Blindness and Learning Harmonica

Originally posted July 7, 2016

Rose_p03-300x187I’ve been working for the last couple of years with harmonica students who have limited vision. They needed large-format music, and the dots and lines were becoming too difficult to discern.

So we shifted gears to using a combination of large note names and audio demos. The audio is essential, since it allows students with a visual handicap to learn to sing or whistle the melodies by ear, and internalize the rhythm and phrasing. The note names provide a starting point, and they put it all together using their ear.

I recently combined the “audio + note names” format in several videos.

The Rose By the Door

My Favorite Things

What a Wonderful World

Not much good if you only read tab, but tab would work in this format also. Display it full screen, and you have essentially an auto-scrolling piece of music with an accompanying soundtrack.

These particular students have spent time studying large harmonica note charts and have learned the note layout of the chromatic or diatonic harp. They can visualize the chart and point out where the notes are located, and in a melody, show the moves left and right, in or out breath.

I think it’s helpful to develop this kind of spatial sense, to be able to gesture towards the notes on an imagined harmonica. Since the instrument is in your mouth and “invisible” when you’re playing it, as Howard Levy has pointed out, we all are functionally blind while playing.

My visually impaired students work on ear training and music theory on an ongoing basis, so that they can transition to learning music purely by ear if their vision becomes too limited to rely on. And in the meantime, they learn new pieces using a combination of ear and large note names.

As I mentioned, the videos above require a little more study upfront than reading tab, since you have to learn the note layout of your harp. Not a bad thing to learn, though. Use a C chromatic or diatonic for these examples, and enjoy!

To conclude, I want to share how inspired I am by these students, who push themselves to learn new skills in spite of their difficulties, for the love of playing music.