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The Musical Education Of The Blind

By George W. Gerlach
AN idea exists in the minds of many that the blind are peculiarly susceptible to a musical training; or—to use the common expression—are very musical. It is easy to understand how such a notion is obtained. Many unthinking persons, on meeting a blind man or woman who performs upon some instrument, immediately exaggerate in their own minds any impression received, and judge all persons without sight by the individual. Though the idea may, in a sense, be correct, yet when it is borne in mind that a blind person can do nothing whatever which those with sight cannot do under similar surroundings and similar training, or which could not be done better with the aid of sight, it is difficult to perceive any advantage that the former may possess in any direction.
Schools for the Blind.
In all civilized countries there are now schools for the blind. In the United States nearly every State supports such a school. The number of trades and professions in which blind people can successfully engage and compete is extremely small. Music, which is primarily an art of hearing and not of sight, is one of these. Therefore all the schools have musical departments, and most of the pupils receive instruction in some branch of the art. Although considerable attention is directed to this department, the work is necessarily elementary, as the pupils are engaged in the pursuit of their academic studies and can devote comparatively little time to music. That is, it is a part of the regular curriculum, and not a specialty. The department includes instructions in not only piano and voice, but also organ and orchestral instruments, and in some schools harmony, counterpoint, musical history, etc. Where the school is large enough, a small brass band, orchestra, or chorus is maintained; and in some instances all three are to be found.
Love and Appreciation of Music.
Much that is beautiful—natural scenery, painting, in fact nearly everything that is enjoyed through the sense of sight—is cut off from the blind. However, to enjoy music, the greatest of the arts, it is not necessary to see; and the susceptible ear of the blind person drinks in the tones, and with undivided attention he enjoys to the full "the concord of sweet sounds." This cannot be attributed directly to blindness, but rather to surroundings and training. At the schools, where for the most part a very high grade of music is used, the pupils live in and breathe an atmosphere of the best in the art. In the make-up of nearly every human being lies latent a certain germ, which, if nurtured in the proper soil and light, will develop into a flower of musical appreciation and love: "The man that hath no music in himself" is rarely to be found.
Musical Ear and Absolute Pitch.
At all times and in all places the person without sight is more dependent upon his sense of hearing than is he with sight, which develops acuteness and alertness in that sense. Not that he can hear sounds at a greater distance or of less volume, but his ear is more sensitive and wide awake. Such an ear, in favorable conditions as described above, generally develops into a keen musical sense. Without any special classes for the purpose blind students acquire naturally many of the results aimed at in classes for ear training in the conservatories. It is probably true that proportionately more blind persons possess the ability to catch and retain melodic and harmonic progressions, the power, however, existing in varying degrees. Many of them can not only distinguish major, minor, diminished chords, and the like, but can tell , the key of a passage or piece.
This power of recognizing tones and chords is termed by some "absolute pitch," though rather incorrectly. An ear of absolute pitch must be able to detect smaller fractions of a tone than the half step. The present writer is acquainted with two students Who possess this power to a most marvelous degree. They can both discern the difference to the fraction of a sixteenth or thirty-second of a tone between any musical sound and a given pitch. Besides this, if the most hideous discord, built of semitones, tones, and larger intervals, is sounded, they are able to recognize every individual letter. It is impossible to produce by training an ear of such acuteness; this is a natural gift. Nature has undoubtedly bestowed a like gift upon more of her people, and all that is needed to discover it is the proper surroundings. Yet this power is not of as great a benefit in a musical education as it might at first thought appear to be.
It is in the field of executive technic that the blind student would probably seem to be most at a disadvantage. Further, it might naturally be supposed the keyboards of the piano and organ, owing to their extent, would be the most difficult of mastery. An eminent teacher of piano in Chicago, who has considerable experience with blind pupils, asserts that the lack of sight does not interfere in keyboard technic. There are pianists with whom this really seems to be the case, but it is not so in all instances. A highly developed sense of location is absolutely necessary, and all do not possess this. The blind player, as is also the case with others, must keep in his mind a picture of the keyboard. When it is recollected that a player reading at sight can give very little attention, or none whatever, to his hands, it can be understood how one without sight plays. In working on a composition, it doubtless takes a somewhat longer time to reach a degree of technical perfection. As regards singing and instrumental playing other than that of piano and organ, sight is not an indispensable requisite.
While there may be some slight defects to be overcome among blind pupils which do not appear elsewhere, yet the great drawback in their education lies in another direction—namely, the fact that they are obliged to memorize every note of their music. Other pupils derive a great deal of benefit in the way of practice without first having to go through the slow, laborious process of committing to memory. For the same reason the blind pupil cannot become familiar with an equal amount of music in the same, time as he who sees. The degree of rapidity with which different pupils commit to memory varies widely. A considerable speed can be attained, but it requires several years of practice in memorizing; and this fact also retards progress. Yet it is important for all students to play or sing from memory a large portion of their music: and the blind are of necessity compelled to employ the very best method of memorizing. They read from the embossed notation a short passage or phrase of a measure or two, play it over several times, read and play another passage, and thus add little by little until the piece is learned, always playing over at each step as much as has been learned. Pupils with sight would do well to adopt this method.
The Braille Notation of Music.
There are in use for the blind two embossed systems of musical notation, the New York Point and the Braille. The former is in use in various sections of this country; -while the Braille, which is the superior system, is used in this country, as well as in Europe. To give even a slight idea of the system in a short paragraph is impossible. It bears no resemblance whatever to the staff notation, but consists of characters built of raised dots. The characters contain from one to six dots, which in certain positions and under various conditions make notes, signs of execution, marks of expression, etc. The system is very comprehensive, being capable of expressing almost everything that is expressed in the staff notation. The characters are first embossed with a machine for the purpose upon thin brass plates, from which impressions are taken in paper. Once a musical composition is in brass, thousands of copies can be struck off in paper.
Several of the schools do more or less of this embossing, or stereotyping as it is called; but by far the largest amount is done by the Illinois School for the Blind, located at Jacksonville. Their catalogue contains upwards of sixteen hundred titles, from about five hundred and fifty composers; no small amount, when everything is taken into consideration. In their fire-proof vault are stored more than ten thousand brass plates, from which copies are continually being made. Great care is exercised in the selection of works to be embossed, with the result that the pieces and studies are of the highest order, copied from the best available editions. Works for nearly all kinds of instruments, as well as vocal, are printed; and students in all parts of the country send there for music.
Higher Education.
As stated above, the work in music of the schools for the blind can be little more than elementary. In some instances students continue their education in conservatories or with private teachers after they leave school, doing fully as good work as their classmates with sight. Some teachers have an erroneous impression that it is difficult to teach a blind pupil, and that they must proceed in an altogether different manner from that used with their other pupils; which is far from being the case. One soon adapts himself to the very slight differences. For various reasons the expenses attendant upon a higher course of musical training are greater for a blind person than for another, and consequently comparatively few can continue. Some wealthy philanthropist could dispose of a part of his money in no better way than by establishing in various conservatories of the country free scholarships for deserving blind students. By so doing, he should not only be contributing to their source of enjoyment; but, what is of far greater importance, to their means of self-support.
The Blind in Professional Life.
It is to be lamented that the vocations in which blind people can successfully compete with their more fortunate fellows are so few. In some branches of the musical profession, however, they can successfully engage. It is evident that opera is impracticable. Owing chiefly to the very large repertoires used in grand orchestra, which would have to be memorized, they are barred from this branch of the art. As regards solo performance, the same is true of blind musicians as of those who see, there are comparatively few engaged in this work. They do, however, fill church positions, both as organists and in the choir. It is as teachers, instrumental and vocal, that a considerable number of blind musicians find employment. These teachers often find considerable difficulty in securing pupils, as people unacquainted with facts do not understand how those unable to see can give instruction and will not, therefore, intrust their children's musical training to them. The truth is, that they do good work, generally speaking, and give perfect satisfaction. It is necessary for them to become familiar with, and to have embossed copies of the material used. They most thoroughly equip themselves for the work; and, in fact, do better than the average run of teachers, for they are obliged not only to meet with a keen competition, but also to overcome the prejudice of the public mind. With an increase in the number of blind students who are enabled to pursue a higher course of training will come an increase in the number of teachers.
Piano Tuning.
Although not usually considered a branch of the musical profession, piano tuning deserves mention iu (sic) this connection. All of the schools have tuning departments, where the pupils are instructed in the tuning and repairing of pianos; and many educators of the blind regard this the most practical vocation for them. The number of those employed in this work is steadily growing, and manufacturers are coming to show less and less hesitancy about accepting them.
Truth is obtained only by comparison. To say that all blind persons have a refined taste for the best in the tonal art, or a highly sensitive musical ear, or that they are all peculiarly fitted for musical training would be a mistake. But it is probably true that in a given number of blind people more will be found who possess the ear and appreciation than in an equal number of people with sight, which is, as shown above, due principally to environment. If, however, advantages are apparent in some directions, these are fully balanced by handicaps in other ways; so their capacity for musical development is not greater than that of their more fortunate fellows.

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