Zoe's story

Studying music at university

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Zoe, who is in her second year as a choral scholar at Worcester College, Oxford, her mother Aileen and her composition tutor Robert.

  • Background

    Zoe is having her first tutorial with Robert at the start of term. During the summer vacation, she has been working on a new sacred choral composition using a proprietary music software package that she accesses through a screen reader.

  • Aim

    The aim of this video is to show how blindness need be no impediment to the study of music at a high level at university.

  • What does the film cover?

    Illustrating the positive impact that music can have on the lives of children and young people who are visually impaired

    Music has shaped Zoe’s life. As she says, it is something that, from an early age, she has been able to do well. It has helped to shape her identity, both in her own view and in the minds of her sighted peers. Through music, she has been able to express herself, and share her creativity with others. When she was only 14, for example, she won the Britten Young Songwriter Competition with her atmospheric Orford Lighthouse, which was recorded live at the Aldeburgh Festival. Subsequently, three of her choral works won national competitions. Beyond this, music has offered Zoe a route into higher education at a prestigious university. The Amber Trust has been pleased to be able to support her at various points in her musical journey, initially contributing towards the cost of a harp and then supporting her at the Junior Birmingham Conservatoire and providing funding to enable her to attend the Handel & Hendrix House Composition Summer School in London in partnership with the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

    Teachers should look beyond a child’s disability and see their potential

    As Zoe’s mother recalls, over the years, some teachers have not wanted to work with Zoe purely on account of her visual impairment. Yet she is highly musically able and is a worthy student of her esteemed Professor of Composition at Oxford University, Robert Saxton. Clearly, there is more to be done to remove the barriers that visually impaired children still face in accessing music provision, which invariably arise through ignorance or anxiety. It is hoped that these resources, being made available by The Amber Trust through the Sound Touch initiative, will help to change attitudes when music teachers witness for themselves just what is possible for pupils and students who are blind.

    Assistive software is available to make standard music programs accessible to blind people

    In the video, we see Zoe using the Sibelius scorewriter program, which she accesses using the screenreader JAWS. Since listening to text is slower than reading it, JAWS has the facility to speed up the speech it produces, which is how Zoe uses it. Other programs are available too, and the question of which to use often comes down to issues of compatibility. As Zoe remarks, at the time of filming, JAWS could not be used with the most recent version of Sibelius.