete written assignments aurally, such as identifying musical intervals and chords. Some instructors simply excused him from courses that were required for other students. That, he says, left his education incomplete.

But Berklee is working to improve the situation for Mr. Pearcey and the handful of other blind students who are enrolled there. This summer the college opened a computer lab with software that allows visually impaired students to record music and transcribe it into a score that can be printed in traditional form, or scan sheet music and convert it to a Braille printout.

The new lab is meant to help blind students complete more of the core classes required of sighted students and learn technology that has become essential to success in the music industry. And the lab makes it easier for them to pursue majors and careers outside performance, such as composition and music production, says Robert Mulvey, disability-services coordinator at Berklee. (Course material that is not accessible to blind students has recently prompted complaints at Pennsylvania State University. See article, Page A11.)

The Full Berklee Education

Berklee administrators say the college's focus on improvisational forms of music, such as jazz and rock, has always made it more attractive to blind musicians than traditional conservatories, where the amount of written music can be prohibitive for people who can't see. A half-dozen visually impaired students are now enrolled at Berklee.

While blind musicians have generally succeeded at Berklee on the strength of their performance skills, completing written assignments could be a distraction that often required them to find a sighted classmate or an instructor to help them.

"The pattern for accepting blind students at these places is usually on the strength of the audition, but nobody thinks ahead about how they're going to read and write music," says Bill McCann, founder and president of Dancing Dots, a company that develops software to aid blind musicians, including material that is used in the new lab at Berklee.

After seeking advice from Mr. McCann and several other advocates and blind musicians, Berklee bought a suite of new software and hired the composer Chi Gook Kim, an alumnus who is blind, to teach students how to use it.

The scene in Mr. Kim's classroom is a feast for the ears but may disorient people used to navigating the computer with their eyes.

In a small, narrow room, two students and Mr. Kim sit at a row of workstations where computers are streaming English words so rapidly that they're barely intelligible in their not-quite-human voices. The sound might be confused with an avant-garde composition, but what seems to be only digital babble is the computers reciting the contents of dialogue boxes.

For each step in the software, the computer lists the options on the screen—options that sighted users would simply choose and click on with a mouse—and the students press the appropriate keys to select the next step. Each station also has a small electronic piano keyboard, for entering pitches into a score, and a microphone that students can use to record their voices or instruments.

One day's assignment is to create a 30-second composition that uses a piano, bass, and drums as accompaniment to a melody that the students create and record with their voices or instruments. During the two-hour session, Mr. Kim patiently guides the students through programs that he learned on his own, giving them step-by-step directions on the keyboard commands they will need, walking among the students to intervene if they get stuck.

While the new software will eventually give the blind students the ability to participate more fully in some classes, learning the software seems laborious for students who are so adept at music. And the inevitable snags and mistakes can be frustrating.

At the end of the two-hour class, Nyol Manswell, a freshman, has barely finished his half-minute composition, and he seems a little worried about the assignment to produce a one-minute piece for the following week.

"I'm not really a technology person," says Mr. Mans­well, a jazz vocalist from Trinidad who sounds uncannily like the singer Bobby McFerrin. But he hopes it will have positive results for him, especially in increasing his independence as a musician. "I came here with the mind-set of embracing everything that was offered to me," he says.

Mr. Kim says the processes of learning a new program are similar to learning an instrument and require the same amount of time and practice to master.

Beyond Berklee

At this time, only four of Berklee's six blind students are enrolled in the computer-lab class, but Mr. Mulvey says he hopes to get the other two students involved and to require a summer workshop on the technology for all of the college's new visually impaired students. The college is in discussions with private donors for money that would give those students grants to pay for the extra time in Boston, he says.

And that's just the beginning of plans to expand the program. Berklee is discussing possible partnerships with the Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Mass., says Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music-therapy department at Berklee, which enrolls more than 100 undergraduates and is one of the largest such programs in the country.

The lab will serve as a training area for music therapists at Berklee, some of whom carry on their training at the Perkins School. The school is building a new technology center, which will included some components similar to those at Berklee, she says.

"The primary goal is to serve students, but also to serve the community," Ms. Hanser says.

There are still some technological snags for blind students at Berklee. Most of the new software doesn't work on the Mac laptops that all students receive, so the blind students must go to the computer lab to use it. Berklee is asking the software company to make its products more accessible, Mr. Mulvey says.

Over all, Mr. Pearcey, the trumpeter, is pleased with the new opportunity he has—so pleased, in fact, that he is considering taking the courses that he was excused from earlier in his college career. Like most of Berklee's students, he is reaching for something closer to perfection.

"I'm glad to see we're making changes," he says. "I want to do everything I can to make this world-class."