Musically Speaking: Exploring Music Instruction with Teachers of Students Who Are Visually Impaired

Article excerpt

If you had been alive in May of 1890, you might have noticed a brief article in The New York Times that described the 59th anniversary celebration of the New York Institution for the Blind. The article, recently reprised in the Internet archives of the Times, was entitled "Instructing Blind Children: Remarkable Results Attained in Music and Other Studies." It included the following excerpt.

   The entertainment was provided by about
   one hundred boys and girls from various
   classes. The programme was largely musical,
   for music is everywhere recognized
   as an essential curriculum for the blind,
   because it not only affords pupils almost
   their sole pleasure, but provides the best
   means for thorough mental training and
   culture. This was shown by the heartiness
   and tunefulness of the chorus singing and
   the excellence of the class and individual
   work illustrating the training of the ear in
   the study of harmony.

The article is replete with excessive cheerfulness and stereotypical assumptions, including the belief that music is almost the "sole pleasure" of blind students, whose lives would surely be miserable without it. In spite of such trite assumptions, however, the core statement that "music is everywhere recognized as an essential curriculum for the blind" is an idea worth revisiting.

In contrast with the message of this article, music instruction for visually impaired students in today's educational environment is not often viewed as an "essential curriculum." Many professionals in the field of visual impairment maintain a cautious distance from the role of music instruction for their students. Often there is not enough time to include sufficient music instruction due to the importance of academics in a student's daily schedule. Sometimes opportunities are missed because teachers are not personally skilled in music and do not know how to support their students' musical interests. For these and other reasons, discussion of music instruction or activities is often not included in meetings with educational or rehabilitation teams.

In an effort to avoid typecasting of blind people as musically talented, some realities of their auditory world may be overlooked. Neurological research indicates that a larger area in the brains of people who are blind compared to those of sighted subjects is responsive to auditory stimuli, often resulting in functional advantages in localization and attention to sound (Elbert, Sterr, Rockstroh, Pantev, Muller, & Taub, 2002). Further, absolute pitch is more common among people who are blind (Sacks, 2007); one study found that 57% of blind study participants had absolute pitch, as compared with 20% of the general population (Hamilton, Pascual-Leone, & Schlaug, 2004). …

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