Manual Playing the Music of Life

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Albert Einstein reportedly played the violin beautifully and was a particular fan of Mozart sonatas. I see my life in terms of music … I get most joy in life out of music. It was a love affair that required time to truly spark. Einstein was six when his mother Pauline, herself an accomplished pianist, arranged for him to take violin lessons. But the instrument was a dutiful chore until he discovered the violin sonatas of Mozart at age From that moment on, music became an enduring passion.

Mozart continued to be his favorite composer, along with Bach, for the rest of his life. That may also explain his distaste for the less organized, more emotive music of late 19th-century figures such as Wagner. In those pre-iTunes days, Einstein took pains to carry his music with him in physical form.

He rarely went anywhere without his battered violin case. It wasn't always the same instrument inside—Einstein owned several throughout his life—but he reportedly gave each one in turn the same affectionate nickname: "Lina," short for violin.

Music for Life in Schools

In the s, he and Elsa settled in Princeton, New Jersey, rather than go home to Nazi Germany, and they hosted chamber music sessions at their own home every Wednesday night. Those sessions were sacrosanct: Einstein was forever rearranging his schedule to make sure he could be there. On Halloween evenings, he was known to come outside and surprise trick-or-treaters with impromptu violin serenades.

And at Christmastime, he would come out to play along with groups of carolers.

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It is cumbersome, or sometimes impossible, to read a line of braille with one hand and play with the other. However, some professional musicians who are visually impaired, use it to learn a score that they will then play from memory. This gives them the advantage of being able to sight-read new music and interpret first-hand how the composer intends the music to be played. Someone studying singing might find braille notation to be very helpful. Braille music is not the same type of braille that students use to read books or to take notes.

Musical braille notation, although once taught extensively, is not taught much anymore in this country. Some of the European countries still teach it and have extensive libraries of musical scores in braille. Dancing Dots is a company that specializes in transcribing music from print to Braille using computer technology. They can produce braille music in a fast and timely fashion.

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For more information on services that they offer, contact the company at or send an e-mail to info dancingdots. Finding someone who can teach this form of braille, however, is more difficult. Sighted music instructors may find it too difficult to learn. Louise Kimbro of Elsmere, KY, who uses braille music notation, says that, like shorthand, some people can pick it up easily and others can't seem to get it no matter how hard they try. However, if a student can not learn to play by ear, this may be an option to explore. Paula did not set out to be a teacher of the visually impaired.

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After working with the students for a while however, she discovered that she really enjoyed working with these students. She eventually went on to get her vision certification, but many of the techniques she uses to teach are not that different than those used to teach sighted individuals.


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Wright does adapt some materials. She uses flash cards as a way to teach students some of the musical symbols if they have sufficient vision. They work on concepts of left and right, up and down. Musical pieces may be enlarged using the enlarging option on a photocopier. However, much of the work of learning music comes from listening.

Typically students will spend time listening to pieces of music, focusing on a particular instrument, paying attention to rhythms, pitch, and intensity of sounds. One student whom I spoke with said he could not pick out many sounds when he first started working with Mrs. Wright, but practice in listening has greatly improved his skills in this area. Most of Mrs. Wright's students learn music by ear. She tapes scales, chords, and songs noting what each pitch or cord is.

The student listens to these tapes and practices making each pitch. She also breaks the music into short musical phrases that she labels as A, B, C, etc. These phrases or "themes" reoccur again and again in the score. Sometimes they are altered slightly e. Once the student memorizes the phrase she can help them string the phrases together in a particular sequence. It takes students longer to learn a song this way, but typically when they get it memorized they never forget it.

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There are many commercially-available computer programs that are created to teach music to sighted learners. These programs may or may not be appropriate for students with visual impairments. When choosing a program, keep in mind the student's needs and understanding of music. Having a basic knowledge of music will help a student acquire concepts addressed in the computer program. It helps if you have a good ear for music and if you have perfect pitch. However, even if you don't have these gifts, you can learn to play an instrument if you are persistent.

Wright currently has students who are also partially hearing impaired.

go to site Although learning to play is more difficult for them, they are making progress and seem to enjoy the activity. Like most activities you have to be prepared to practice, practice, practice. Students usually need instruction at least three times a week. Once-a-week lessons are not very effective for the student with visual impairments.

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Wright emphasizes basic music theory, learning cords, scales, etc. Students learning to play the piano for example, spend a long time just learning the keyboard. Wright does not use tactile markers to help the student find the correct keys. She takes students through exercises such as the one where she has them move along the keyboard to find the "C" keys.

Many of these exercises are the same ones that sighted students practice. Paula prefers to have students begin their instruction in music at an early age, however, older students who are properly motivated can do quite well.


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Younger students usually have short instructional times, minutes, and then practice the lesson on their own. Older students are able to work for longer periods of time and Mrs. Wright pushes them to stretch their skills and their ability to concentrate for longer periods. Wright, who has played cello for the Austin, Houston, and Oklahoma City Symphony, is classically trained.