October 25, 2002
by Kristen Smith
VALLEY FORGE - Bill McCann is in the business of opening
up windows of creativity for blind musicians worldwide.
A decade ago, McCann founded Dancing Dots, a company to
distribute his technology programs. McCann and software developer Albert Milani
created a program called GOODFEEL that turns sheet music into Braille for
blind musicians. The program functions in connection with various related
image scanning software.
McCann, who was born legally blind, is himself an accomplished
trumpetist and has been performing professionally since 1977.
McCann recognized there was a need for blind musicians
to have quick access to Braille music scores through his own frustrating experiences
with the process. Before Dancing Dots, blind musicians would be forced to
wait weeks to have their music transcribed by volunteers who can read both
Braille and music scores.
"To do it the old fashioned way you need someone who
can read music and manually transfer it into Braille," said McCann. "The
Associated Services for the Blind made shelves of music for me, but again,
they couldn't do it that quickly, it would take weeks. With our system, it
can be done the same day."
There are only a few dozen people in the country certified
by the Library of Congress as Braille music transcribers, according to McCann.
Before the GOODFEEL program, musicians would have to locate a transcriber,
many of whom are voluntary, mail music scores to them, and wait for the transcriber
to finish the project and mail it back. The turn-around time was up to six
weeks, said McCann, who added, "by that time, you might have missed the
"The beauty of what we do, is there are a lot more
people who read music and can use a computer than there are Braille readers,"
said McCann. "What's available for blind musicians is a very small percentage
of what's available for the sighted musician."
McCann's passion for music began when he received his first
trumpet on his ninth birthday. He later graduated cum laude from Philadelphia's
University of the Arts with a degree in trumpet performance with a jazz emphasis
and has been commissioned to write music for the Glassboro Jazz Festival,
a promotional video for Philadelphia's Associated Services for the Blind,
and the St. Lucy Day School.
Although music is critical to him, McCann soon realized
he would not be able to support himself on a musician's salary, so he attended
a University of Pennsylvania program designed to teach people with disabilities
how to program computers.
Although McCann is blind, there are programs specifically
made for non-sighted computer users. One program, called JAWS, uses sound
to inform the user what commands are being performed. Prior to founding Dancing
Dots in 1992, McCann spent ten years as a computer analyst for Sunoco.
"I knew that it was a good job, but it had nothing
to do with music which is what I love," said McCann. "I finally
saw a way to leave and start my own business."
While his software benefits blind people, his customer
base is mainly people who are not blind.
"Most of our customers are sighted educators who are
parents or teachers of the blind and their job is to create materials in Braille
for students or professionals," said McCann.
For example, Milani, who developed the software, can not
read Braille. The GOODFEEL program also works in reverse, allowing musicians
to create music and then have it inscribed into print scores for sighted people.
This allows teachers and employers, who do not read Braille, access to the
musician's finished product.
In addition to his GOODFEEL program, McCann and Milani
have recently created a multi-media presentation of a Braille music reading
book. The Music Touch program uses a speech assisted learning device (SAL)
that has a Braille touchscreen, to teach music novices how to read musical
compositions and create their own.
"It was originally intended to teach literary Braille
but our courseware is specifically to teach music," said McCann. "There
just aren't enough people who know Braille music so the student can work independently."
The student sings along to the Braille notes that correspond
with each musical syllable.
Although the market is small for this type of product,
McCann pitches his programs at various trade shows specifically intended for
technology for the disabled and through his Web site.
"Our sales have been increasing from day one but we
still compete for research grants from the U.S. Department of Education,"
said McCann. "Right now, sales alone would not support what we do, but
I think it will, I think we're getting closer."
Dancing Dots has received nine federal grants to date and
the software is utilized by educators and blind musicians nationwide and throughout
However, McCann admits that the biggest hurdle his company
faces is marketing the product because it is so specialized.
"We know there is a sizable piece of the potential
market that we haven't hit yet, although our market is small," said McCann.
"That's one of the reasons I've tried to be international."
Dealers in the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, and Sweden
currently distribute Dancing Dots programs.
For more information visit their Web site at www.dancingdots.com.
Kristin Smith can be reached at email@example.com
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