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Sights and Sounds

Music in a Predominantly Visual World

An image of Irene Feher, holding her hands to her face, palms out with spread fingers.

A fellow voice teacher reached out in a Facebook group chat asking for advice to help a student with low vision; here was how she started her post:

“I have a sight impaired student who wants to pursue music as a career. She had a terrible experience in a choir because her school did not make her any accommodations…”

I happily wrote her back, and could have written her a short novel, but kept it brief and informative. For those of you who may not know, there is a whole braille system for reading music, and some very helpful apps such as ForScore and MuseScore with accessibility features.   

It is wonderful to have all this technology but something struck me - isn’t it curious that music programs place such great emphasis on READING music and following every single detail that is printed on the score. Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of “The Art of IS: Improvisation as a Way of Life” quotes the mathematician and philosopher Alfred Korzybski who said “The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal”. The musical score is the map, it is the menu. We bring the music to life when we play it. How we interpret that score and read between the lines differentiates a moving performance from an average one. 

As someone who has lived with low vision all my life, I can totally relate to the self-doubt and shame that sight impaired high school student must have felt. I cannot accomplish visual tasks at the same speed as a person with normal vision. Reading text and music has never been easy for me 

The effort I put into reading also affects my singing. Unless I can sing a piece from memory, I have vocal tension. It was always so much easier for me to learn by ear but I was discouraged to do so in my study of classical music. I’m grateful that I can read music, but I need extra time to go over the music, and partially memorize it. Today, I can no longer sight read on the spot, even if the score is magnified due to further complications with my vision. I am, however, blessed to have a good memory that allows me to retain the music I learn. I now choose to learn mostly by ear and only use the score as a guide. 

Once a song is memorized, it feels so good to sing!

My absolute favorite musical activity is when I close my eyes and improvise. I feel like I have wings. and my singing voice feels incredibly free and agile. I can also enjoy myself at the piano or indulge in rhythmic exploration on a percussion instrument. I forget all my cares, connect with my innate musicality, and lose myself in musical bliss. 

A picture of David Darling from Music for People, with a quote that says, "Have you played YOUR personal concerto today?""
— David Darling, Music for People

I strongly believe improvisation needs to be integrated into music programs as a vital part of musical learning - it is musical self-expression. One cannot learn a language from reading alone. We learn to communicate and interact through conversation. When people improvise together, they are essentially in communication: engaging in deep conversation and collaboration. Think of how enriching improvisation would be in the context of formal musical training. I find myself constantly developing ideas on how musicianship can be taught and interpretative skills enhanced through improvisation. I thank my mentors at Music for People, Mary Knysh in particular, who showed me that there are other ways to facilitate music learning. I can’t wait to share more of this in an upcoming newsletter where I will describe how I use improvisation in the voice studio, and my first experience of sharing this at a residency at the University of South Carolina, Columbia SC. 

I want to circle back to the opening of this newsletter. As I find myself becoming a more visible advocate for EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity) and UDL (Universal Design in Learning), I see how improvisation opens the door to a more inclusive and inspired formal music education experience. 

Three principles of UDL: 

  • Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation. Present information and content in different ways.

  • Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.

  • Principle III. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement.

Improvisation fits beautifully into this model for any music program. I can also state that it is also an incredibly enriching experience for me as a teacher because I get to know who my students are musically. 

Try this: play a C major scale - sing it - play it back - sing it again. 

Make up short melodies in C major - play them at the piano, don’t think, just let your hands wander. 

Once you’ve warmed up your listening,sing a short melody in C major - play it back on the piano - if you make a mistake, be curious and try to figure out what you just sang on the piano. 

Make up another phrase, play it back, and so on. You can do this in all the major keys, then move to the minor keys or modes. It is a wonderful way to just explore the unending possibilities within one scale! 

Try this: Improvise with your eyes closed. If you are playing an instrument, don’t worry about where your fingers go. Instead let them wander over the instrument allowing new harmonic and melodic combinations to emerge. Here are two improvs I recorded between lessons on Mar 29, 2024. 

On the piano, I am creating “sound shapes”, a wonderful technique I learned from my Music for People colleagues Olen Hsu and Rob Falvo. I create shapes with my hands and let them fall on the keys. This allows me to focus on intention and I feel I can actually bond with the piano. 


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