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Teaching piano to a blind student

I am very much enjoying teaching an 18-year-old blind Oxford undergraduate at the moment. The first step was helping him find his way to my studio on the bus and now he has negotiated the journey, he manages to get to me on time every week. Not all Oxford undergrads manage that!

Black and white image of blind man with guide dog

He learns music from Braille, which is a highly complex system and apparently not always logical, and then converts that into musical memory. Then he plays the music as a translation from the Braille, his fingers playing very cautiously as if he needs to be sure he doesn’t bump into anything. This must be related to what I suspect is an inbuilt fear of bumping into something when he is out and about, getting places. Physically, he is constantly tense and braced and I’m sure it’s for the same reasons.

He doesn’t know yet how to ‘lift the music from the page’ and most of this is because he obviously doesn’t use visual imitation as a technique. Sighted people use this without realising it, imitating the way someone holds their hand or uses their arms in order to express the music.

So he needs to be taught the choreography of every movement, the physicality of slurs or staccato in Mozart or what a long phrase feels like in Chopin. He needs to learn to take risks at the keyboard, to throw his hand at a jump and make a mistake so he can learn where it goes. (Ironically, I teach sighted students to check through a passage by playing it through with their eyes shut!) I so want for him to learn that sitting at the piano can be a safe place for him, somewhere he can let go of the physical bracing and feel free physically and musically.

The bonus to these already stimulating lessons is that his loyal and adorable guide dog is always with him. I have threatened to adopt his dog, but funnily enough, my student’s not too keen on that idea!


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