Nige Hughes/Mark Lansom: Transcribing orchestral music for the blind

The response to our guest post from trombonist Nige Hughes has been quite overwhelming, so we thought it might be of interest to readers to offer you a window into exactly how it is done. There is also the hope that somewhere in the world, someone takes a clue from this example and finds a way to facilitate the chance to play the great orchestral repertoire for another gifted blind musician .

Below are a series of short mp3 files that were created for Nige to learn a short excerpt from Mahler’s 2nd Symphony which we played as part of the lecture on the first half of the concert last week. They were prepared by Mark Lansom, who explains how they work:

This is from the Mahler 2 excerpt we performed, which I thought was enough to send as it was a good, short example.

Speed is of the essence so I apologise for any out of tune playing – if it’s good enough to put across the message I generally don’t re-record. However, if it’s a wrong note I always will. I played the excerpt through on my violin, electronically putting down the octave notes below G. I just happened to have the violin out – I’d been teaching – usually I use the viola.

For the first 12 years (Nige has been blind since 1990, aged 20) we did everything by cassette tape and Royal Mail, but this system is much more useful in that I can re-record any few entries Nige needs and email across. I use a cheap Skype headphone mic which is set midway between my mouth and the viola, and the free recording program Audacity.

If you play the files Mahler2excerpt01.mp3 through to Mahler2excerpt06 back to back you will hear the whole excerpt uninterrupted. The other files beginning with X are the corresponding explanations. In this way if the files are ordered alphabetically you can play right through, and if you order them by date created you can hear part 1 followed by explanation etc.

I found it quite inspiring to listen to Mark’s explanations of the details of the text. One of the constant frustrations of orchestral life is the tendency of so many of our colleagues to simply skim the text and overlook countless details of articulation or dynamics. This simple system ensures that Nige knows what is on the page far better than many people who can’t be bothered to read extraneous bits of information like dynamics or tempo instructions.  I can attest from experience that Nige listens so well to what is going on that sometimes I would swear he could see me asking for more or less with my hands in concert. If only all sighted members of every orchestra were so responsive.

So- 13 mp3 files for a short excerpt from one piece. This process has been applied now to a huge repertory- one can explore the details of every concert Nige has played on on the excellent WSO website *. Imagine the time and effort that has gone into that project!

Here are the files:
















* The Wrexham Symphony Orchestra website is really interesting and impressive. The “Performers” section contains a database of everyone, orchestral musicians, conductors and soloists, who has ever played there. For each performer, you can search every concert they’ve done, what pieces they played and who was in the orchestra for that concert. I wish more orchestras would take their lead- too many orchestras don’t seem to want you to know what was on their concert last Thursday. How stupid! Part of our job is to protect a musical legacy for the communities. Orchestras should have as much of their archives available on their websites as possible. Some finally are, notably the NY Philharmonic. That said, I can’t think of any orchestra with a more complete and accurate database than the Wrexham Symphony. Who would have thunk it?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

1 comment on “Nige Hughes/Mark Lansom: Transcribing orchestral music for the blind”

  1. Mark Lansom

    Thanks Ken for publishing this and for your words on the website.

    I was wondering if any of your readership were also willing to help Nige with recording parts for him. It’s a rewarding thing to do but (and you’d need to know what you’re getting yourself into!) you’d get to know Nige who is an amazing guy – he was best man at my wedding – but quite a taskmaster and woe betide any who hand him late or incorrect recordings!

    On the off chance that anyone is still interested he needs the following Trombone 1 parts this year:
    Dvorak In Nature’s Realm
    Brahms 4
    Rachmaninov Isle of the Dead
    Arutunian Trumpet Concerto
    Prokofiev Cinderella Suite No. 1
    Dukas Sorcerer’s Apprentice

    Most parts are on IMSLP but if any trombonists are out there and happen to have accidentally photocopied the copyrighted ones and haven’t got around to destroying them yet please get in touch through Ken! (Is that OK Ken?)

    Cheers all


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