Developments in Sibelius Give Blind and Visually Impaired Musicians More Tools to Craft Their Scores

By in Music Creation

It has taken me decades to be able to say that I’m a composer. When I was young, I used to say that I was a pianist, then a jazz pianist, then a songwriter. I only settled on considering myself a composer a few short years ago. The thing that made it possible for me to make that conscious professional choice was the development of music notation software that could be used by a composer with a serious visual disability. That software was Sibelius.

The path to developing Sibelius as a resource for me and the blind and visually impaired community has been a work in progress since Sibelius made its appearance in the music industry. However, over the years, improvements to the software have been promising, especially recently. With the newest release of Sibelius, version 7.5.1, it better supports blind and visually impaired musicians with the ability to use screen readers like NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) on Windows.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of a screen reader, its purpose is to read the contents of the screen to a blind or visually impaired user. There are several packages commercially available. The best known of these is called JAWS (Jobb Access With Speech).

 

Developing Sibelius for the Blind and Visually Impaired Community

Right from the start, Sibelius users, visually impaired or not, have been encouraged to use the computer keyboard as a primary method for working on their scores. The early documentation stressed that most functions could be performed without using the mouse at all. For this reason, the idea of making Sibelius accessible for blind and visually impaired users began to take hold.

David Pinto, who is both an accomplished musician and JAWS scripter, began development of a set of Jaws scripts called “Sibelius Speaking.” They were designed to work with Sibelius 3, and were sold by Dancing Dots, a company specializing in accessible solutions for visually impaired musicians, many of whom were quite successful using Sibelius both in educational and professional settings.

The thing that made it possible for me to make that conscious professional choice was the development of music notation software that could be used by a composer with a serious visual disability. 

While Sibelius Speaking did open a lot of doors, it had its problems. It relied heavily on recognizing the graphics on the screen. This meant that everything had to be set up in a very specific configuration, and at that time, different video cards would often yield unsatisfactory results, leading to a good deal of frustration.

When Sibelius 5.25 was released, another programmer, Dan Rugman, who happened to be visually impaired and was also an expert JAWS scripter, developed a new set of scripts for this version of Sibelius. Unlike Sibelius Speaking, this set of scripts made extensive use of Sibelius’s manuscript language, which enables the creation of plug-ins that can perform a wide variety of functions. Since these scripts did not rely on the graphical user interface at all, they were much more robust than Sibelius Speaking in many ways. However, since Dan had committed himself to offering these scripts as freeware to the visually impaired community, he was unable to devote the time needed to continue development as newer releases of Sibelius became available. Although, he did develop a script set for Sibelius 6.20, it never made it past Beta.

While Sibelius 7 was being developed, Stephen Penny, who at that time was working for Avid and involved with the building of Sibelius 7, became curious about the idea of accessibility to Sibelius for blind and visually impaired musicians. In his spare time, he began working on the foundation of what is now the current Sibelius access module. He openly admitted that this was in no way as comprehensive as the work that Dan had done for Sibelius 5, but Stephen’s access module had the distinct advantage of not being limited to one specific screen reader. Because it was a native part of the Sibelius program itself, Stephen felt it should be possible to make it work with any screen reader including NVDA, which reads everything you mouse-over or select on your computer.

Me with my fans at a recent Taipei concert at the Taiwan International Convention Center.

Me with my fans at a recent Taipei concert at the Taiwan International Convention Center.

By this time, Sibelius 7.5 was being launched but was not compatible with the open source screen reader, NVDA. Thankfully, Avid was eager to fix this. I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Butler, Michael Ost and Dimitri Vandellos of the Avid Sibelius team at the NAMM Show 2014 and shared my workflows with them. Over the next few months, the team worked with me, Gordon Kent, beta tester and Sibelius user, and Sibelius plug-in guru Bob Zawalich to come up with a list of improvements that would allow us to use Sibelius with NVDA.

The finished product—Sibelius 7.5.1 with NVDA access. While this latest solution has not yet reached the level of accessibility that was achieved by Dan Rugman’s plug-in based solution for Sibelius 6.20, the fact that a solution has been created by the Sibelius development team itself, involving an essentially free screen reader for Windows, means that, over the long term, the blind and visually impaired community can look forward to a support environment. It will be far less vulnerable to the sort of problems faced previously where a change in either Windows, Sibelius or JAWS would cause the metaphorical three-legged stool to collapse until the development cycles of three unrelated products came back into sync.

The long-term goal is to create an environment in which blind and visually impaired users can use Sibelius to its full effect.

Moving Forward

Presently, development to make every feature accessible to the blind and visually impaired community is being undertaken by Avid in conjunction with experienced visually impaired Sibelius users to ensure a practical fully featured working environment. This effort is the most comprehensive of its kind between a major developer of notation software and the blind community.

We are confident that future versions of Sibelius will continue to reflect this ongoing effort. The long-term goal is to create an environment in which blind and visually impaired users can use Sibelius to its full effect.

Sibelius Resources

To learn more about the work we’ve done with Avid to improve accessibility of Sibelius for blind and visually impaired musicians, read our Sibelius Accessibility for the Visually Impaired User guide.

Review documentation and download the VIP.zip file available from the Sibelius website. It contains a custom feature set containing a comprehensive set of keyboard shortcuts specifically designed to aid blind and visually impaired users and a folder called VIP plug-ins which contains six useful plug-ins specifically developed by Bob Zawalich.

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I am a legally blind composer/pianist with extensive recording, film and TV credits under the pseudonym, Kevin Kern. I have six Billboard charting CDs and four songbooks of piano arrangements of my original compositions, all done in Sibelius. In addition to my Kern catalog, my scores have been played by The Dallas Wind Symphony and the Minnesota-based contemporary ensemble, Zeitgeist. My original jazz compositions have been recorded by the late Sir George Shearing and vocalist, Meredith d’Ambrosio. For more information, go to KevinKern.com.