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My experience of the barriers in music education may be different from those that others face. The following are barriers that I have experienced firsthand or have observed, and are not exclusive to a particular sector.

My educational background is in specialist education (SE) boarding schools for the blind

All teachers there were trained to work with children who had sight problems, and the attitude of the staff was one of empowerment, which instilled in us the belief that we could do whatever we set our minds to.

I learned braille from the age of four, and my braille music reading started when I was about nine, under the guidance of my music teacher who was blind herself.

I entered the mainstream education system at nineteen, when I went to music college to study Jazz, Popular and Commercial music. To my knowledge, I was the first blind student to do that course.

My experience at college was extremely varied, from brilliant teachers who thought outside the box and went above and beyond, to teachers who really didn’t know how to treat me. I remember carrying a keyboard up a flight of stairs up to a rehearsal room and one lecturer shouted to me that I shouldn’t be handling music equipment on a flight of stairs.

Fighting prejudice

It was a learning curve for me having to educate some of my teachers that I was absolutely fine climbing a flight of stairs. If I didn’t, how could they have confidence that I could be a working musician dealing with my own equipment?

I applied to a few universities to enter into a music teacher training course in secondary education, but my first interview was not a pleasant one, and it left me feeling angry and defensive - I had overheard their conversation before I walked into the room, and I knew that they had no intention of accepting me.

I found it sad that those responsible for teaching the next generation of teachers had such a low expectation of someone with a sight impairment.

I managed to secure a place on a different teaching course, and although it was hard work, it was made accessible to me whenever possible. I qualified two years later as a secondary school music teacher.

My issues came to light once I secured my teaching post and had to interact with the intricate workings of being a teacher such as inaccessible software systems, exam board information and submitting entrants, prejudices from fellow colleagues and more.

A lack of resources for all of the examination boards in terms of braille format

After two years of teaching in mainstream education I took some time out to raise my family, but after the stresses that I experienced being a classroom teacher previously, I decided not to re-enter a school setting, and registered instead as self-employed.

I began working with students in both singing and piano, helping them through their exams, but there was so little available to me as a blind teacher, and I know this put me at a great disadvantage.

I have found that education in music is particularly fragmented, with many students not being introduced to braille music until they reach KS4 if they choose to do GCSE. At the present time, there is a considerable lack of resources for all of the examination boards in terms of getting resource materials in braille format for music teachers.

If a student requires adaptations to examinations, I do believe that the boards have systems in place to deal with this, but the books themselves with the requirements of grades are severely lacking.

What this means for me as a blind teacher is that if a sighted student wanted to come to me for lessons with a view to taking exams, I cannot help them at present using any exam board, despite my music knowledge being sound theoretically to help them through.

A lack of education and knowledge of the braille music system in schools

There is much work to be done in reaching out to all examination boards to assist them in complying with their statements of inclusivity, which they all seem to be falling short of at present regarding accessibility to braille music material. I do accept that part of this issue is the cost of transcribing their materials into braille, although large print seems much less of a problem, and material for those who need large print is certainly a little better, although limited.

The vast majority of music teachers in mainstream schools have no idea about braille music, and the Qualified Teacher for the Vision Impaired (QTVI)s and other learning support staff are tasked with trying to teach their students how to read braille music when they don’t know much about standard music before transcribing that into braille.

This puts the vision impaired (VI) students at a disadvantage from the outset because often all of the staff involved with this task run into significant problems themselves, which perpetuates the notion that braille music is too complicated and results in this method being discounted in favour of other methods with varying degrees of success.

I am teaching a student now who came to me when he was six after being turned down by other music teachers due to his visual impairment as they said they wouldn’t know how to teach him and this is a serious issue too.

So from this tender age, he was already being turned down due to his visual impairment. I am teaching another student who was accepted onto a GCSE Music course and had no knowledge of the braille music system at the start, and to cover all ground in the time she has left will be a steep learning curve on top of everything else she must learn.

Alison Trelfa sat at her keyboard.
Alison has three albums out, available on all streaming platforms. She is currently working towards a fourth using Apple’s screen-reading software Voiceover and Logic proX. Image credit: Alison Trelfa. 

The complications of the Access to Work scheme and navigating solo performances

There are vision impaired musicians performing across a range of instruments, working either in a band/orchestra setting or as solo musicians. I would love to play as a solo musician, but as I cannot drive myself to a venue - and I don’t know the layout of where I will be performing (unless it is a regular job) - I will need the assistance of someone else, which is not easily possible in my current circumstances.

Many musicians without sight have a partner who drives, who will happily undertake the task, and it is possible to obtain funding through Access to Work. However the application is at times fragmented, and it takes a while for systems to be put into place.

You have to find a support worker, register them with DWP Access to Work and if you don’t earn enough money in a three year period of contract, your next Access to work application could be turned down which could have dire consequences for your business.

Hopes and recommendations for the future

It is my hope that in years to come, an effective system will be in place, giving vision impaired braille music readers greater choice and access to music material for more instruments. Not just with regards to exam boards, but also on a much more commercial level.

We are seeing glimmers of hope and greater possibility with an expanding library of music works, which are available through software packages such as Musescore, Sibelius and Goodfeel. I look forward to the ways that such services as this might open more doors for accessibility in the future for those of us who value braille music and depend on it for our work.

I would like to see more support in schools at a younger age for children with little or no sight to undertake lessons in reading, writing and creating music, either using large print, speech, braille or a combination of these. Commercially and readily available software packages and Digital Audio Workstations (such as Logic, Pro Tools, Samplitude, Reaper and Ableton Live to name a few) are often used both in schools and in professional studios, so utilitising these will help ensure that at the point of taking qualifications such as GCSEs, the student’s learning curve isn’t so steep.

I would welcome the chance to work with educational establishments across all key stages, QTVIs and music teachers to give a better learning experience, both for teaching staff and vision impaired students in order that they can be given the same opportunities to access the language of music in whichever format is accessible to them.

It is my view that powerful organisations such as the Musician’s Union can assist to drive the vision of greater accessibility for all, with those of us in the minority groups being supported to implement necessary changes to break down barriers of perceived incompetence through lack of knowledge and resources which make it harder, or sometimes impossible, for us to enter certain areas of the music industry.

I would like to be part of that change to impart knowledge and break down those barriers in a variety of ways, and it starts with educating from the highest level, empowering all music practitioners, leaders, teachers, producers, directors, sound engineers, parents and children to give those who wish to work in the music business a fair shot to make a living in this vibrant and extremely rewarding sector.

Photo ofAlison Trelfa
Thanks to

Alison Trelfa

Alison Trelfa is a secondary school music teacher, singer and songwriter. She was born with extremely limited eyesight and was sent to a boarding school for the blind at just four years old. She gained her teaching qualification in 1998 and became musical director of the intergenerational community singing group One Voice Choir Middlesbrough in 2009. Alison has three albums out on all streaming platforms and is currently working towards a fourth using Apple’s screen-reading software Voiceover and the digital audio workstation Logic proX, which is used in many recording studios around the world.

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