Eleanor's story

A singing lesson and the first steps in learning Braille music

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Eleanor, who is eight years old, and has lost almost all of her sight due to a brain tumour, her singing teacher Alice, who is also partially sighted; Harry, a Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired (QTVI); Kelly, Eleanor’s mother; and Adam, founder of The Amber Trust.

  • Background

    In the video, we see one of Eleanor’s weekly music lessons with Alice, with whom she has been learning for a few months. She also meets Harry, a QTVI, for the first time, who is going to introduce her to braille music notation.

  • Aim

    This video has two aims. The first is to show effective strategies for teaching singing to a blind pupil, including the use of physical movement to assist in understanding changes in pitch and shape of musical phrases. The second is to illustrate how braille music notation can be introduced.

  • What does the film cover?

    Teaching by ear

    In the video, we see Alice teaching Eleanor a piece by ear. Alice sings and plays one short phrase at a time, and then asks Eleanor to repeat it back. This technique relies on Alice’s ability to break a melody up into manageable chunks, and on Eleanor’s capacity to listen and memorise what she hears. This way of learning is in any case well established among singers from many different cultures, since most vocal soloists perform without reference to sheet music.

    Embodied learning

    Alice asks Eleanor to move her hand up and down in order to help her understand how the pitch in a tune rises and falls. Because Eleanor cannot see her hand, making it harder to know exactly where it is in space, Alice has her touching the wall, which assists Eleanor’s awareness of where her hands are, and gives her a way of anchoring her movements on something tangible. Alice also asks Eleanor to move her arm in large arcs (which she describes as a painting motion) in the air, to help her grasp the shape of a phrase.

    The importance of parent partnerships

    Eleanor’s mother, Kelly, sits in on all her lessons and can be seen in the background, attending carefully to what is going on. When Eleanor needs help with her arm movements, Kelly sensitively steps in to help. This assists Alice in supporting Eleanor’s learning, and is good practice from the perspective of safeguarding – having another adult in a room when working with vulnerable pupils. It also means that Kelly is able to support Eleanor knowledgeably in practising between sessions.

    Using language appropriately

    Alice uses analogies throughout her lesson to help Eleanor understand some of the abstract concepts associated with music. A good example is the idea of painting a rainbow, of which Eleanor has a visual memory (she lost most of her sight when she was four), and which helped her to understand the large arc that she should make with her arm to convey the sense of a rising and falling musical phrase. For children who have never seen, analogies should be rooted in physical or other auditory experiences, such as those that we see Louise adopting with Francis. Alice also makes sure to do the actions herself, and the change in her voice as she stretches up at the beginning of the lesson, for example, gives Eleanor a sense of the physical effort she needs to bring to bear.

    Braille music

    In this film, QTVI Harry introduces Eleanor to a scheme he has devised that shows how note names in English (C, D, E etc.) relate to the continental system of solfège (do, re, mi, etc.), and so the braille alphabet. He works closely with Alice to ensure that the symbols have an auditory meaning, as Eleanor learns to write and sing a tune she has been working on. This partnership greatly benefits Eleanor’s learning. For the future, having a system of notation available to Eleanor will enable her to have more options as to how she learns and engages with music and, if she wishes, takes examinations.

    The importance of working as a team

    Every child with a visual impairment should be assigned a QTVI from the Local Authority to support them. A music teacher can make use of this support by asking their pupil’s QTVI for assistance with braille, or with any other issues related to the pupil’s education, the impact of their sight loss, and strategies for ensuring that the core and extended curricula are accessible to them.