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Sure touch of success

Sarah Farley hears how the challenge of teaching a blind child the piano led to the design of an innovative musical notation kit

Denise Shaw, an independent music teacher from Louth, Lincolnshire, is fully aware of the problems children encounter while learning to play a musical instrument. She herself plays piano, organ, keyboard and various wind instruments and has been teaching pupils for more than 10 years.

The challenge for Denise came when she was asked to teach seven-year-old David to play the piano, a turning point in her life that has led to the development of a new and successful aid for teaching music theory and the start of an award-winning small business.

"David is completely blind and I had no experience whatsoever of anything to do with blind people, let alone teaching them to play the piano," says Denise. "But he and his parents were very keen to try, and I soon realised that he had ability as well as a good sense of rhythm, so I agreed to have a go."

Initially, Denise simply placed David's hands on the keyboard and showed him how to press the keys to produce notes. She taught him to feel his way around by finding the flat and "sticky-up" notes, and recognising the spacing between the different notes.

"David was very quick to pick up where each note was to be found and could remember how to play pieces of music," says Denise. "I would sing the music to him and he could identify which notes he should play. Unfortunately, I started to lose my voice, so I went for singing lessons myself to learn how not to strain my voice."

When it came to teaching David musical theory, Denise decided the best method was to produce some physical notes in the shape of crotchets, quavers, minims and semibreves to place on a large format stave, with the lines of the stave raised so they can be easily located and the notes positioned.

After several trials with different materials, she concluded that chunky wooden pieces, painted in high-quality black paint and varnish are the most successful. "One set of pieces had holes through the notes for white notes, but I found children were simply putting them on their fingers and whirling them round," she says. "While I'm all for children having fun, it ruined their concentration on the music, so I had indentations put in the notes instead of holes."

David responded well to Denise's idea, finding he soon recognised the shape and value of the notes and could position them easily on the large, primary colour stave, using the pieces shaped as bar lines, rests, key signature and time signature to compose or work on musical theory. When he had completed the arrangement of pieces, a helper transferred the notes to manuscript for future use.

In showing the kit, which Denise called "A Feeling for Music", to teachers in local schools, she was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and began to have the kits produced locally. With the help of Business Link and Lincolnshire TEC, she set up Shaw Designs.

Galt Education and Hope Education expressed an interest and after seeing the kit have included it in their latest teaching aids catalogues. The Eastern Shires Purchasing organisation, is also selling the kit. Denise's achievement culminated in her winning the 1995 Innovation Award from Lincoln Enterprise Agency.

Sally Zimmermann, music education adviser for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, is interested in the idea. "As more visually impaired children are joining mainstream schools for their education, it is becoming increasingly important for them to learn about musical notation, an area they will probably not have had to address before."

At Marshchapel County Primary School, near Grimsby, headteacher Alan Whitfield uses "A Feeling for Music" with small groups of junior pupils. "It has brought a tactile aspect to teaching music which is appreciated by all the children, " he says.

The kit is used for the initial composing and then the notation transferred to a computer using the Notate program, which puts it on the screen. The composition is recorded on disc and replayed through the Midi music system.

"I find the kit promotes the children's interest," he says. "They are not forever writing and scrapping bits of paper. It is quicker, but more important, the tactile quality somehow gives them a greater feel for music - the notes seem to stay in their minds more easily."

* Denise Shaw, Shaw Designs,23 Carlton Park, Manby, Louth,Lincs LN11 8UQ. Tel: 01507 327426.Stand L30

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