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Follow the Dancing Dots

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

"I work to make certain that who I am dictates what I do and never vice versa."So says Bill McCann, lifetime member of RFB&D and founder of Dancing Dots, an innovative company that develops and adapts assistive music technology for blind musicians around the world. It's safe to say that Bill McCann not only exemplifies RFB&D's mission; he's transmuted it into something profoundly new and original. McCann graduated cum laude from Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 1980, launched Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology L.P. in 1992, and is now based in Valley Forge, PA. I sat down with him last month at the Blinded Veterans Association Convention in Washington DC, where he was giving live (and loud) demonstrations of Dancing Dots' remarkable music software offerings. Doug Sprei Talk about your view on blind musicians and issues of opportunity or lack thereof.  I am a blind musician. I had very little sight until I was six years old and I lost that, so I grew up as a blind person. One reason I started the business was to give people opportunity, to try to get information into their hands in a way that is accessible. I am sure that is what RFB&D has been doing for a long time: getting information to people in a format that they can access, to give them a shot at independence. And that is what I wanted to do with music, to give people the information they need – because I was always waiting for the information. I would get a piece of print music and send it off to some wonderful transcriber, but at no time could I ever say, “I have to have this tomorrow.” What did you want the transcriber to do? They would put it into Braille music for me. Often they were volunteers working part-time, and sometimes I would get the music after the concert was over, so to speak. So what I wanted to do was put something together where I could get the information real quick. Today with our stuff you can scan a piece of music, listen to it and convert it into a Braille score in minutes. Braille and the new technology need not be in opposition. Audio is a complement to Braille. I take it that Braille holds a lot of meaning for you.  I spoke about music at a beautiful convention in Paris for the bicentennial of Louis Braille. It was exciting to be connected to Louis Braille in that way. Braille has literally saved people’s lives and I had never thought of it that way. I had always thought of it as just always being here. At the same time, Braille and the new technology need not be in opposition. Audio is a complement to Braille. You cannot always get everything in Braille, and sometimes you may want to read something and you may need it real fast and that is where audio is great. How much of a factor has digital technology been in germinating your business?  There is a convergence of assistive and mainstream technology that got us here, and timing is everything. If I had started this business in 1982 instead of 1992, it might not have lasted long, because the internet has brought us together and people who read Braille music are scattered about the globe – so we have been able to connect with people. Literally around the globe, it appears. At this point we have customers in 40 countries. One day I got an email from the Director of the School for the Blind in Mongolia, and she said “We want to get your software; we want to teach our kids Braille music.” She and her husband came to the U.S., we trained them and they bought the software. How would I ever have connected with somebody like that? A lot of things like this have come together. Do you consider yourself coming at it from a musical perspective, as a techno-software geek, or all of the above? I have influences in all of the above, but essentially, down deep I think I am still a musician. My Plan A was, “I will play my trumpet, you will throw money and we will all be happy.” Plan A did not quite work, but these days I see technology as a means to an end. So what was Plan B? After music school (and being poor), I went and studied programming, then worked ten years in Philadelphia for Sunoco, the oil company. I worked in the payroll department maintaining software for payroll and benefits. Our software could figure out how much to take out for your dental insurance. . .for someone who liked to be out on the stage, it was not a good job. No one ever called to report how beautiful the paycheck was; there was never any applause, and when you did hear from people, it was that “you took too much money, I want it back.” At least it gave you background in programming. That was how I got my feet wet – and it also enabled me to continue to play music part-time on weekends. I taught music, I played in bands, I would play in church, and I like to write and arrange music, but I could never figure out how I could make it pay enough that I could just do that. Then at some point you made the transition toward becoming an entrepreneur. The oil company was getting smaller; they were paying people to volunteer to leave. That gave me the luxury of spending six or seven months starting up. And here we are today, with Braille music software that also allows you to print the music out. And we have a new device for low-vision users to magnify the music up to ten times and scroll the music with a pedal while you play, so that you do not have to turn the page. It must be gratifying to have creative customers who are using your products to make music. People send me stacks of CDs, all styles, gospel, country, jazz, etc. We have some high-profile customers. The most famous was Ray Charles. He used some of our stuff right before he got ill and died. How about Stevie Wonder? Stevie really has enjoyed seeing our stuff but does not use it himself. He does have an appreciation for it and is very warm. I have spent time with him, showing him everything and he just enjoys the fact that it is there. But more than working with famous people, I really enjoy the kids and getting them to talk about success as a direction. It used to be that I sat beside the kid next to me, and faked along and tried to do what he did, and a lot of the times copied every mistake that he made. Now, I have the music score and can say, “No, you’re supposed to come in softly.” You go way back with RFB&D, back to the tape era. I started up in high school, in the early 1970s. I had the Sony TC105, and would listen to the open-reel tapes. RFB&D got me through English and History, and I even got some of my music textbooks when I went to a musical conservatory in Philadelphia. Of course, that was when you moved to cassettes. Fast forward to today, I just got my NLS book player and have to talk to someone at RFB&D about getting a key so I can download books. How do you think we influenced your career? It was the foundation to get me to the point where I could read and write. Later when I was starting my business, I had to write a funding proposal to get some start up money; I had to write a business plan, and RFB&D’s influence is all in there: it is all about getting access to information. In that respect, Dancing Dots and RFB&D seem to be on a parallel path. It is truly all about information. Giving people that gift and saying, “Here is the gift; you can use it, or put it under the table.” I want to give them tools so that they can have the option to learn and know the score. For people who want to compose, to enable them to play and type notes into the computer, print them out in Braille, give them to the clarinet player and say “Here is your piece.” In that way you go from a position of following to a place where you have information and can lead. You can say, “I do not always have to be the one who is wrong. I can actually teach people something. Maybe I can learn to cross the street by myself.” A success in one area builds to success in other areas and points you into a positive direction.

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Bill McCann's Dancing Dots technology is used in college and music school settings around the country -- as this video from Keene State College's Braille Music Project demonstrates.

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