Dancing Dots
Where Music Meets Technology for the blind
Dancing Dots serves blind musicians and their educators through technology and training

Phoenixville News
October 25, 2002

by Kristen Smith

Phoenixville - 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 concert."

"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 Europe.

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 ksmith@phoenixvillenews.com

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Copyright 2002, 2005 Dancing Dots