Blind musicians

Blind musicians

Blind musicians are singers or instrumentalists who are physically unable to see. In many cultures, blind people have become musicians in disproportionate numbers.

Resources for blind musicians

Historically, many blind musicians, including some of the most famous, have performed without the benefit of formal instruction, since such instruction relies extensively on written musical notation. However, today there are many resources available for blind musicians who wish to learn Western music theory and classical notation. Louis Braille, the man who created the braille alphabet for the blind, also created a system of classical notation for the blind called Braille music. This system allows the blind to read and write music just as the sighted do. The largest collection of Braille musical scores is located at the Library of Congress. [] Outside the U.S., the largest collection of braille music scores is stored at the National Library for the Blind in England. []

Computer technology and the Internet make it possible in theory for blind musicians to be more independent in composing and studying music. In practice, however, most programs rely on graphical user interfaces, which are difficult for the blind to navigate. There has been some progress in creating screen-reading interfaces for the blind, especially for the Windows operating systems. []

Today there are also several organizations devoted to the support of blind musicians. The National Resource Center for Blind Musicians, located in Connecticut, has an extensive website. [] The Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired is a group of students, parents, teachers, and professionals devoted to musical education for the blind. [] No-C-Notes provides an alternative to Braille music notation with its audio music reading transcription method for those with visual impairement or reading disability. []

The image of the blind musician

The image of the blind musician is an important touchstone in many cultures, even where the influence of the blind on music has been limited. The idea of Homer, the blind poet, for example, has had a long existence in Western tradition, even though its basis in truth is uncertain. Similarly, in his book "Singer of Tales", Albert Lord explains that in Yugoslavia he found many stories of blind musicians, but few current musicians who were actually blind. ISBN 0-674-00283-0 Natalie Kononenko had a similar experience in Turkey, though one Turkish musician of great talent, Ashik Veysel was in fact blind. ISBN 0-7656-0144-3

The popularity of the idea of the blind musician has inspired several artists. John Singer Sargent painted a 1912 canvas based on this theme [] , and Georges de la Tour has a whole series of paintings devoted to blind musicians. []

Though the idea of blind musicians may be even more prevalent than their actuality, it remains true that at many points in history and in many different cultures, blind musicians, individually or as a group, have made important contributions to the development of music. Some of these contributions are discussed below.


Blind musicians in China

Court musician was a traditional profession for the blind in China in antiquity. The first musician mentioned in Chinese sources, Shi Kuang, was a blind performer in the 6th century BC. The Guilds of Blind Musicians and Fortune-Tellers which were still around in China during the middle of the 20th century, claimed to have existed as far back as 200 BC. More recently, groups of blind buskers have continued to perform in Zuoquan County, and presumably in other areas as well.

One of the most popular musical works in China, "Erquan Yingyue (Moon Reflected in the Second Spring)", was composed in the first half of the 20th century by Hua Yanjun, better known as "Blind Ah Bing." [] []

Biwa Hoshi in Japan

In Japan, Heike Biwa, a form of narrative music, was invented and spread during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) by traveling musicians known as biwa hoshi, who were often blind. These musicians played the biwa, a kind of lute, and recited stories, of which the most famous was The Tale of the Heike. The musicians were sometimes known as "blind priests" because they wore robes and shaved their heads, though they were not, in fact Buddhist priests. []

Kobzars of Ukraine

There is a very strong tradition of blind minstrelsy in Ukraine known as Kobzarstvo. At least from 1800 to 1930—and probably well before that as well—the majority of itinerant musicians in Ukraine were blind. Music was part of the social-welfare system. Those who could not work at other occupations could be apprenticed to become professional bards often referred to as kobzars (both bandura and lira players could be referred to by this title). These wandering blind minstrels were divided into two groups—bandurists, or kobzars who played bandura, and lirnyks, who played the lira, which was a crank-driven hurdy-gurdy.

The kobzars were an important part of oral tradition in Ukraine. According to the ethnographer P. Zhytetsky (in Natalie Kononenko in "Ukrainian Minstrels: And the Blind Shall Sing",ISBN 0-7656-0144-3) kobzars were thought to have been initially sighted Cossacks, who were especially associated with epic songs, or dumas. Kononenko states that lirnyky, on the other hand, were blind church singers organized into guilds who sang religious songs and were often associated with beggars. By the middle of the 19th century, the two groups had merged; both sang many different types of songs, all were organized into the guilds, and all were blind.

The kobzars have a central place in the national identity of Ukraine. Folklorist Izmail Sreznevskyi argued that the initial Cossack bandurist were actual witnesses of the great battles about which they sang. The image of warrior-bards singing epics was quite popular, and there became a tradition that the great ancient singers were veterans valorously blinded in combat. This in turn led to the belief that the kobzar tradition had greatly weakened in the 19th century, since the traditional songs were now sung by people who were more like beggars than like warriors. Kononenko points out that there is no factual basis for this image, and her research showed that the minstrel tradition was still very strong and creative up until the 1930s.

Because the art of the kobzars was language specific and included themes dealing with historic subjects of Ukraine's past, the blind singers were often the focus of persecution by occupying powers, according to researcher Mikhailo Khay. This persecution reached a height under Stalin in the 1930s, when many forms of Ukrainian cultural expression were crushed by the Internationalist Communist government of the Soviet Union. Numerous sources claim that there was a massacre of blind musicians during this period, though this has not been confirmed, and most details of the incident (including year, place, and method of execution) are disputed. It is fairly clear, however, that by the end of the 30's traditional blind minstrelsy had largely vanished. Today the traditional repertoire of the kobzars is played by sighted, educated performers. During her research in Ukraine, Kononenko found only one blind folk performer of the old songs, a man named Pavlo Suprun.

External links

* [ Roman Turovsky's site about Ukrainian music, instruments and musicians during the Baroque and Classical eras]
* [ Natalie Kononenko’s Home Page]
* “Music From the Shadows” - article in Zerkalo Nedeli (Mirror Weekly)
** [ “Музика з тіні”] - Ukrainian language
** [ “ Музыка из тени”] - Russian language

Traditional Irish musicians

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th century, harpists, pipers, and other musicians traveled around Ireland, providing music for dances and other occasions. As in Ukraine, these musicians often faced persecution — by the English, in this case. And, as in Ukraine, many of the Irish musicians were blind. The most famous of these blind musicians, Turlough O'Carolan, is still well known for his composition, "Carolan's Concerto." []

European piano tuners

In 19th century France and England, piano tuners were frequently blind. The first blind piano tuner is thought to be Claude Montal, who taught himself how to tune a piano while studying at L'Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in 1830. At first Montal's teachers were skeptical, doubting that a blind man could actually perform the necessary mechanical tasks. Montal's skill was undeniable, however, and he was soon asked to teach classes in tuning to his fellow students. Eventually, he also overcame public prejudice, and landed several prestigious jobs as a tuner for professors and professional musicians. Montal's success paved the way for other blind tuners, both in France and in England, where Montal's example and teaching methods were adopted by Thomas Rhodes Armitage. Today the image of the blind piano tuner is so engrained that people in England sometimes express surprise when they encounter a piano tuner who can see. [] An organization of blind piano tuners remains active in Britain. []

American country blues

Blind musicians have made an enormous contribution to American popular music. This is particularly true in blues, gospel, jazz, and other predominantly African-American forms — perhaps because discrimination added to their disability made it doubly difficult for black blind people to find other employment. In any case, the achievement of blind African-Americans in music is extensive. The first recorded gospel Sanctified barrelhouse piano player, Arizona Dranes, was blind, as was Ray Charles, one of the most important figures in the creation of soul music. Art Tatum, commonly cited as the greatest jazz pianist of all time, was also blind. Stevie Wonder is probably one the most successful blind American musicians.

However, blind black musicians are still most strongly associated with the country blues. The first successful male country blues performer, Blind Lemon Jefferson was blind, as were many other country bluesmen, including Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry, and Blind Boy Fuller. The figure of the black country bluesman became so iconic that when Eddie Lang, a white, sighted, jazz guitarist, wanted to choose a black pseudonym for purposes of recording blues records with Lonnie Johnson, he naturally settled on Blind Willie Dunn. []

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