Summer break has come and gone, and with the new school year comes many new opportunities to be introduced to music, or for those who have chosen to pursue it further, return to the rehearsal halls, practice rooms, and classrooms we’re all too familiar with. For students of any level, it’s crucial to dive in armed with the best resources and tools available. A quick search online can easily leave one overwhelmed under a flood of information that will more often than not need to be sifted through to get to the needed answer. So with that in mind, I introduce my picks for the best resources and tools out there to assist students who are visually impaired to get the best out of their studies.
Note: To keep things simple, only information directly related to accessibility issues will be listed here. For example, only information pertaining to the unique requirements needed to find an accessible keyboard or other electronic equipment will be included, while other tips on finding a suitable fretted, band, and orchestra instruments will be saved for upcoming articles on those specific topics.
Easily one of the most versatile instruments, a digital keyboard can be much more than just a primary instrument. It can be used to provide tactile feedback when learning music theory, serve as an input device for various computer programs, and more. Today, there is a massive selection of beginner level instruments on the market for not too much money, and the relative simplicity of these instruments make most of them readily accessible right out of the box. Such a big selection is out of the range of just one article, but here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that you can get the most out of a first instrument:
- Size and Action: Action refers to the feel or resistance of the keys on a keyboard. “Weighted” keys have an action most similar to those on a piano, while “non-weighted” keys have little to know resistance. “Semi-weighted” keys fall somewhere in the middle, with the term varying between manufacturers. Though most beginner repertoire can be easily played on smaller instruments, a full 88 key instrument with weighted keys can be a good investment that can save some money since upgrading as the student progresses won’t be necessary. Still, a semi-weighted instrument that is responsive and reliable can serve well if weighted keys are too difficult to use for a particular student. If space is an issue, there are also more and more manufacturers producing smaller models that still feature weighted keys.
- Interface: As previously stated, most beginner level instruments are simple enough. However, choosing one that uses a preset bank or number pad that allows the user to switch between sounds is best. Some models may only feature a data wheel for this, and though they are still usable, data wheels alone are often not reliable enough without visual feedback from a screen.
Here are a few keyboards that are more suitable for the intermediate to professional musician:
- Casio Privia: A no-frills instrument that is a fantastic choice for a musician of any level and is competitively priced against instruments above it’s price point. With various models included in the Privia line, there is one for any situation imaginable. Boasting a slim, light chassis, it’s portability alone makes it an excellent instrument. With a simple interface that features preset buttons for each category and that quickly switch between the two varieties available for each category, it’s extremely easy and simple to use. Though its number of sounds may seem small compared to other instruments, they are excellent bread and butter patches that cover any situation a keyboardist may come across and are brought out beautifully by the responsive keys. However, the flagship Casio Privia Pro PX-560 does feature a touchscreen that I cannot, at this point, comment on the accessibility of.
- Roland FA06 and FA08: One of the first new accessible workstations to be released in years, the Roland FA series offers an affordable introduction to the world of workstations while still providing a solid and reliable instrument that feels and sounds great. With it’s rich set of features and light-weight body, it’s one of the most appealing workstations available today. Offering over 2,000 high-quality sounds and a realistic weighted keyboard on the FA08 and responsive semi-weighted keyboard on the FA06, it serves as a wonderful stage piano. However, its compact interface means that there is a lot of menu diving required to get to the more in-depth editing.
- Yamaha Motif Series: Though now discontinued and replaced by the Yamaha Montage, the motif keyboards have been one of the most reliably accessible workstations on the market for over a decade. Snagging one of these instruments used will get you a keyboard built like a tank that boasts a wide variety of hands-on controls that make editing the already rich set of factory presets a breeze. After some searching online, I’ve found some sources claiming that the Yamaha Montage is fully accessible despite it’s touchscreen. Stay tuned for an upcoming review on the Montage that will focus on this!
Hitting the Books
For those in the United States who are registered with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), there is a decent variety of braille music literature available both digitally and in hardcopy braille. However, with listings that are often out of date and a catalog search that can often be difficult to use accurately, finding the right books can be a daunting task. Here are a few materials that are an excellent starting point for those getting started with braille music available through NL:
Braile Music Chart
Book Number: 33651
A quick and symple chart of the braille music symbols listed by category. Useful as a quick reference for someone more experienced, as it doesn’t provide any information on use of each specific symbol.
Index of Braille Music SignsBook Number: 29191
A slightly more detailed listing of braille music symbols.
Dictionary of Braille Music Signs
Bettye KrolickBook Number: 26334
A two-volume collection of all the music symbols, complete with detailed descriptions and examples for use, context, and background.
Note: The Popular Music Lead Sheets series from NLS is also agreat resource, providing a broad selection of jazz, folk, and pop songs as brailled charts.
Music by Ear
Bill Brown’s Music by Ear audio-based lessons and tutorials are an excellent resource for those just starting out or who are seeking to expand their repertoire. Providing introductory lesson series on guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo, flute, and many other instruments and across many different musical styles, the Music by Ear materials are available as downloads or CD and are priced between $10 to $40 per lesson or song tutorial, equal to or less than a private lesson that would cover nowhere near as much. The lessons cover technique and basic theory, supplemented by fun and easy songs that follow the lesson. The song tutorials offer further explanation on specific techniques used in the song and many offer backing tracks that help in practicing the material. Many lessons and song tutorials can also be previewed. For more information and ordering, visit www.musicvi.com.
Dancing Dots offers software, braille music transcription services, custom built computer systems aimed at audio production, and other support services for the blind and visually impaired. Notable products include the CakeTalking for Sonar JAWS scripts which make the popular digital audio workstation Sonar accessible, Lime Lighter for magnification of music notation for the visually impaired, and GOODFEEL for braille music notation and transcription. For more information and ordering, visit www.dancingdots.com.
These are just some of the many resources and tools out there for blind and visually impaired students. Look forward to more in-depth reviews and articles on these and other products and services that are out there to help bring music to everyone, as well as our vary own products and lesson series here at Playing This by Ear!