John H. Luttenberger III


A few years after joining Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, I started thinking about how great it would be if we could provide our program booklets in Braille for the blind and visually impaired audience members who were coming to our concerts, and, with Mendelssohn Club's blessing, I began producing a Braille edition of our printed programs.

Braille readers do not get just a redacted subset of what the sighted audience members get; on the contrary they receive everything in the print booklet–except the paid advertising, which is highly graphical. For example, the Braille edition of our recent "Northern Lights & Mystical Masterpieces" program booklet ran to 105 pages.

The steps to transform the printed text into Braille for embossing are all done on a PC, using software called the Duxbury Braille Translator, or DBT, a program which can translate print text into the Braille codes for many countries–in this case, into the English Braille code for the United States.

About two weeks before each concert, I contact Michael Moore, program notes editor for Mendelssohn Club. He begins to send sections of the program booklet as they are finalized, each in its own Microsoft Word document file, along with a list of their order in the program booklet. Most sections arrive about a week before the performance. This starts a period of sustained work for me to get the Braille program prepared and embossed on time.

For each program section in turn, I first load its Microsoft Word document file into DBT, where it appears in the Duxbury print editor, along with HTML-like style tags which DBT supplies as its best guess at how it thinks the final Braille document should be formatted on the page.

Next, using my screen reading software, the computer reads the entire file aloud, and I correct any style tags or add "codes" to improve the formatting, and also add "codes" to tell DBT when situations arise requiring different Braille translation rules–for example, for any text in a foreign language (like the name of a work, or the text for a piece), or for e-mail and Web addresses. Some print formatting, like the name of a work on the left and the composer's name on the right, doesn't work at all in Braille, as there is a character limit per line, and must be completely rearranged. All of this takes considerable time, but ensures a professional-looking product.

After all program sections have been reviewed and edited, I assemble a final DBT "print file" from all of the sections which Michael supplied, along with sections from the previous concert's program which have not changed (e.g., Artistic Director Alan Harler's bio, orPressing CONTROL-T translates the file into Braille, and shows the Braille and its formatting on the screen. I now do a brief spot check of key locations in the "Braille file" to see that my formatting changes did what I expected and fix any that didn't.

The final additions to the "Braille file" include the generation of a Table of Contents and of page cross-references for the text of each work (to aid in navigating through this large book), a required page reminding the reader of symbols in the book which are recent additions to the Braille code, and any needed Transcriber's Note(s).

It's now the day before the concert, and the final step is to use DBT to copy the final "Braille file" to a Braille embosser, making the number of copies which have been requested.

To fulfill the need while avoiding waste, Mendelssohn Club asks Braille reading concertgoers to request their Braille programs in advance–which they usually do when purchasing their tickets through our new ticketing system. We then produce the number of Braille programs requested, plus one or two extra for walk-ins.

Producing these Braille programs for our concerts is a labor of love for me, and I'm extremely proud that Mendelssohn Club is one of the very few but increasing number of performing arts organizations that are enhancing the experience of blind and visually-impaired audience members in this way.

*Originally published in Mendelssohn Club eNews.


Legally blind since birth, John Luttenberger has been a tenor in Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia for over twenty years. Along with his brailling work, community involvements include a blindness organization and his high school Alumni Association. An avid Anglophile, John enjoys good music, good food, good friends, and good puns.