A new phonetic system is available for students who read braille. Designated symbols, mutually accessible by the sighted and the blind, represent the singing sounds of six languages.

This new system facilitates the exchange of phonetic material between teachers and students. Educational resources transcribed according to the system help aspiring classical singers with blindness discover accurate pronunciation of art songs and arias.

I am a member of the voice faculty at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. In 2015, a Vanderbilt voice student signed up for my lyric diction course but was unable to participate in the classroom due to a lack of resources. I created a new phonetic alphabet, converted existing texts, and helped him complete the course as an independent study. It worked well for him, so I continued to develop additional resources for singers who read braille.

Until now, lyric diction resources for the blind were nonexistent. The official sighted and braille phonetic systems were not designed to indicate singing formations. They were intended to represent the spoken pronunciation of multiple languages. My new phonetic system is equally accessible by both the sighted and the blind and restricted to languages primarily set by classical composers.

The added benefit of developing a shared phonetic system is that it supports an inclusive learning environment. Educational materials transcribed according to the system make it possible for students with blindness to learn alongside their sighted peers. Voice students from Stetson University and Texas A&M University were able to participate in the classroom using textbooks transcribed according to the system. The system and accompanying resources have been tested by Steve Norman, Braille Instructor at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center.

Without phonetics, singers must replicate the sounds of foreign languages based on listening. An auditory approach to diction is a time-consuming process that does not insure proper formation or accurate pronunciation. Phonetic literacy can be heard. Each symbol represents a specific sound that can be identified, defined, and compared with sounds in other languages.

My new system has multiple uses. It will increase braille literacy, provide access to phonetics for blind children learning to read, and assist speech therapists who work with blind patients. If adequately promoted, the system would radically change the way individuals with total blindness or visual impairments are taught.

Three instructional e-books are available: “Singer’s Diction for Braille Readers,” “Phonetic Readings Braille Version,” and “The Singer’s Practice Journal for Braille Readers.” They are designed for students who have a refreshable braille display (see figure above). Links to the e-books, a spiral bound format for instructors, and additional resources are available on the instructor’s page at www.stmpublishers.com.

An article detailing the successful testing of the new phonetic system will be published by the National Association of Teachers of Singing in the Nov./Dec. 2020 issue of the Journal of Singing.