Chantelle Griffiths is sitting in front of a outdoor table
Chantelle Griffiths

An enthusiastic group of singers from all around New Zealand and Australia came together in Auckland for a very unique event earlier this year. Three days of making and sharing music together at the BLENNZ Homai Campus.

The Braille Music Retreat is held every two years and is organised by a group of musicians who regularly use braille music professionally or in the community, with support from the Blind Foundation and BLENNZ.

“We had sixteen blind and four sighted participants from all over New Zealand and Australia,” says Chantelle Griffiths, Braille Awareness Coordinator. “The retreat is unique as it’s one of the first of it’s kind to cater solely for adult musicians. Regular events and courses are held around the world to teach braille music and musicianship skills to children, but none that we know of specifically cater for adults who can already read braille music.”

Each participant was given two volumes of braille music beforehand to study and prepare for the three-day retreat. There were eleven pieces in total catering to many different genres and abilities, specially chosen by a committee of blind musicians.

“One of our aims was to get as many pieces as possible ready to record on the last day of the retreat,” says Chantelle. “We had Ese Aumalesulu—a musician and music producer with low vision—record the session at the end. That was intense, but well worth all the hard work.”

The retreat is held in honour of Lisette Wesseling, a talented New Zealand soprano and passionate advocate for music and braille who passed away in 2016. “Lisette’s memory lives on through the community she helped create around braille and music,” says Chantelle. “She shared her idea for a braille music event for adults with some close friends, and after years of planning, hard work and collaboration across the blindness community, this is the end result.”

For a choir largely made up of blind musicians, there’s nothing unusual about being able to sing perfectly in tune, in four-part harmony without guidance. But for the sighted participants and visitors, it was a bit of a culture shock. The choir directors were both blind, so there were no visual cues to follow. Instead, the choir relied on audible cues and careful listening to the other singers to get their timing right.

“One of the awesome things about being part of a blind choir is that we like to get creative with sound,” says Chantelle. “One of our choir directors wanted a cathedral-like sound, so we recorded two of our pieces in the pool area so our voices would soar with the echo of all the hard surfaces around us.”

Participants ranged in age and ability and came from all over New Zealand. “We were fortunate to have four people from Australia join us this year, and we also welcomed two recent high school graduates,” says Chantelle. “It’s a great chance to enjoy making music together, but it also provides valuable mentoring, networking and peer support for all participants.”

The Blind Foundation and BLENNZ were enthusiastic supporters, producing the braille music, providing accommodation and catering facilities, and support staff to help with logistics and setup. “It just goes to show what can be done if we all work together,” says Chantelle. “With a little bit of creativity, we can all work together to create unique opportunities for ourselves and the community around us.”

The next retreat will be held in January 2021, and some recordings from this year’s retreat will shortly be available to listen to.

If you’re interested in finding out more about learning braille, braille music or the next retreat, please call 0800 24 33 33 and we will be happy to talk with you.