Polly Chan's scores are a sight for sore eyes

By Melanie Leung

Volunteer didn't give up on her visually impaired students; she put her imagination to good use so they could see the music

By Melanie Leung |

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Polly Chan.

Nine-year-old Pui-yi was trying to play the piano. She squinted her eyes, and leaned forward until her nose almost touched the music score. Her shoulders were tense, her wrists stiff. Straining so hard to see the notes she was supposed to play, her eyes began to water.

Her teacher, Polly Chan, then a Form Three student, encouraged her to look more carefully. But three lessons later, Polly realised it was futile to ask her visually impaired students to read a normal music score. They weren't being careless; the notes and symbols were simply too close together for them to see properly.

She recalls: "They'd get frustrated, and I would feel awkward, and think, what can I do?"

When she was a Form Two student at St Paul's Co-educational College, Polly and her friends started volunteering at the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, tutoring the primary students there.

"Each time I would give them some homework, the next week they'd tell me they lost it. One day I found all the homework stuffed into the gap between the window and the wall," says Polly. "They have a tough time learning, and they're also quite cheeky; so you just have to be patient and come up with fun ways to teach them."

After a year of tutoring, Polly had an idea to bring more colour into their lives by sharing her love of music with them. She asked the school if she could start a choir for her students. But because it was logistically easier, they suggested that she teaches two nine-year-olds the piano instead.

Staring at Pui-yi's watering eyes, Polly knew she could not use normal music scores to teach her. She had to come up with her own material. "I didn't want to give up, because I knew about their circumstances. Their lives are boring and insecure. One of my students' parents are divorced, and another has a sibling with perfect vision," she says.

Before every lesson, Polly would take out coloured pens of every thickness and rulers to draw an enlarged version of the song she was going to teach. Her students gave her feedback, and after two years, Polly had developed more than 20 special music scores for visually impaired beginners.

They are three times bigger than normal scores, with special features such as highlighted sharps and flats, arrows to show a change in fingering on the same note, and boxes to group notes played simultaneously by one hand. "We had coloured pens all over the place during lessons, and I would make immediate changes to the score when my students suggested it. It made learning so much more fun for them, and I learned a lot as well," says Polly.

Last year, Polly went to study in Britain. But she didn't want to just abandon her students after three years of teaching, so she decided to publish a book of some of her special scores to help other visually impaired people.

"Braille music is hard to find, and it includes a very small percentage of the music available," says Polly. "Most Braille music is also quite complicated, and is not suitable for beginners."

With Braille music, a musician has to read with one hand while playing with the other, and switch hands until they have both parts memorised before practising playing with both hands together. They also need to be taught by specially qualified teachers who know Braille music. With Polly's scores, visually impaired musicians do not have to resort to memorisation, and they can be taught by sighted teachers.

Her idea was supported by Barrier Free Access, a group that helps visually impaired people live more independently. They agreed to fund the project.

Polly included three different kinds of scores in her book: her enlarged score for the visually impaired; Braille music; and the traditional printed score. In the book, Music Through My Spectacle, she also offers teaching tips, such as giving students 3D stickers as rewards.

The book took months of writing, tiresome editing, Braille translation, and testing. "There were a tonne of problems. It took us ages to even find the right paper, because we were printing Braille and normal text at the same time. It had to be thick enough so we could print on both sides and not affect the quality of the Braille," says Polly. "We settled for a binder format with pull-out pages, because the paper was so heavy and the larger music score took up a lot of space. Then we had to switch publishers because the first one couldn't print Braille well enough."

With the help of her mother, who communicated with the publisher while Polly was studying abroad, 500 copies of the book were finally published last month, with all profits going to Barrier Free Access.

Now 19, Polly hopes to study psychology at university next year. "Blind people have a very focused sense of hearing. It'd be interesting to learn about how they perceive music emotionally," she says. "Perhaps I can write a more scientific book about that based on my insights!"