Music has been called the “universal language,” but becoming a serious musician may require more than just picking up an instrument.
Being able to read and write music is important, for example, if you want to perform with an orchestra or have an orchestra perform your music.
But what if you can't read music like everybody else? What if you have low-vision and need the notes printed larger than the size of an average page of music or you're completely blind and need it printed in Braille? What can students hoping to walk in the melodic footsteps of Stevie Wonder do to ensure access to these materials?
They can attend LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired's Music Academy at Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa, which aims to help students learn how to use different technologies that can help them with reading, writing and recording music.
“We’re learning about all the technology we can eventually use in music,” said Franny Bartos, 16, of Chico. Franny plays the piano and the guitar, but she also writes and performs her own musical pieces.
Bartos, who has low-vision, was most excited to experiment with the Lime Lighter, which magnifies print music up to 10 times the standard size, because she just finished writing a piece of original music. The instructors are also teaching the students GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator, which allows printed musical scores to be scanned, edited and converted into Braille notation.
“I read Braille music, but technology is very important for me to incorporate in all things," said Fernando Apan, 24, of Xalapa in Veracruz, Mexico.
Apan started playing piano when he was 4 years old. His mother taught him how to play piano, and even learned how to use the software that was available at the time in order to help her son transcribe his musical scores. Apan and his mother now sell and instruct others how to use the software in Mexico.
“My goal is to keep busy, to keep working, getting people to know our capability and how braille music can respond to life – being blind is not an obstacle at all,” Apan said. “I try to make people aware that blindness is not a disability, it’s an opportunity to be a better person.”
Instructor Bill McCann, also a blind musician, said that he has to prepare for performances in which he has to read new music ahead of time whereas someone who is sighted might be able to take a job at the last minute. When it comes to playing in orchestras, he added, some conductors might worry about performers seeing or not-seeing their hand movements.
"You need to figure out 'what can I do' and then work on getting really good at that," McCann said.
McCann, along with instructor Roberto Gonzalez, planned to also show the students how to record their own music from their computer without any fancy microphones or a studio.
“We’re going to show them how it’s done,” Gonzalez said.
But it isn’t all about the music.
Bartos said that Enchanted Hills feels like home to her since she has been attending other camp programs there for almost a decade. She has enjoyed making new friends and said she plans to stay in contact with many of the musicians she met at the academy.
“It’s close-knit,” she said. “I like it here."
Lawrence E Brown III, 23, of El Paso, Texas, said that he came to the camp mostly to hang out with other people like him. It’s important to see how other people with your disability navigate, he said, and for you to learn from them. “And if it’s in your line of work or career path, then that’s even better,” he said.
Brown, who is a Braille user, has an undergraduate degree in music and communication and is already working in the field and plans on attending graduate school. He said his interest in music began very young as his mother caught him banging on pots and pans. She bought him a drum set and he’s been a drummer ever since, performing with bands across several different genres.
“No matter what, people are always going to want to put obstacles (in front of you) and make assumptions about you if you have any kind of disability, even if it’s being a blind musician,” Brown said.
The lessons they learned in class this week will be put on display in a free public performance at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1226 Salvador Ave. in Napa from 7:30-8:30 p.m. on Friday.