Music Is His Life and His Livelihood: An Interview with Bill McCann of Dancing Dots
The story is familiar. A guy has a great job and is frequently promoted, but continues to harbor a dream of doing something else, something that he loves. He waffles. Then, despite the risk involved for their growing family, his wife, expecting their second child, tells him that she believes in him, that he must give up his nice job with the good paycheck and follow his dream.
It is not a fluffy romance from Danielle Steele or a new box office shoo-in from Warner Brothers. It is the story of how one of the better-known, albeit small, companies in the assistive technology industry began.
Caption: Bill McCann of Dancing Dots.
Follow the Sun
Bill McCann was working as a programmer for Sun Microsystems. It was not lost on him that in a country where the unemployment rate for people who are blind is appalling, his situation was not one to be easily discounted. He was a valued employee. He was routinely promoted. And, as he quipped more than a decade after leaving, he was even important enough to have an office with a window.
McCann was born with a small amount of vision, which he lost altogether at age 6. Or, in the more colorful way he described it: "I was born legally blind ... and at age 6 became illegally blind, which means I see nothing." At age 9, his love affair with the trumpet began. (Today, he enjoys all kinds of music, but said that hearing Louis Armstrong's trumpet remains his absolute favorite.)
Despite a successful job in computer programming, McCann's heart had always been with music. Playing the trumpet professionally--sometimes with his own small band, sometimes as a duet with his wife, Mary Ann, on the harp, he was increasingly obsessed with the notion of a computer program for braille music translation, a program that would allow musicians who are blind to create their own compositions or arrangements and actually produce hard-copy music scores that both blind and sighted musicians could read.
McCann had begun talking about the concept as early as 1979 while he was a student at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now known as the University of the Arts). He had even tossed the idea around with programmers in the assistive technology field who were capable of writing such a program. But no one else got around to it, and McCann finally realized that if he was ever going to have the music-translation program that kept percolating in his imagination, he would have to write it himself.
Window of Opportunity
It was 1991, and people who were blind who worked in the computer field knew that jobs would be changing until there was a full-blown and fully tested screen-reading solution for the new Microsoft Windows operating system. For McCann, it looked like a window of opportunity. He could voluntarily leave his comfortable job, get a great severance package to sustain him financially for a time, and figure out how to make his dream come true.
For the next year or two, McCann cobbled together a collection of ways to generate income and steps toward forming his own company. He was, in other words, a part-time professional musician, a part-time assistive technology trainer, a part-time student (learning the C programming language) and a part-time budding entrepreneur. He learned of a program at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and wound up as the "project" for two undergraduates. The result was a business plan for a company that would become known as Dancing Dots and whose flagship product would be the GOODFEEL music-translation software. McCann acquired start-up money from a state program that funded new businesses involving technology. St. Lucy's, the school for blind children where he had once been a student, provided him with office space. But the best thing that happened in the formation of Dancing Dots, McCann said, was a meeting that occurred at a family gathering.
It was at a gathering of his in-laws that McCann met Albert Milani, the then-boyfriend and now husband of his wife's sister. A simple conversation about the work each man was doing led to the realization that Milani, an electrical engineer and whiz programmer, was the missing piece in McCann's overall plan.
"What I had before I met Albert," McCann recalled, "was a prototype. Albert turned it into a product." In 1994, Milani joined Dancing Dots full time and continues to be its chief technical officer.
Altogether, five programmers, including McCann and Milani, have been involved in the development of the GOODFEEL program. Software, McCann said, "is like your house; it's never really done."
On the Same Page
What is the GOODFEEL program? Put simply, it is the only software that makes it instantly possible for blind and sighted musicians to be literally on the same page. If a blind musician is given a printed score and needs to read it, Dancing Dots has software to convert it into braille. If the blind musician wants to produce braille and print copies of the same composition, the software can do that, too. And if a blind musician wants to turn a computer into an accessible recording studio, the task can be accomplished with McCann's product as well.
While GOODFEEL is the company's flagship product, Dancing Dots offers other solutions to blind musicians and sighted persons who want to share music with them. With Lime Aloud, for example, a student who is blind can create a piece of music using a screen reader and then e-mail it as an attachment to her teacher. Dancing Dots also publishes books on braille music, teaching the code to blind and sighted students alike.
After 15 years of hard work, Dancing Dots now has customers throughout the United States, Canada, and 40 other countries. As the company's president, McCann has been interviewed by the BBC and the Associated Press, been on television in Italy, and made the front page of a newspaper in Venice. He has enjoyed building friendships with celebrity musicians who are blind and who use his product and has delighted in interacting with blind children at a number of camps and schools.
Maybe it is because music is naturally uplifting. Or maybe it is because McCann and Milani are such magnificent human beings. Whatever the reason, the names Dancing Dots and GOODFEEL are representative of the company's spirit. McCann is one of those rare individuals who just makes you feel happy to be in his company. In 2000, he and his wife, Mary Ann, built a house on a hill, and life there is infused with music. Although he does not perform professionally any more, if you talk long enough with him, you will learn about the family gatherings where he plays trumpet or keyboard, Mary Ann plays the harp, and all five children (aged 5 to 18) contribute with instruments ranging from voice to clarinet to glockenspiel to enliven the mix. His attitude, in other words, reflects the company's monikers: his spirit dances, and he makes others feel good.
Following his dream has been, he said, a wonderful ride so far, including myriad milestones along the way. Some of the milestones have included building relationships with well-known blind musicians, such as Marcus Roberts, Ronnie Millsap, Diane Schuur, and France's Jean-Philippe Rykiel. A serendipitous string of events led to Ray Charles showcasing the GOODFEEL product at a spectacular "party-jam session," delighting a few hundred attendees at the CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference in Los Angeles in 2003.
Originally, McCann said, he just planned to host a kind of jam session. He secured a large room in the hotel and invited a few people to perform and several others to enjoy. At an earlier conference, he had made the acquaintance of a musician from Paris who was a longtime friend of Ray Charles. Once the software was introduced to the legendary musician, Charles let McCann know that he would like to demonstrate what he had done.
The event was nothing short of magical. Charles took the stage and demonstrated how he composed some music with the GOODFEEL program on his computer. Then, with saxophone players gathered by Dancing Dots staff--musicians Charles had never met--32 bars of the new composition were printed out, and a performance was born. "If I made mistakes, play 'em," is what McCann remembers Charles saying to his newly assembled band. But there were no mistakes.
Still, McCann said, no single moment necessarily outshines the rest. He enjoys each opportunity to share his music-translation software with someone new--whether a famous blind musician or an 8-year-old child. At the time of our interview, he was particularly excited about an invitation he received from France. On January 4, 2009, in celebration of the bicentennial of Louis Braille's birth, the French government and association for the blind will hold a week-long series of events honoring the inventor of literacy for people who are blind. McCann has been invited to speak on--what else?--Braille's system of musical notation.
Other upcoming events of interest to AccessWorld readers will be two presentations at the 2008 CSUN conference by the staff of Dancing Dots and a two-week musical camp for blind youths at the Texas School for the Blind.
At the Friends in Art showcase at the 2005 convention of the American Council of the Blind, McCann performed an original composition on trumpet. Later, Gordon Kent, a well-known Washington, DC-based musician who is blind and who works for Dancing Dots, used the GOODFEEL software to craft a beautiful arrangement to complement McCann's performance. As a special treat, McCann shared that file with us, so that AccessWorld readers can hear, firsthand, one of the many things the software can achieve. Remember, as you listen to it, that the music was composed, independently, by a blind musician; the score was produced in braille by a blind musician; and the lovely accompanying arrangement was produced and recorded by another blind musician. Think about that for a minute and appreciate it. And then do what drives McCann and Dancing dots all the time: Just feel and love the music.
"My People," original composition by Bill McCann, arranged by Gordon Kent, copyright Dancing Dots.
For more information on Dancing Dots products, visit the web site, www.DancingDots.com or telephone 610-783-6692.
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