Teaching blind children the skills needed to play an instrument or to sing

Modelling through touch

The importance of touch for blind learners cannot be overestimated. It has two main elements: the need for a child to touch objects to find out about them, and their need to be guided physically in order to learn certain movements, to discover features of things that they would otherwise not appreciate existed, and to avoid the potential harm that interacting with certain elements in the environment can bring in the absence of sight (such as steps, sharp corners on furniture and finger traps in doors).

  • In helping children to explore or manipulate objects such as musical instruments, there is an important difference between assisting them ‘hand-over-hand’ and ‘hand-under-hand’. The instinctive thing to do is to work ‘hand-over-hand’ by placing your hand over theirs and directing their fingers towards the item or feature of interest. The problem with this approach is that the child is no longer free to discover things in a way that makes sense to them, and it is difficult to take in information through touch if any pressure is (unwittingly) applied on the top of the hand. The less obvious approach, but one that can be more effective, is to work ‘hand-under-hand’ by inviting the child to put their hand on top of yours and guiding them from beneath. Once a particular feature has been located, the child can then be left to explore for themselves. If extra guidance of the fingertips is needed, it can be provided in a minimalist way, with extreme sensitivity on the part of the teacher. A child’s consent should always be obtained – ‘May I show you …?’ – and they should be free to move their hand away at any stage.
  • Matters of posture may also need physical guidance. Taking a bow at the end of a performance, for example, can be difficult to do so that it looks natural, and will need to be practised. At home, parents can be particularly helpful, since substantial physical contact may be required. At school, it may be appropriate to involve the child’s one-to-one helper if they have one, or a member of staff who assists with their personal care.
  • Any physical contact with a child should be undertaken in the broader context of policy guidelines (when working in school) or with the prior agreement a child’s parents (at home). Other adults should always be present or near at hand and within sight during lessons. This is to safeguard both the child and you as the teacher.

In Hazel’s story, her teacher Glenn demonstrates how she learns piano technique ‘hand-under-hand’ – feeling what Glenn does by placing her hands on his (they call it ‘jumping on’). This is because abstract verbal explanations would not work for Hazel. Through touch, though, Glenn can model very effectively what he would like Hazel to do. Hazel's Story @ 04:44

In Lucy’s story, her teacher Daniel discusses and demonstrates how he helps her to learn through touch Lucy's Story @ 00:57. He asks her if she would like to ‘hold on’ or swap places and ‘listen’. Daniel is able to do this with confidence because of the highly effective professional relationship he has with her, founded on trust that is built up over time.

In Ashleigh’s story, her teacher Adam shows how to emphasise the top note of a melody, which she experiences by putting her hand over his. Ashleigh's Story @ 02:48 He then discusses issues of consent, control and appropriateness.

In Joseph’s story, we see how Indian classical musician Baluji, who himself has no sight, uses touch to show Joseph the instruments. Baluji explains why, as a blind teacher, he needs to use touch to see what students are doing. He notes that trust is very important. Adam, a trustee of Amber, explains how crucial it is for a blind child to be guided in an appropriate way to explore an instrument. Joseph's Story

In Nafis’s story, his teacher Dave explains how he uses touch appropriately to model technique during lessons. Nafis learns by touching the instrument as well as Dave’s hands. Dave asks for Nafis’s consent before making contact, and, in the interests of safeguarding, he works with Nafis’s parents close by, where they can see what is going on from an adjoining corridor. Nafis's Story @ 04:53

In Francis’ story, his teacher Louise shows him how to improve his embouchure by touching his lip. Notice how she asks his permission first. Francis's Story @ 04:07

The use of language

  • Verbal description can be an important means of conveying information about technique to blind children, though this is not entirely straightforward since concepts that are explained in words need to be rooted in a child’s first-hand experience, and a good deal of language relies on visual knowledge and understanding. Moreover, since around 75% of visually impaired children have additional disabilities, including autism and learning difficulties, it is quite possible that your pupil’s use of language will be delayed. This may not be immediately obvious, however, since some blind children are (unwittingly) skilful at using language to cover up their lack of understanding of a particular concept. They may repeat what you say in a way that seems to indicate they have grasped what you meant, when in fact they haven’t. This tendency – a type of ‘echolalia’ – is common among young blind (and autistic) children, and is a stage in the development of speech when the sounds of words appear to be more important than their semantic function. To check a child’s understanding, teachers should ask them to explain in their own words what is meant, or to demonstrate what they have taken in by playing or singing. It may be that teachers need to use non-verbal teaching strategies (in particular practical demonstration) to get ideas across.

  • When language is used, it is important to be specific and precise. For example, to say that the drum is ‘on your right’ gives too big a range of options. To say it ‘is around half a metre directly on your right’ is likely to be more helpful.
  • Above all, it is important to feel relaxed and to behave naturally when interacting with blind pupils, so they feel comfortable in querying things that may not be clear to them. Don’t worry about using expressions such as ‘look at this’, or ‘do you see…?’ Encourage them to ask questions for clarification on matters of technique or on any other issues pertaining to their understanding of music and of playing or singing.

In Nafis’s story, his teacher Dave describes an unfamiliar drum kit using clear, precise language. Dave checks Nafis’s understanding by encouraging him to explore the kit with his hands. Nafis's Story

Alice uses analogies throughout her lesson to help Eleanor understand some of the abstract concepts associated with performing 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. Alice also makes sure to do the actions herself, and the change in her voice as she stretches up gives Eleanor a sense of the effort she needs to bring to bear. Eleanor’s mother, Kelly, provides physical reinforcement of the concepts that Alice introduces in words. Eleanor's Story @ 03:30

For children who have never seen, the linguistic analogies used in teaching them should be rooted in physical or other auditory experiences, such as those that we see Louise adopting with Francis. She describes riding in a train, which Francis has experienced, to give him a conceptual framework that he can use to scaffold his musical understanding. Francis's Story @ 02:24

Self-directed learning

  • Around 40% of young blind children (including those on the autism spectrum) will develop perfect pitch in the first two years of life, and, since the urge to imitate what they hear is so strong, those with access to instruments that make sounds in a straightforward and consistent way (such as little keyboards, which only require the child to strike or press a key to produce a repeatable pitch) are likely to start picking out tunes or even chords by themselves. This is to be encouraged.
  • However, with no visual model to guide them, children often adopt an idiosyncratic approach. On the keyboard this can mean not using the thumb, or even using the flat of the hand to play clusters of notes. In these circumstances, it is important that the advice of a teacher be sought in order to guide the child – albeit informally – in the development of technique. It will be more about nurturing and steering a child’s natural way of playing – of maximising their innate potential – rather than by imposing a particular model. The child’s emerging capacity to play and the nature of their technique may affect the styles and genres of music that they can perform most effectively. For example, playing a Blues on the keyboard with a simple repeated chordal accompaniment, makes very different technical demands from attempting the contrapuntal music of Bach.

When Anaya first started teaching herself the keyboard, she would only play with her left hand, sitting at right-angles to the instrument. The skill of Daniel, her teacher, is to help her move forward in a way that engages her with what she can already do, at the same time encouraging her to adopt a more conventional technique, that will ultimately enable her to achieve much more than would otherwise be the case. He prompts her to use both hands (as she still favours her left hand alone) and to use all her fingers. But, crucially, he is flexible in his approach, giving her the freedom to express herself in her own way, before gently guiding her to try alternatives. The development of Anaya’s technique arises, above all, from her desire for self-expression through music. Anaya's Story

The potential impact of blindness on playing

  • Being unable to see is likely to affect both the way a child learns the physical movements needed to play an instrument, and the way in which they manage the physicality of performing once they are technically competent. This is because vision often plays a part in a performer’s interaction with their instrument, particularly when it involves moving freely in space without contact (in order to hit a correct note some distance away from others that have just been played on the piano, for example). There is no short cut to practising such movements; they must be repeated many times over until the necessary skills are acquired.
  • On the keyboard, blind children will be able to feel the differences in the patterns of black notes more easily than the white (which don’t have gaps between them). So, transposing tunes that a child knows into different keys – right from the start – may help them to navigate the keyboard and learn where the notes are under their fingers. Aizah's Story @ 02:58 The tendency for beginners’ pieces to be in C (or keys with only one or two sharps or flats) is driven by an approach to teaching that privileges notation, rather than the practicalities of playing and technique. Getting a child to play the black notes straight away will mean that their hand naturally falls in a better position on the keyboard than just playing white notes. This is particularly important for blind children who have a tendency to place their fingers near the front edges of the notes and not to use their thumbs when playing. Playing tunes using a mixture of black and white notes from the beginning will prevent this from happening.
  • For young blind children starting out on the piano or keyboard, it’s much easier at first to play tunes with one finger, as it will enable them to learn the topology of the keyboard – in particular, to gauge the distance between notes. This is much harder to do using two fingers or more, since the sensory information will be coming from multiple sources (the child’s fingertips), and, in the absence of sight, it’s hard to judge exactly how far apart your fingers are in space. Whereas sighted children can see where the notes are in relation to one another, blind children can’t, and using one finger initially will enable them to develop the necessary proprioceptive knowledge and skills. Once they have mapped where the keys are and the sounds they make, then they can start to use different fingers. Depending on the physical abilities of child, and their musical preferences, you may want to start this process with three-note tunes, then four, then five, then tunes that demand a change of hand position.

In Aizah’s lesson, her teachers, Adam and Lydia, guide her hands to help her play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The main thing at this, the very beginning of the learning process, is to have the pupil play a tune they know, without worrying yet about ‘conventional’ fingering or technique. That can come in due course. Aizah's Story @ 02:58

  • With instruments such as the drum kit, which may well differ slightly from one venue to another, it is important that they are set up as similarly as possible to the configuration that the child is used to – not least since playing with sticks requires a high level of proprioceptive skill and memory, given that the margin for error is increased by lengthening the distance between the child’s hand and the target that has to be hit. Extra time may well be required for the child to familiarise themselves with new instruments, as they can’t rely on visual feedback to orientate themselves.

  • Such issues are not found on wind instruments, such as the saxophone Francis's Story @ 01:55 where the fingers remain more or less consistently over the same keys or holes, meaning that these may be a good option – at least to start with – for children whose spatial abilities are still developing. On instruments such as the recorder, some children may find it difficult to cover the holes completely. They can be helped by gluing flat washers round the holes to make them easier to detect by touch (it is easier to feel something that protrudes from a surface, in the way that Braille notes do, rather than things that are indented).
  • Bowed instruments, such as the violin and ’cello, make considerable demands on a child’s proprioceptive skills – not least, in needing to keep the bow at right angles with the strings. While challenges such as this should never prevent a child from taking up an instrument if that is their wish, and, indeed, there have been many fine blind string players, it is sensible to bear in mind any issues with coordination or physical size or strength that a child may have when helping them choose the most appropriate instrument to learn.

The potential impact of other disabilities

  • Many blind children have additional disabilities, including motor impairments, brought about through hemiplegia, for example, or hypotonia. Conditions such as these may have an impact on a child’s capacity to sing or play, and may interact with their visual impairment in complex ways. For example, the effect of poor fine motor control in the absence of vision means that more repetition and practice will be needed, particularly in the early stages of learning an instrument, than would otherwise be the case.
  • It is important to guide children and their parents in choosing an instrument that is best suited to the child’s physical abilities and needs, although the motivation to play a particular instrument can be a powerful factor in deciding which one to select. A good strategy can be to allow the child to try different instruments initially, so they can discover for themselves which one they prefer and are most likely to be able to play competently.