Braille was second string when it came to music – until it came time to write the tunes down
By Stefanie Cloutier
Zach’s “aha!” moment regarding braille came two years ago, when the then-12-year-old student – and gifted pianist – sent a piece of music to the Boston Saxophone Quartet.
The conductor emailed back, asking him to write an additional part. But while Zach is remarkably adept at composing music, he was barely literate. As a student who is visually impaired, he could not read traditional print, nor could he write with pen and paper. His only option was to ask one of his teachers to inscribe the musical score for him.
That simple event was a revelation for Zach, who finally – after years of resistance – grasped the importance of learning braille, said his mother, Sofia Taibi. Now, with the help of his teachers at Perkins School for the Blind, Zach has begun making real headway mastering the tactile, raised-dot system of reading and writing.
“He’s asking for help, which is a huge step,” said Eddie Tabor, a teacher’s aide at Perkins and mentor to Zach. “He’s not reluctant about braille anymore.”
Zach is an appealing kid, with a mass of dark curly hair and an engaging personality. He spends his spare time at Perkins jamming in the music room at the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology, and at home making music in his sound studio.
Music has been at the center of Zach’s life ever since he began playing the piano when he was just 18 months old. He plays music by ear and composes melodies in his head. His YouTube page is filled with videos of him performing complex piano pieces. He has played with musicians around the world on the music jamming site Wikiloops.com, and worked on electronic music beats with a sound engineer from Berklee College of Music.
“His talent at the piano is really extraordinary,” said Lisa Martino, a music therapist who works with Zach.
Life is all about auditory input for Zach, whose favorite class at Perkins, not surprisingly, is music. “I can live life more naturally with audio,” he said.
That preference for sound made learning braille a very low priority in Zach’s life. While attending public school, he struggled with his braille lessons. When he came to Perkins, his teacher noticed he was having trouble with it.
“He was a slow reader,” Taibi acknowledged.
To get Zach to embrace braille, his teachers and family knew they had to make him understand why literacy was important – even for a young musician.
So Martino played up the musical benefits of braille. Sure, she acknowledged, hearing music in your head is a skill. But: “What will you say when other musicians say, ‘Let’s write this down’?” she challenged him. “The (written) page is where the other musicians are.”
Taibi made a slightly broader point. “Life is more than just music,” she said. “You need to be able to read to be successful in other things you do in life.”
Tabor’s strategy was practical, since he also has a visual impairment and uses braille in his everyday life. He doesn’t buy the argument that technology, including digital audio books and speech-to-text software on a computer, has made reading and writing braille obsolete.
“To people who think they don’t need braille, I say, ‘What if the power goes out and there’s no computer access?’” Tabor said. Someone who knows braille can always read a braille book or write using a brailler, he added.
Tabor also knows that being able to see – or, with braille, touch – the structure of a sentence helps students not only grasp meaning, but also learn essential rules of punctuation and grammar.
“You can hear something, but if you can’t read the commas, and can’t see how it’s broken down, it’s harder to understand,” he said.
Still, Tabor knows that mastering braille isn’t easy – for Zach or any student.
“Braille is so weird; it can be hard to learn,” he said. For example, braille can contain abbreviations of common words and letter groupings. That speeds up the reading and writing process, but students must first memorize all the contractions.
But by acknowledging braille’s difficulties upfront, Tabor prepares his students to work hard in the classroom. He doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges they face.
That gives him credibility with Zach
“It’s amazing how much Zach relates to Eddie,” Taibi said.
Since his “aha!” moment, Zach has worked harder and shown more interest in braille, improving so much that he can now read age-appropriate material, Tabor said. Zach is now decoding words he previously struggled with, reading much faster and even using a braille textbook for math – which is a huge step forward.
The teen’s progress is especially sweet for Tabor. “We’re proving it’s not too late to learn braille,” he said.
And while Zach still won’t say he likes braille, he admitted there is at least one advantage to reading a braille book versus listening to it on audio where someone narrates the story.
“When I read a book on my own,” he said, “I get to imagine the characters in my head.”
Zach’s mom and teachers smile as they hear that. For Zach to finally acknowledge a benefit of braille – well, that’s music to their ears.