Hello once again!
I am sorry for not having posted here in a while, but I recently had one of my computers break, so I am borrowing one in the meantime until I can get a new one.
Before we go on,
Let’s take a sneak peek at what we’ll be discussing in the next paragraph.
I was pretty surprised when I first heard about this song that has become my GLBTQIA+ anthem back in 2014. If I had known how to watch Glee on my computer, I would have also probably been surprised to learn that its third season finale coincided with my 2012 high school graduation. This piece was released in March, so three months before that. Fortunately, some folx who wanted to preserve the TV shows that were recently taken down from the Blind Mice Movie Vault decided to start a new site called the Audio Vault.
I thought I’d write about how challenging it was for me to get one of the pieces I really love into some kind of accessible format because I had no way of obtaining it except as a PDF file that needed to be recognised, or a hardcopy document that needed to be scanned using a flat-bed scanner or camera. Alternatively, I could’ve sent or mailed them to someone who knew how to work with them, as I’ll discuss below. Of course, if the file was already in music XML or .mid, then there would be nothing else to do but open it in an accessible music composition software, like MuseScore, something that you can take with you on the go or a text-based programme like LilyPond or Braille Music Editor2, which is somewhat outdated, but is based off the LilyPond engine. MIDI files can be opened in sequencers and digital audio workstations.
Fortunately, there are resources available to you, besides the ones I listed above, to help you whether you are blind or sighted, abled or disabled, etc, for you to make sheet music and music-learning in general accessible to everyone.
Although you would most likely need to hire a Braille music transcriber when a softcopy of the music is not available, or if it is in a PDF file that would require a labour-intensive process to recognise, it can take a while depending on how much of it needs to be transcribed for you to get it back, and whether it is within your budget in the first place. Transcriptionists generally do their work by hand, usually with some programme like Braille2000 or Duxbury, and some people are opting to use automated software, like Goodfeel. This is a suite of applications that is a little outdated, but it allows anyone who does not know anything about Braille music to scan, edit, and emboss the scores automatically. It can also open music XML files, too. The nice thing about it is that since it is automated, there is less room for typographical error, as is usually common in manual transcription.
A newer version of the Sharp Eye music-scanning and recognition programme, called PhotoScore and NotateMe Ultimate from Neuratron can also import multi-page PDF files. However, no OMR programme is one hundred percent accurate, so visual assistance is always going to be required to correct the scannos.
A few months ago, I called in on a service for the blind called Aira, and I asked around until I found an agent who happened to know how to read sheet music, and, using remote access, they were able to correct some of the errors in the file. The process took a lot longer than I would’ve liked, but it proved one thing… it is possible to do such a thing. If only more agents were knowledgeable about using the software, the process could’ve gone more smoothly, and I wouldn’t have wasted so many minutes.
The National Library Service’s Braille and Audio Reading Download programme has a pretty broad selection of Braille music scores that can be downloaded, read on a Braille display, or embossed. Additionally, the Library of Congress hosts a myriad of audio instructional materials from Bill Brown, for playing various instruments. Bill Irwin has contributed more than three hundred hours of verbal instructions for learning to play piano and organ, and understanding modern harmony.
Click here to view a list of current certified music Braille transcribers. If you’d like to become certified, click here to learn how to become a certified music Braille transcriber.
If you’ve decided to pursue this, you’ll probably want to download this manual from the National Library Service to help you study.
Before you hear this song,
I must warn you that it contains triggering content that would raise many red flags, which would make any chorus hesitate to add to a list of songs to perform.
I thought I’d go into detail about how exactly I was introduced to this masterpiece.
To begin with,
I first started coming out as transgender shortly after leaving the transitional programme in Vancouver, Washington in June of 2013. It started with a dream of me getting my brain transplanted into a female’s body while the person’s brain was transplanted into my body, so that there was this swap in between. I also imagined that both my vision and hearing were fully functional, but at the same time felt sorry for the person who now had my hearing and vision loss to deal with.
Then, in late August of 2013, thanks to the Q Centre staff for giving me the resources to visit SMYRC (pronounced smirk), I made some new friends, partook of a few drag shows, and joined Pride Project, a programme here in Washington County. Anyhow, they wanted to invite a few groups to perform at their fifteenth anniversary party held on Friday, 27 December 2013, and one of the groups they invited was the PDX GSA Youth Chorus, now known as Bridging Voices. I really wanted to learn more about them, so I asked for more information, and, while I was volunteering at the Children’s Club of North America, which is what I call it instead of the Boys and girls Club, I went to one of their rehearsals on Sunday, 8 December.
I got to play an electric organ there while I waited for the session to start. I remember that day being cold and rainy, and I had posted one of my articles on my blog earlier that morning about mental illnesses and NAMI. Gosh, how I remember those moments… the pizza we ate downstairs, feeling as though I would doze off if I didn’t will myself awake, and finally sleeping on the way home in the cab with the raindrops gently falling around me.
I didn’t return to the chorus until after New Year’s 2014, and I started learning some new songs shortly thereafter. However, I was very dysphoric about my somewhat masculine voice that I didn’t feel comfortable singing. So I resorted to using my musical instruments to accompany the chorus members. By coincidence, I happened to learn about the castrati, and how important they were during the medieval and renaissance eras. They were also called eunuchs, and they developed very unusual vocal ranges and characteristics because of how big and tall they became. I then got to read a book called Choirboy by Charlie Jane Anders.
Some time in February, I got a blanket E-mail with a call to singers to solo audition for a chance to sing with the Philadelphia and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. That song was called Testimony, although the name held no significance to me whatsoever at the time. I remember going to Rehearsal on Sunday, the 23rd of February, and, since my paratransit service brought me several minutes early, I got to play on the organ for a little bit. I was sort of obsessed with playing Pomp and Circumstance or Land of Hope and Glory. Anyway, the chorus manager told me that they were going to finish recording a video, so I watched the proceedings without much interest. Then, after everyone had come up from eating pizza and lavender ice cream, (or maybe that was in January) I heard the piano accompanist playing some weird chords and the artistic director guiding some people to harmonise with it. Then I heard some words… /eep me ‘way… kee/ me ‘way… tay ee ay… and so on. I heard two low voices singing, starting with a perfect fourth. Eb3- Ab3, F3-Bb4, Gb3-Bb3, Ab3-Bb3. I had no idea what they were doing. Then I heard the same thing, but the two higher voices were now Db4-Bb3, Gb4-Db4, F4-Db4, and Eb4-Db4. Finally, they combined all those four voices and I heard this really pretty but mournful chord progression.
In case you don’t know what those numbers mean, you can learn more about what scientific pitch notation is by reading this Wikipedia article.
Then, I learned that we were going to sing some new songs like Fallen Angel and something about Wings, by David York, who is a local composer here in Portland, so his music won’t be anywhere on-line. I never got to listen to the ninety-second through one hundred something measure of Fallen Angel, and I really want to hear it!
However, I couldn’t get those plaintive notes out of my head, and I just had to know from what part of which song it came from, if it really was part of a song. So, I composed an E-mail to the artistic director, and, having corrected me on the lyrics, I learned that keep me away was really take me away. Those words came from a piece called Testimony, written by Stephen Swarts, broadway musical composer. If you are having trouble accessing the previously linked webpage, click here for a cached version of this site.
You are probably thinking that the song hit me hard when I first listened to it. But, on the contrary, it did not…. at least not yet, anyway. I went to watch the chorus perform at Call Auditorium, which is on the Reed College campus.
I was busily posting stuff about laser hair removal and electrolysis, and about my classes at the commission for the blind during that time. To celebrate the end of our first season, we got to sing with the Portland Lesbian Choir on Sunday, the 22nd of June 2014. My favourite songs from that day were Give Us Hope by Jim Papolis and Mae Frances by Bernice Johnson. I happened to run into an old acquaintance I had just met two years before when I was at the summer work experience programme. One of the things I really loved about the practice tracks PLC had was that they were recorded and rendered into stems using a digital audio workstation. That made it easy for me to hear each part and listen to the lyrics and melody or harmony at the same time. Some of them had accompaniment, some of them didn’t, and some had both. Bridging Voices came back in session when they sang at the Portland sQuare on Sunday 14 September.
It wasn’t until nine months later, around Christmas time, that the song really hit me hard. It was just taking its time to build up inside me, I fancy. I kept listening to this song in my head, playing various lines of it, in different keys, especially the first half of it, and that is when I sat down and wrote that deep and depressing post I just put on my blog this year. I wrote it because I had gotten in a huge fight with one of my family members, and I didn’t know what else to do and who to talk to.
In 2015, I resolved to do whatever I could to find a way to learn that song. I couldn’t easily transcribe everything by listening because of my hearing loss, but at least I could get a general sense of what the piano and voices were doing. So, I started on my search for a way that I could learn it. I first tried to print the music and scan it, but this hardly worked out, so I requested a refund, which was approved. Finally, I contacted Stephen Swarts agent and they provided me with a PDF copy which I could scan directly. I used Sharp Eye at the time. Somehow, a problem many music OCR programmes have is that they don’t seem to recognise tied notes very well. Sometimes it recognises them, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the latter case, the notes would just sound like two separate notes. I had trouble scanning the multi-paged PDF file because I was using Sharp Eye at the time, which could only recognise one page at a time, and it could not extract the other pages in it. However, I was finally able to find a workaround, but it required me to convert it to a bunch of Tiff files using a different music recognition programme.
By using a MIDI sequencer called Quick Windows Sequencer, I was able to edit the accompaniment track in the MIDI file based on my best educated guess. This was in mid to late March of 2015, when I was getting ready to take my first on-line classes through Portland Community College. I was forewarned by some people that I should be careful how I take on this approach, because it is generally illegal to reproduce or redistribute such material unless it was for personal use, but I did a bit of research and found that there is an act of Congress called 17 U.S.C. 121, which permits organisations to distribute things in alternate formats for exclusive use by people with print disabilities and other reading barriers for a free or reduced cost, unless they were paying out of pocket to have it transcribed.
In May of 2015, I managed to locate a Braille transcriber, and we arranged to have my piece transcribed. I sent them a copy of the PDF file via E-mail, and then I waited, with some occasional notes sent to me by the transcriber about how I wanted it formatted, etc. Then, just as classes were finishing up for spring term in mid June, I got a wonderful surprise. The file was transcribed at last! Now I’d see how all the voices were arranged, and I’d be able to make any correctons to the accompaniment! I was so elated I didn’t know where to start. I even deprived myself of sleep a little, and was so tired that I almost didn’t eat my supper. I had to pay ninety-six dollars for the transcription because they charged four dollars per page, and there were twenty-four pages overall. I think I got the vocal score first, and then I got the piano score shortly thereafter.
since I memorised computer Braille, I was able to read the file using my screen reader’s speech output to convert the characters to Braille and write them out on my Perkins Braille writer because I didn’t have a working Braille display at the time. So, if the file said, [email protected] I’d know that the underscore and at signs were a dot four-five-six and dot four respectively, and all the others were their corresponding Braille characters.
Well, even before I got this Braille piece transcribed, I attempted to play this piece on the piano and almost succeeded in playing measures one through twelve. After editing the MIDI file, I tried to play measures twenty-one through twenty-nine. I asked the music director of Bridging voices at one point if they knew of any techniques to play really large chord voicings when one had small or medium hand spans, and they suggested that I arpeggiate or roll the chord upwards. So, that is what I did.
This is my own perception of how well I identified with all of the piece, but I heard that there are some generations of people in the LGBTQIA+ community who feel that the song was too whiny, or it’s not all about getting better in or after high school, etc. It’s really hard to think about how a song might impact you if you’ve never gone through what another person has, and sometimes we think it would prove futile to post inspirational quotes and messages because there is a lot of hypocracy. One person even asked me why the song didn’t sound more dissonant in the beginning. To me, I thought it was pleasantly dissonant, because it was dissonant in a beautiful way. I know many of these songs are good for what they are, and that’s probably why these kinds of songs are created in the first place… to combat hate.
Back to Sunday, 15 February 2015, I had made arrangements to attend a Time to Thrive conference that was being hosted in Portland, then I went over to Portland Piano Company, and then later to an event where I got to meet several CHATpdx participants and allumni. CHAT stands for Curving HIV and AIDS Transmission. It was a cohort that trained youth to become better peer educators called sexperts.
So, I went back to Portland Piano Company later in August to look for the biggest concert grand piano I could find and play as much as I could of Testimony. I then went to the Q Centre and played a bit of it there; I think it was a week later.
One thing I forgot to mention was that once I memorised the lyrics and had all the notes corrected in the MIDI file, I imported the MIDI file into a programme called Vocaloid Editor, and then, having installed some voices, I put in the lyrics tied to each note. In this way, I made a pretty good rendition of this piece.
In early September, I decided to look for a stereo microphone so that I could try and reproduce the same sound as recorded in Skywalker Sound. I didn’t know that they had used a Bluthner grand piano, or that they had wide-spaced microphones until some time in April 2016.
I ended up buying an Olympus ME51s, and then a Yeti Blue stereo USB microphone. This last one I took with me back to Portland Piano Company, and I placed the mike in one of the spaces between the holes of the resonance chamber since the lid of the grand piano was propped on these massive beams. I brought my Braille sheet music with me and played some sections at a time. I played this on a Fazioli nine-foot concert grand, by the way. Then, after getting home, I edited the file in a single track editor called Studio Recorder and got rid of the excessive pauses and deleted the notes that weren’t supposed to be there. I cut, copied, mixed, faded, and did a couple of other things to make it sound as though I were playing it through non-stop. It ended up sounding like nothing I had in mind. Instead, it sounded as though I were in a small studio room or something.
On a side note,
I joined the Rose City Wind Symphony, formerly known as the Portland Gay Symphonic Band. I had a bit of a hard time advocating for my specific accommodations, but I was able to convince the librarian to write up a digital version of the sheet music and send it to me in different formats. Although I wasn’t able to play October, by Eric Whitacre, in the fall concert, I was able to play an arrangement of In the Bleak Mid Winter at the third annual Christmas holiday concert in the Legacy Emmanuel Hospital’s atrium.
In November of 2015, I attempted to sing all the parts of Testimony, and while that was somewhat successful, I didn’t really like how it came out in the end. I also made sure to add a little bit of information about this song in my debut novel, The Change of Tomorrow, although I’ll have to send in a request for permission if I want to publish a line or two of lyrics.
I didn’t really do much with the song in 2016, but I did get to talk to someone about it when I went to Denver, Colorado for the #GALA2016 Chorus festival. I also dropped off a Braille hardcopy for one of my blind friends who lives there, and who hosted me for the week I was staying.
On my way home, I met up with some folx who were members of the Portland Lesbian Choir, and I asked them about possibly singing with them in the fall. However, I realised that my bowling games were going to conflict since they always rehearsed on Wednesday evenings, and the games weren’t over until sixteen hundred pacific. In 2017, I asked again about possibly singing with them, and, when I told them that I was trans, one of the board members told me that there was a new choir being started called Transpose… great double entendre, right? Well, I went to their first open rehearsal in mid March, but I soon discovered that I was lacking so many accommodations for me to fully participate. So, I wrote up an E-mail, making some suggestions of what could be done to make the chorus more accessible if it weren’t going to be much of a burden on them as the Americans with Disabilities Act stated. The great thing about this community choir is that they do not use gendered language such as soprano, alto, tenor, bass, etc. They use non-binary language such as voice1-3 melody, harmony, descant, etc. They also modify any words of a song to make it inclusive to everyone. Additionally, they treat it like a musical playground because they don’t want anyone to feel like they are restricted to only sing the voice part that they chose at the beginning of the term. They recognise that some people may feel comfortable singing one voice part for a few songs, but maybe a different voice part for another. So, you are basically allowed to switch voice parts any time during or in between rehearsals.
Going back to September 2016, I attended this church retreat hosted by the Archdiocese of Portland, called the Office of People with Disabilities in Turner, Oregon, where I got to play all the way through measure eighty-eight of the piece without the words. Of course, it was a Catholic retreat, but I was hoping that at some level, since I didn’t have the courage to come right out and tell them the truth, that by playing this song, someone might be apt to recognise it and see me in a different light. I think it almost did, or maybe it was a coincidence because of my hair and voice, but a guy actually said to me, ‘If you were a girl, I’d marry you.’ Oh how I wish that were true! if only….
A few days later, I went back to the school in Vancouver, and I recorded myself playing it again, still hoping to find that same quality I heard in the original recording. I later went back to try a different piano in a different auditorium in April of 2017. I even purchased a copy of the Bluthner Piano a year before, but I didn’t like how inaccessible the interface was at the time.
Anyway,I discovered some really interesting things In December 2016 and October of 2017.
The first was a harmonic noise generator. You can adjust the brightness or darkness to make it sound as you please. I built a stack of chords that were in Testimony and made sort of a pad-like effect that could be used for meditation.
Then, in October of 2017, I was playing around with manipulating various Windows sounds, and I was able to make a folder, which I call the mix, containing multiple copies of a ding sound. If you’ve used Windows 2000, you’ll know what this sound sounds like. I used this same programme made by the American Printing House for the Blind, and I put together the accompaniment backing track for Testimony. I didn’t know that you could simply record a sample of it, edit it, and then make a sound font out of it. I mean, I vaguely knew about such things, but it wasn’t until I later started studying the courses by CAVI this year that I finally learned about it.
Also, if you’ve came across a post that was password-protected, it was only meant to keep wanderers from accidentally stumbling upon it, for it contains extremely triggering content. That post can be found here. To get in, use the password pride2019 because it was posted at the time we have been celebrating fifty years of pride.
Take a journey through Testimony
*sighs* Wow! That was a lot of information to read right there, wasn’t it? Well, I’m super glad I finally got to share this experience with you, because now it’s time for me to ask you a favour. First, let’s see what these folx have to say about what they thought and liked about Testimony.
Okay, what’s next?
So you’ve read through my novel… congratulations! 😁 Now it’s time for me to ask you to do something for me. If I am going to take part in your chorus, band, orchestra, ensemble, etc, do you think you would have what it takes to make sure I can fully participate? Not just for me, obviously, but for anybody else who might need it thereafter? Of course I am willing to contribute a helping hand, whether it be monetary or not, to help you be more successful and welcoming to all.
First, my hearing loss.
- It would be helpful to have a microphone system set up so I can hear the artistic director talking directly into my hearing devices or headphones.
- It would be helpful to have written lyrics of whatever song we are doing, if applicable.
- Have people speak the words in rhythm in time to the beat before adding pitches to them.
- Sit as close as is permissible to the piano or other instrument, if applicable with it on my right side, for that is my better ear.
- Be in a space that does not have too much reverberation, though this is usually mitigated by using the microphone system.
- If someone who is far from me says or asks something of significance, it would be helpful to have that information relayed to me if the microphone cannot be passed around.
And now for my blindness.
- Provide all sheet music in Braille and or electronic format, such as .xml or .mid.
- Alternatively, create comprehensive practice tracks that everyone can benefit from, especially as they’re useful for folx who may have missed one or more rehearsals.
- Play voice parts on piano or similar instrument individually, then together. This is especially helpful for folx who decide that music-reading is not for them.
- Send all communications, including lyrics (if applicable), in electronic format that I can interact with using my screen reader and or Braille display.
- Have access to ride-sharing services and support such as Uber or Lyft, or use an accessible spreadsheet so people can request and offer rides for rehearsals each week.
- Have a check-in buddy system so that folx can check in with each other and make sure they got home okay.
- Know the logistics of the place, i.e. time and location
well in advance, as well as a basic orientation of the space.
- Make sure the platform where practice tracks are being hosted is accessible with screen readers, like Google Drive or Chorus Connection.
Now for both my blindness and hearing loss.
Remember that intersectionality matters.
- It would be greatly appreciated if someone were available to be my support service provider, a person who can provide visual and environmental cues, and guide me from place to place.
- Optionally, have someone transcribe whatever is being said in the event that I am not able to hear for any reason.
- When you need to ask me a question or inform me of something, it would be helpful to say something like, This is Jay speaking… and then say whatever you want to say.
- If your chorus is doing any correography, or anything unusual, it would be helpful to know how to do those in advance.
This list of accommodation needs is subject to change at any time, so keep checking in periodically.
A note on microphones and assistive listening devices:
If more than one hard-of-hearing person is going to be using your services, you may want to check out some vendors that can provide you with one microphone and multiple receivers. A good option I recommend is William’s Sound.
You don’t necessarily need to be in Oregon to use this resource, but this place also has a great selection of items available for short-term rent, layaway, rent-to-own, or immediate purchase. Members who are D/deaf-blind may qualify for telecommunications-related accommodations through something called the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Programme (NDEDP) provided by I Can Connect. Although many of these things are considered only for telecommunications, some of these can be used for face-to-face communication, as well.
Also, I may connect my microphone system directly to a device used to record rehearsals. If folx have any problems with that, please let me know and I’ll find a different thing. The recordings are for personal use only.
A note on making practice tracks:
I believe that having a comprehensive folder of practice tracks should contain a full mix of all the parts (with and without accompaniment), followed by each of the individual parts, also with and without accompaniment, if applicable, and with the following attributes.
- Alone: only your part is heard.
- Dominant: all parts but your own are turned down, making your part prominent.
- Missing: All but your part is present, requiring you to sing your part along with it to fill in the blank.
So, for example, a file name for Give Us Hope with accompaniment might be something like Give_Us_Hope_-_voice1alone_accompaniment.wav
A file with your missing voice3 part and without accompaniment would be named something like Give_Us_Hope_-_voice3missing.wav
Also, I imagine that making audio practice tracks for musical instruments would be extremely difficult, so I would therefore suggest that you make a digital version of the full score, or just the part I am going to play. I can easily mute and or solo tracks using my sequencer.
The problem with making such practice tracks, however, according to one of the past directors, is that it would require intensive amount of time in a recording studio and some time for the actual mixdown, plus not to mention that a lot of choruses lack the budget necessary to support rehearsals at this level, even though these inclusive means for learning music efficiently most likely represents best practices in the long run.
I am sure that with continued education about disability awareness in all modalities, we’ll be able to make music groups and spaces accessible to everyone.
To check out a list of social justice songs I really like,
visit my channel and look for the Social Justice Songs playlist.
To find more resources for music access, you may want to check out
Thank you for reading, and I am looking forward to becoming an active participant of your group for years to come! 😍