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The lives of visually-impaired musicians

A project funded by the AHRC is revealing the life and work of musicians with visual impairments.

“When we began our project to examine the lives of Visually Impaired (VI) musicians we had no idea it would go global,” says Dr. David Baker who with AHRC funding began a study two years ago into the lives of VI, that is, blind and partially-sighted musicians. “It began as a purely UK project but ended up worldwide thanks to word of mouth!”

David is himself a musician. He was taught to play the trumpet by the late David Mason, who played on Beatles' Penny Lane. Following his first degree in music David became a music teacher and researcher into musicians’ life histories. An interest in how music is taught led to this project. “Most traditional music is taught through playing by ear.”

However for the sight reading from notation, needed for playing in orchestras, some VI musicians are at a clear disadvantage. “Though our project included amateur musicians and people who play for fun we wanted to examine how blind and VI musicians can earn a living. Some feel discriminated against. Currently there are approximately 700 VI adults known by the Royal National Institute of the Blind People to be professional or amateur musicians.

“Making music has long been recognised as a viable and potentially life-enhancing activity for VI people - as indeed it is for everyone. Yet there has been little or no research on their musical practices, participation and learning experiences. Our project has sought to change that but we could never have dreamt how much interest it would garner in all corners of the globe.”

One of the musicians who has taken part in the project is Baluji Shrivastav who describes himself as a “born musician” - he sang as soon as he could talk. Baluji went blind at eight months from Trachoma, a bacterial eye infection common among children in India where he was born. Baluji developed his musical abilities at schools for the blind because music was a compulsory subject. “Some of our teachers were blind and that really gave me confidence. I thought, I can be a teacher too.” So he taught music and became a demonstrator in music shops. Once when playing the sitar in a shop near the Taj Mahal, George Harrison came in and accompanied him on the guitar. “I had no idea who he was till he left and someone told me!”

Image: Baluji Shrivastav and Baldev Singh on stage in Wales

Working in France he met then married his British wife, Linda, in 1982 and came to live in Britain where he found attitudes towards disability very different from India. “When I was growing up there was a definite sense of ‘you’ve brought it on yourself’. Whereas in the UK with its Christian tradition young children are taught Jesus helped the blind. The culture in India is very different though it is changing now.”

Baluji makes his living as a professional musician, touring European countries, Africa, America and India. He has his own orchestra, Inner Vision, which as well as offering work to VI musicians showcases a very wide range of music. “We are all visually impaired in Inner Vision but from very different backgrounds. What could be better than working as a VI musician in the UK where there are many different communities? It was hearing all different music in taxis I travel in that gave me the idea for Inner Vision. We’re international and multi instrumental with a very wide range of music.”

Image: the Inner Vision orchestra

A conference this month will present the findings of the research project. Co-investigator Professor Lucy Green said when they set up the conference they wondered if they’d be able to find enough speakers. “Now we’re having to turn people away. We’re pouring as much as we can into the two days as a large number of people are coming from many countries. There’s been so much enthusiasm, interest and belief in this project that many musicians have gone to extreme lengths to get here and nearly everyone is funding it themselves.”

“Blind and partially-sighted people are often very well connected online. We didn’t seek this much interest; it came to us as groups of blind and partially-sighted musicians put out notices about our work. The global reach has for us been the surprise element.”

Baluji will be one of many VI musicians playing at the conference. “This is a great opportunity for VI musicians to meet and network with each other and share our experiences. We’ve all been communicating with each other for some time but this is the first time we’ll all be under one roof. This project has brought so many of us together. It’s wonderful.”

Accessing sheet music is one of the key barriers for VI musicians who want to make some or all of their living playing music. The founder of Prima Vista Braille Music Services, Lydia Machell, was invited to join the project because thanks to software she developed, VI musicians can now turn sheet music into Braille.

“Making Braille sheet music available for musicians is vital for accessibility; a bit like wheelchair access in public buildings. It should be possible to produce Braille of anything that is printed.”

Lydia was in a unique position to understand the possibilities of using computer code to turn scores into Braille. She worked in music publishing and before that as a computer programmer. “For me code is just another language… Working in music publishing I thought, is there a way to write computer code so that information embedded in digital documents could be turned into Braille?” It turned out there was but it took a lot of time developing it. “Ultimately I want to make all sheet music available in Braille”.

David and Lucy are writing a book about their work with VI musicians and how they navigate through the sighted world. “This has been a very rich enterprise for us and we’re eager to share our findings with a wide audience,” said Lucy.

Find out more about the project findings on the Visually-impaired musicians' lives project website.

Takashi Kikuchi and Victoria Uluwari during a performance

The Visually-impaired musicians’ lives conference will take place on 10-11 March 2015 where there will be guest speakers on music and visual impairment as well as musical performance. Find out more on the conference website.

Article by Laura Marcus

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