David Pinto founded and directs the Academy of Music for the Blind (AMB)—the only academy of music in America devoted specifically to teaching music to the blind. He has developed special software programs to assist them to compete in the harsh world of the music industry.
The idea of working with the blind was not one of Mr. Pinto’s goals—it just happened naturally. One day in 1995, while he was teaching a computer/music class at Pierce College in Los Angeles, a blind music student accidentally walked into one of his classes. He was curious whether the student could learn to use the computer to record and edit music as other musicians do nowadays.
“I looked deeply into the existing resources and found there was a great need. So I began the process of designing and creating software that would finally make it possible for blind musicians to use computers to create music just as their sighted peers do.”
Braille music notation
In order for one to be able to read music notation, the musician must see it or at least feel it. While sighted musicians use written notation, blind musicians rely on Braille music notation. Braille is a special code that corresponds exactly to print music. It can be read with one hand, but can be read faster with two hands.
Blind people can be taught with or without Braille music.
“In general, blind musicians have better ears than their sighted counterparts. So they will learn more often by ear than a sighted musician would. However, if the blind musician is learning classical music, then reading the Braille music is just as important to them as [to] the sighted, because classical music requires an extreme attention to detail. On the other hand, if the music is not classical, and the blind musician has a good ear, then reading the Braille music won't be as much of a necessity.”
A special emphasis has to be put on the technique of playing music.
“Since they can't see others playing their instruments, they can't ‘model’ their technique on any visual example. Therefore, a teacher must often physically show the musician correct finger, hand, arm, and torso positions and use of the corresponding muscles. Although some blind individuals may develop a good technique instinctively, a good sighted teacher can always help them in that regard.”
Mr. Pinto says blind people do not favor one musical instrument nor is it easier for them to learn than a sighted musician. The challenge comes when one has to play an instrument in a group when reading music on the spot is required. This is called "sight-reading."
“In a symphony or a band, new music is often passed out for the musicians to read. They sight-read it … which means playing it at the same time as they read it. Now, most often, the printed music has not yet been transcribed into Braille music, so the blind musician is left behind and can't join in the ensemble. On the other hand, if the music has been transcribed into Braille music, then the blind musician can read and play along but not in the same manner that the sighted can.”
Sight-reading Braille music is very hard because at least one hand must be used for reading the Braille music, which leaves only one hand to play the instrument. So, when reading Braille music, blind musicians almost always memorize the music first, and then they play it.
“So, if a blind musician in an ensemble is required to read music on the spot, then regardless of whether they receive the Braille music on the spot or beforehand, the blind will not be able to keep up.”
Mr. Pinto explains that the solution is to give them the Braille music in advance, so they can memorize it before the ensemble gets together to play it. However, while the latter may be possible in school situations, it is often not possible in professional situations.
According to David Pinto, the average blind person has a keener sense of hearing than his sighted counterpart. A greater percentage of the blind have perfect pitch or relative pitch than their sighted peers. Perfect pitch is the ability to name the musical pitch of a sound: for instance, C or C- sharp.
“If a melody is played or a chord is played, they can name every one of the notes in the melody or chord.”
Relative pitch is when one can do the same thing, but one has to first be told at least one of the pitches. Then the blind individual can name all the rest, in relation to that given pitch.
Mr. Pinto’s personal experience has demonstrated that blind people with no other disabilities perceive music very much the same as the sighted. However, if the blind individual has additional disabilities, it may influence both his/her musical talent and the way music is experienced.
“For instance, individuals with certain types of Autism Spectrum Disorder will often have amazing musical memories and pitch perception. But because they are impaired socially, their emotional life is circumscribed. Therefore, the qualities of music that make the normal individual feel, for instance, romantic, will not illicit the same reaction in the autistic.”
However, it turns out the same music can still be just as appealing to the individual with autism because harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic patterns illicit reactions on many different levels, not just the emotional level that stems from social interaction.
While blind people do not have a special style of music that is more appealing to them, Mr. Pinto has noticed that there is a larger proportion of religious believers in the blind community than in the sighted community.
“You will find that the blind are on average a little more familiar with religious music than their sighted counterparts.”
The Academy and Ray Charles
There are hundreds of music schools that provide an excellent education to their sighted students, but none of them provide that same level of excellence to their blind students.
“AMB was created to specifically address the needs of blind musicians and performing artists so that they can fully develop their unique talents and then find their rightful place within the world of performing arts.”
The Academy’s music curriculum includes training in dance, piano, electronic synthesizers, guitar, percussion, and voice. Keyboard typing skills are emphasized so that students can have access to computer technology. Arranging, orchestration, and conducting classes are taught both traditionally and with the aid of accessible computer recording applications so that students can gain the skills necessary to compete in the music industry.
“Last, but certainly not least, we provide remedial lessons for students who are challenged in their school studies.”
Mr. Pinto himself teaches keyboard, dance, and computer. He is proud that AMB has been featured prominently in two CBS “60 Minutes” episodes about one of its students, Rex Lewis Clack.
AMB is linked closely to Ray Charles, who felt it especially dear to his heart. And Mr. Pinto had the pleasure of working with the phenomenal jazzman during the last two years of his life.
“Up until a couple of months before Ray Charles died, I saw him about once a week for about a year and a half. I taught him how to use a computer to print out musical arrangements using three different pieces of software, one of which I created specifically for blind musicians. I told him about our academy, and he was an enthusiastic supporter. His death prevented him from becoming intimately involved.”
Mr. Pinto said Ray Charles wanted his legacy to include a thriving AMB that would serve the needs of blind students and musicians everywhere.
So much devotion and benevolence is necessary to help blind people develop and use to the optimum their potential abilities and musical talents. And Mr. Pinto has given his all to do this.
“I love working with blind musicians of all ages because of what I can offer them, and the immense pleasure I get from working with them.”
More about AMB: http://www.ouramb.org.