Blindness and Vision Loss

There are approximately 836,000 visually impaired Canadians, although only a small number of them have been blind from birth.

Blindness and Vision Loss

There are approximately 836,000 visually impaired Canadians, although only a small number of them have been blind from birth. Blindness and vision loss cause greater reliance on hearing, which, in response, may grow more acute or more perceptive than the hearing of a similarly talented person with sight. Not surprisingly, therefore, many visually impaired persons have taken to music as pastime or profession, performance or trade (eg, piano tuning). Popular music and folk music are frequently mastered without access to notation, but to open up the concert field to those with limited vision, braille notation, which is used for reading and memorizing, has been necessary - though orchestral playing, which demands constant sight-reading, remains impractical.

The CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind)/INCA (formerly Institut national canadien pour les aveugles), the country's chief agency working on behalf of people with vision loss, was incorporated in 1918, with headquarters in Toronto, as an administrative, co-ordinative, and educational organization. In 1939 it appointed a research committee to consider the needs of blind musicians and piano tuners in Canada. The committee's findings resulted in the creation of a separate CNIB music department; in 1946 the committee itself was established permanently as the National Advisory Committee on Music to the CNIB. With assistance from this body the music department has run a music library; set training standards for musicians, teachers, and piano tuners; organized conferences for music teachers and musicians every five years and for piano tuners and technicians every three years; and employed a music consultant.

The CNIB's National Music Library has printed and maintained catalogues of braille music to assist visually impaired musicians in selection. Its music transcription service - which has made available braille transcriptions for instruments and for small choirs and orchestras - began as an independent program for blind musicians in Quebec and was taken over by the CNIB in 1943. With the encouragement of the Quebec Braille Music Society (established in 1949) the CNIB extended the service to other parts of the country and in 1955 it became known as the National Braille Music Transcription Service of the CNIB. Its office remained in Montreal until 1981, when the Montreal and Toronto collections were amalgamated at the CNIB Music Library in Toronto. There music scores are transcribed into braille on request, for job support, education or personal enrichment.

The library staff work to encourage blind musicians, whether amateur or professional, to develop their skills, making available information about educational and career opportunities. They edit and produce Noteworthy (originally called Mouthpiece), a selection of articles from a variety of Canada's leading music magazines. It is circulated to interested clients three times a year. In 1989 its circulation was 500. Ernest Whitfield, secretary of the music committee 1942-6, was succeeded by Edith Dymond Simpson, national music consultant 1946-67, and Simpson was succeeded by William M. Vaisey, who continued in that position until 1991.

The Montreal Association for the Blind, incorporated in 1910, began in 1908 as a body founded on the individual initiative of Philip E. Layton (d 1939), a blind organist, composer (his Dominion March, 1898, was dedicated to Lord Strathcona), piano tuner, and piano dealer, whose Peel St firm, Layton Bros, flourished in Montreal in the late 1880s and has survived as an audio equipment business.The association's aim was to advance the social and economic welfare of the blind. The Montreal Association for the Blind amalgamated with the Mackay Rehabilitation Centre in 2006 to become the MAB-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre, which now assists those with speech, language and hearing impairments as well as those with limited vision.

A number of residential schools for the blind have established music curricula which include classes in ear-training, rhythmic development, sight-singing, instrument identification, music history, and choral singing, and instruction in voice and instruments. Some also have provided facilities for studies in piano tuning and technology. Sighted as well as visually impaired musicians have been trained at such schools. In chronological order of establishment Canadian residential schools have included Montreal's Institut Nazareth, which was founded in 1861 and established a music department in 1876; the Halifax School for the Blind, which began in 1863 (or 1871); the W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford, Ont, founded in 1871 as the Ontario School for the Blind (Frederic Lord was music director 1923-45); the school of the Montreal Association for the Blind, opened in 1912; the British Columbia School for the Blind, founded in Vancouver in 1915; and the Institut Louis-Braille, founded in Montreal in 1952, with piano-tuning classes and apprenticeship workshops established by Raphael Brilotti in 1954. The latter amalgamated with the Institut Nazareth in 1975, continuing as the Institut Nazareth et Louis-Braille. Blind or visually impaired persons in the concert music field in Canada have included Ann Burrows, Édouard Clarke, Hervé Cloutier, Gabriel Cusson, Paul Doyon, Pierre Gautier, Ivan Gillis, Antonín Kubálek, Alfred Lamoureux, Conrad Letendre, Paul Letondal, Auguste Liessens, Charles William Lindsay, Mary Munn, Antoine Reboulot, Denis Regnaud, and Jeannine Vanier. Among those in the pop music field have been Jeff Healey, Gilles Losier (fiddler and pianist with Jean Carignan), Fred McKenna, and the pianist Joel Shulman. Armand Pellerin - b Ste-Sophie-d'Halifax, near Sherbrooke, Que, 1 Nov 1899, d Montreal 6 Aug 1961, B MUS (Montreal) 1921 - who lost his sight at the age of two, was organist at several Montreal churches, taught at the Institut Nazareth, and was librarian 1951-61 for the CNIB in Montreal. Eugénie Tessier - soprano, pianist, b Montreal 1872, d? - a pupil of Rosalie Euvrard and Paul Letondal at the Institut Nazareth, had a successful concert career in Canada and the US. John Vandertuin, organist and composer - b Brandon, Man 1957; ARCT (piano), ARCT (organ), B MUS (Western) 1982, M MUS (Western) 1988, DMA (Michigan), hon FRCCO 2004 - has been blind from birth. He was educated at the Ontario School for the Blind, studied in Europe with Jean Langlais and Piet Kee, and is a concert organist and organ consultant.

There appears to have been a markedly higher number of blind musicians of French-Canadian origin, a fact which may be attributed to the music training available at the Quebec schools for the blind.

See also "Blindness and Visual Impairment" in The Canadian Encyclopedia


Further Reading

  • Johnson, Robin. "Music and the blind child," Recorder, vol 14, Dec 1971

    Larose, Jacques. "L'enseignement de la musique aux deficients visuels," L MUS thesis, University of Montreal 1973

    Vaisey, William. "Notes," Music, Nov-Dec 1978

    Roberge, Huguette. "À 78 ans, le roi des accordeurs de pianos du Québec, accroche sa clé d'accordage," Montreal La Presse, 6 Dec 1980

    Matheson, Margaret. "Music library has noteworthy braille," Feliciter, vol 32, Feb 1986

    Kernohan, L. "Music students with visual impairments: issues, challenges, and solutions," Canadian Music Educator, vol 42, Summer 2001

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