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Making music: done with your ears and by feeling

Making music with a visual impairment

#blog by #Kristina

Although I hardly rose above the instrument as a little girl, I started playing the accordion with great pleasure even then. My motivation precisely for this instrument may seem a somewhat laughable one now, but besides the fact that it just sounds beautiful, I thought it was only fair that even sighted people could not see over the keys. The 80-bass Weltmeister that I got from my grandparents, after a long search through a newspaper ad, was the key to the musical world that, fortunately, I still hold! It was Annelies Kars who taught me (Braille) notes and I still get weekly lessons from the same teacher more than 15 years later. High time to question her curiously about how, what and why. Half an hour of music lessons is soon crammed full, filled with beautiful sounds, or the occasional false note and bits out of tune... That's why we met one Saturday afternoon via Skype.

Many more possibilities than you think

A great observation from Annelies is that everyone actually has a disability. However, being able to make music does not have to be an obstacle. Knowing that you too can do this and that you belong is a nice side effect of making music. Of course, a teacher must ensure that you continue to enjoy it. That sometimes seems quite a task to me, but Annelies says it's not that bad: "I really enjoy passing it on. When you see that people enjoy it and that you also teach them something, that's just really nice." "Everyone is taught in the same way, because clarity is always important. Regardless of the method used." If something is not (quite) right, Annelies will certainly not let that go unmentioned either, and that is just as well. "It does have to be achievable and remain realistic, to take music exams for example."

Annelies thinks back to people who couldn't move their fingers, for example. Through all sorts of exercises and crazy games, such as imitating a mouse or rain, she did get to use a keyboard. It immediately becomes clear that, as far as Annelies is concerned, music really is for everyone. "It used to be an elite thing because very expensive, but nowadays it doesn't have to be that way." There are even funds, where people who are at a certain income limit can get a large part of the annual fee reimbursed or can borrow an instrument. So this does make access to music easier and easier.

Healing Effect

There is one story that absolutely cannot go unmentioned and made a big impression on Annelies. A girl who also could not move her fingers suddenly started crying very loudly during class after six months of 'crazy practice'. "Now look what you've done," she said. "I can move all ten of my fingers." According to Annelies, she had mostly done that herself anyway, or they together. "When you do tasks in music class, you get feedback from an instrument, which is much more fun than physiotherapy," she said. In a nice twist, this dual and thus sometimes even healing effect is contained in making music. Even people who couldn't talk or hardly ever said anything got Annelies chatting while playing musical instruments! Group music is also used in prisons to teach repeat offenders to listen to each other.

Notes through a colour system

Being able to 'just' make music does sometimes happen in special ways, to which Annelies has contributed a lot. When she had a three-year-old boy in lessons, she invented the colour notebook, which has since found a much wider application and is used for people with (mental) disabilities, even in orchestras. Annelies founded the Rolantinos almost twenty-five years ago, which is much more than just making fun music on Saturday mornings. Fortunately, besides herself, there are many volunteers involved in this great initiative who regularly offer listening ears or practical helping hands. She certainly didn't rush to turn this wish into reality: "You have to know what you're getting into and that you can't just stop. Then you would greatly disappoint those people, because it is something they really look forward to immensely." Annelies writes the music herself, composes and arranges the songs. By now, she has certainly written forty or fifty pieces. A number of orchestra members have been there from the beginning and still participate. Yet there is also regular new recruitment or people returning after a period of absence. What they don't have are bosses and servants: "We do it together as a group, that keeps it nice." There is real order in the orchestra and everyone accepts each other. The Rolantinos have even performed in a European context, with orchestras from different countries. About the voluntary work Annelies does for the Rolantinos, she says confidently, "The pleasure and appreciation you get in return, that can't be paid for in gold!"

Perfect relaxation after a (working) day

Annelies hears from everyone that making music really is an outlet. As an example, she mentions teachers who come to take music lessons themselves in the evening after a tiring school day: "I was so tired when I came to play music and now I feel so wonderful!" This is also very recognisable for me personally. Annelies does have an explanation for such happy reactions that she likes but also often receives from students. "Music releases a lot, brings you into contact with others and also opens doors so to speak."

Just choose what YOU like!

I remember very well that around December, the songs I had to practise really contributed to the atmosphere of the holidays that were coming up at that time. I found and still find it great fun to learn a new song, but as a student you don't always realise that your music teacher carefully weighs up the options. In terms of instrument and level, for instance. "Sometimes it helps to switch to a completely different genre, so that someone regains the pleasure of playing an instrument," Annelies explains. "And taking a step back in difficulty if necessary." Her main task as a teacher, according to Annelies, is to ensure that people continue to enjoy making music. "Everyone comes in because they enjoy doing something with music," she says. Immediately, however, Annelies adds that there is a but to that: "I do think they have to learn something!" If that doesn't work out via a straight path, she will take a diversion to still achieve a good result.

Don't hesitate to tell her what you would like to play or learn to play. According to Annelies, it works the same way with the choice of an instrument. "Keyboards are suitable for young children and people who have difficulty moving their fingers. For them preferably no guitar or wind instruments, drums not yet either." From about seven or eight years old, Annelies says that as a child you should just follow your heart: "Don't think, my father/mother says this or that, but what you want yourself." Even drums don't have to make a huge racket, which will prevent arguments with the neighbours 😊 "Boys especially like that. Put them behind an electronic drum kit or let them practise on cushions or boards for now." Until after a year they know, "I really want this!" There are many more examples like this, which Annelies certainly does. "Sometimes they would like to play guitar, but then those little hands are still much too small." You used to have to learn notes first and then do recorder, before eventually ending up with the instrument of your choice. Annelies immediately admits, laughing, that as a young pupil she used to have no desire to do that either. "I started playing mandolin as a five-year-old girl," Annelies explains. She even joined a mandolin orchestra. "Back then you still had those iron strings and they cut my fingers."

And now making music?

In any case, Annelies' enthusiastic story has encouraged me even more to practise more often and to make sure I don't miss it so often. Annelies very much wants to show other music teachers that a lot is possible, often more than people initially think and know. "Just do it, adapt to someone's capabilities. Where there is a will, there is a way!" How much fun it is to play a musical instrument you simply have to experience for yourself, so definitely go and do that!

(Listening) tips

Sit back and enjoy these two pieces of music composed by Annelies:

  • Bolero:

  • Lightning:

See my earlier blog on braille to find out how to read sheet music.

Website of music school Annelies in Schiedam:

Website of her orchestra, the Rolantinos:

Monday, 12 December 2022