No matter your age, there are resources available for learning many instruments. The lessons and materials described in this article are specifically geared to people with visual impairments who want to study at home and learn at their own pace. I've used all of these resources in my work as a professional music therapist.
Choosing an Instrument
There are several factors to consider when choosing which instrument to play. No matter what you choose, it's important to handle the instrument before buying. Spend some time at a music store. Don't let a sales person try to sell you the most expensive model. Go to different stores if you feel like it and try different brands. It's best to choose the right instrument the first time. You can always upgrade later. You do not need to purchase your instrument from the store where you tried it. Look around for the best price, including online and used.
Top of the line musical instruments are expensive. I advise beginning with a student instrument. Once you've developed your technique and know what to look for, you can pursue something fancier.
If you want to learn to play the piano, I highly recommend buying a keyboard first. Many keyboards now have very responsive keys that simulate a piano's touch. A basic keyboard will cost a few hundred dollars, much less than a piano, and a keyboard is portable. Most keyboards have numerous knobs and buttons that create sounds, rhythms, and a variety of effects. A keyboard that uses a touch screen can make the unit less accessible. Find out if the keyboard's manual is available as an electronic download. You can do a Google search by typing the keyboard's brand and number in quotes and then the word "manual." Even with an electronic manual, you may need sighted assistance to label controls.
The guitar is a good option if you want something portable. They range in price from about $150 to thousands of dollars. You can use nylon or steel strings. Nylon is easier on your fingers, but steel has a brighter sound. A guitar with a narrow neck will be more comfortable for someone with small hands and fingers. There are guitars for people who are left handed. After learning a couple of chords, you can start playing simple songs. With just two chords you can play songs such as "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Jambalaya," and "Clementine."
Another option is the ukulele, which is a small guitar-like instrument with four strings. As with the guitar, all you need is two chords to start playing songs. A basic inexpensive soprano ukulele costs about $60.
If you want to learn an instrument quickly, then for $300 the Suzuki QChord might be a good option. It's similar to an electronic auto harp, with buttons and a strum plate. The QChord also features preset rhythms and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) capabilities. An excellent accessible manual for the QChord is available. To play the QChord, the player presses a chord button and strums on the tactile strum plate. The instrument has additional settings for more advanced players. Another nice feature of the QChord is that if you accidentally change some of the settings, turning the instrument off and then on again will restore defaults.
Learning to Play
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
A good starting point for learning to play an instrument and/or learning to read large print or braille music is the Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).
At the NLS, you'll find large print and braille books available for instruction in reading print or braille music. The library has audio cassette, large print, and braille lessons for many instruments for players of all levels. Audio instructional lessons include detailed descriptions about the instrument and fingering positions. As each concept or sound is explained, the instructor plays the instrument so the student can immediately hear the music.
John Hanson, the head of the NLS Music Section, said, "Most everything that is currently available on cassette will be available on [NLS] cartridge and much of that will be available on BARD [Braille and Audio Reading Download] from NLS." He hopes this format availability will be in the near future.
The NLS Music Section website has information about what is available from NLS. If you prefer, you can e-mail or call a librarian for assistance. Tell the librarian which instrument you want to learn, your level of proficiency, and in which format you want to have your lessons presented.
In order to borrow materials, you must first become a member of the NLS.
Music for the Blind
Music for the Blind has by-ear lessons for many instruments including, piano, guitar, ukulele, flute, violin, harmonica, and saxophone. Bill Brown, the creator of these lessons, gives very clear descriptions and opportunities to practice and play along. The lessons include backing tracks that provide an accompaniment to songs. Because the student learns by ear through these lessons, there is no need to learn music notation. Lessons are available for beginners as well as more advanced players. Check out the "lesson of the month" link to hear Mr. Brown's teaching method.
You can purchase lessons from Music For the Blind, but Mr. Brown has also generously made his courses available free of charge from the music section of the NLS, the Canadian Institute for the Blind, and The Royal Institute for the Blind. Lessons are available in cassette, CD and MP3 download formats. Visit the website to download a sample lesson or check out the course offerings.
Dancing Dots was founded by Bill McCann, a blind musician and programmer. The website offers books for learning to read Braille music and books for instrument instruction. Advanced musicians can find information on recording equipment, braille music transcription, and other assistive technology products on the site. They also have a list of resources for blind musicians.
Finding Additional Songs
If you are using braille or large print music, NLS has many songs and songbooks available to borrow. They offer a free braille magazine called Popular Music Lead Sheets, which you can keep. Each magazine contains several songs with words, melody line, and chords, written in grade I braille.
Both NLS and Music for the Blind offer many audio courses and songs at all levels.
Dancing Dots offers a fee-based braille transcription service. Send them the music in print or a MIDI file and they return braille music sheets to you.
If you are playing an instrument that uses chords (such as a guitar, ukulele, piano or QChord) then the chords can usually be located on the Internet. Do a search with the song title in quotes, followed by a space and then the word "chords." I have found Google's accessible search quite useful. Be aware that the chords you find on the Internet are the author's own work and may not be correct. There are usually many results from which to choose.
Although the number of sources for instructional materials is limited, there is excellent instructional material available. Remember, learning an instrument takes time and practice. Have fun with it!
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Become a member by visiting the site or calling (202) 707-5100