Light Bulb Moments: Inspiration, Innovation and Invention – Lydia Machell, Director of Prima Vista Braille Music Services Limited, 18th February 2009
“Prima Vista” literally means “first sight”. It’s also a musical term for the skill of performing music straight off the printed page without having seen it before. Lydia established Prima Vista Braille Music Services Limited in Leeds in 2008 to bring “first sight” to blind music-makers around the world. Lydia spent the previous seven years developing a system, including software and hardware designs, that will make the mass production of braille sheet music possible at last. Patents are pending for the system in Europe and in the United States and Prima Vista’s e-commerce website, selling downloadable braille scores, will launch later this year at http://www.primavistamusic.com/.
Lydia was here to tell us about the creation of the Prima Vista system but began by taking a look at the history of a number of famous inventions: the brains behind them, the flukes along the way and the nature of the inventor’s mind which, she said, “could be a pretty surreal place. They have light bulb moments because they make connections other people fail to see. But as well as having a knack for lateral thinking, they have to have a single-mindedness that will allow them to pursue a problem, often for years.”
The story behind Lydia’s own light bulb moment started with the publication of a small collection of ringtone formulas called “Ringtone Mania” in 2001, and, after what we now saw as the twists and turns of fate required in any invention story, arrived at the development of a website selling braille music created using the Prima Vista system.
Lydia worked in music publishing for about 15 years and in that time the industry was revolutionised. The development of score-writing software such as Finale and Sibelius has made it easier to prepare scores for printing, much as word-processors were faster and more flexible than typewriters for the production of text documents. At first, the digital scores created by these applications were seen as just a step in the print-production process, a replacement for camera-ready artwork and a by-product with no intrinsic value. But music publishers now recognise the true worth of these digital files, particularly in their flexibility. A digital file can be listened to. A file of one score can form the basis of a new publication for a different instrument, or in a different key, or in a new arrangement. And a digital file can be downloaded, opening up an entirely new delivery route to market.
But the revolution in music publishing has for the most part bypassed blind musicians. With printed music now more easily available than ever before, are blind music-makers benefitting? The answer, sadly, is “no”. Braille music is still mainly created by individual transcribers who manually copy a printed score into braille using a braille typewriter. This is a 6-keyed device that uses different key combinations to produce all the variations of the 6-dot braille cell. Transcriptions are usually done on an individual order basis, often with no guaranteed turnaround time. There are two commercially-available braille music applications on the market but neither works directly with publishers’ digital files and the culture is still one of “transcription at destination”.
Lydia spent a lot of time since her light bulb moment researching braille music, attending conferences, speaking to blind musicians and learning from braille music specialists. The overall picture is one of frustration. She realised that by using the digital score as her starting point, mass production of braille music could be possible at last. With “transcription at source” becoming the norm, one day a new braille score will appear on the market every time a new print score is published.
Making her designs work is one thing, but this wasn’t going to be much use unless she could also put together a commercial model that was going to work. A great deal of her energy in the past 12 months has gone into negotiating contracts with publishers. With the music industry as a whole beset by copyright infringement, Lydia needed to show that she understood and respected publishers’ rights.
She hopes to provide blind musicians with the same range of choice available to sighted musicians. This will be done through Prima Vista’s e-commerce website, to be launched later this year. Designed to be fully accessible to blind users with screen-readers, the site is the first of its kind and will enable blind users to browse by ear for the music they want. With a varied range of scores for all musical tastes, the site will offer customers the option to buy braille downloads or to order an embossed score for postal delivery.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People endorses Prima Vista as one of only 3 recognised braille music transcription services in the UK. Central to Prima Vista’s approach has been the development of a licensing agreement which Lydia hopes will set the standard for this new market. Publishers are granting Prima Vista access to their copyright files in return for a royalty payment on sales. Printed publications available in braille are identified by the Prima Vista “Sightmark” logo. Not only does this show that a braille edition is available, but it shows the publisher’s commitment to accessibility and is likely to be a powerful incentive for other publishers to join the scheme.
Making printed music accessible to blind musicians is only half the story. What about blind musicians who want to compose in braille and share their work with sighted musicians? As well as its print-to-braille software, the Prima Vista Braille Music System has developed an application that addresses the needs of blind composers with braille-to-print software, ensuring that accessibility is a two-way street. Both software components come together to drive the Braille Music Workstation. This is a prototype electronic keyoard incorporating a braille display, and completes the Prima Vista braille music system. Prima Vista has patents pending for the system in both the US and in Europe.
Prima Vista Braille Music Services Limited
Leeds LS1 2TW
tel. +44 (0) 113 2626483