Yeaji Kim’s New Musical Language

Yeaji Kim and Professor Todd Welbourne at a piano.
Yeaji Kim and Professor Todd Welbourne at a piano.
By Daniel McKay

Yeaji Kim sits at a grand piano in Professor Todd Welbourne’s office, her fingers performing a flurry of difficult musical passages that she has likely rehearsed thousands of times before.

Directly in front of her sits a spiral-bound book of braille sheet music. Each page is covered with three-dimensional bumps that translate the language of traditional music notation into one for the visually impaired.

“Don’t take a picture,” Kim laughs. “I don’t want people to think I’m sightreading.”

Of course, she cannot be sightreading; she has been blind since birth. While she has lacked all sight all her life, she only lacked music for the first five years. Without the aid of sight, Kim’s musical path to being a doctoral piano student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been more difficult than others’, something she hopes to change through her dissertation project.

As a blind child, Kim lacked opportunities to play with other children. Her disability set her apart, but Kim said she instead found comfort in her toy keyboard, a gift for good behavior from her mother.

“I didn’t spend much time playing with friends, so I’d almost spend the whole day playing it. It was a kind of friend, but at the same time a toy,” Kim said.

Kim spent the better part of her younger years sitting at a piano. Because music education for the blind is lacking in Korea, she was forced to start learning songs by ear, hearing the notes in her head and translating them to the instrument without any visual reference, such as sheet music.

By age 7, Kim had her own piano and a real teacher, and only a year later, she took a huge step in her music education when she learned braille upon attending a Korean school for the blind.

Braille is a code system for translating written language into a series of bumps so that the visually impaired may read without sight. Louis Braille invented the language in 1824, and even included a code method for translating musical scores into braille.

With the aid of braille, Kim was able to be more precise and specific with the timing and performance of pieces.

Professor Welbourne said braille literacy is crucial to any serious musician with a visual impairment. According to the National Federation of the Blind, however, braille is not being taught as much as it should.

“Blind pianists in the classical world need braille to succeed. They don’t get very far learning things by ear,” Welbourne said.

According to statistics assembled by the NFB, less than 10 percent of the legally blind students in the U.S. are learning braille, creating what the NFB calls a “literacy crisis.” In a country like South Korea, where resources for the blind are lacking, Kim’s braille literacy became a great asset to her talent.

Yeaji's braille music

A sample of Yeaji Kim’s braille music.

Kim commented on this literacy crisis when she wrote to congratulate the launch of a website for the Music Rehabilitation Center for the Blind.

“Music literacy should be regarded as important as general literacy. Although none of us must be denied personal access to information and the freedom of choice, unfortunately, not all students have the opportunity to access the musical medium,” Kim wrote.

The importance of braille literacy drove Kim to pursue music education as a career. Kim enrolled in the University of Seoul, where she graduated in four years with a bachelor’s degree in music education. Kim said her successes here did not go unnoticed, and she became a popular media figure because of her disability and talent.

“I was kind of a feature to the media,” Kim said. “They really liked me, there was no one before me.”

Following her bachelor’s degree, Kim got a Master’s in Music Education in Seoul and began working at a school for the blind. At the urging of a university professor, she decided to apply to schools in the U.S., eventually leading to the Peabody Institute of Music and now Madison.

Kim was drawn to UW-Madison for its unique, versatile Doctorate of Piano Performance and Pedagogy degree, usually two separate studies at other universities. UW-Madison has had very few blind music students, but Welbourne said he was excited about what someone like Kim could do for blind music education.

“We talked a little bit with Yeaji and also amongst ourselves about what she could do as a performance and pedagogy student, in terms of developing materials for young, visually impaired students, and we thought, ‘this could be a very important contribution,’” Welbourne said.

Although Kim uses braille now for her music, Welbourne said there are some important facets of the music that don’t translate well onto bumps on a page, such as timing, piano pedal markings and other performance notation. Kim’s new goal is finding a way to fix these problems.

“We wondered if there was any way around that. How could we make a kind of musical score that would be readable by both blind and sighted people?” Welbourne said.

Kim’s new musical language is the basis for her doctoral dissertation project, a requirement for graduation but also an innovative endeavor that could change the way blind children learn music.

Welbourne said he thinks Kim will get several publications out of her universal system. She will be testing it out in an upcoming workshop, using participants to attempt to read the music regardless of visual abilities.

If successful, Kim’s system could help to reshape education for the visually impaired by providing a bridge for sighted teachers and blind students, allowing them to use the same materials and increase the efficiency of the learning process.

As she looks ahead to graduation in May, Kim is finishing up her project and concluding her series of lecture recitals and workshops. After her time in Madison, she imagines she’ll head home to South Korea and continue working and teaching. For all her efforts, Kim’s work is establishing her as a new leader in music education, one that Welbourne hopes can be a guiding light for blind musicians to come.