Dr Valerie Capers: Composer and Pianist ( with contribution from Johns Robinson – Bassist)

Publish Date: 3 October 2014


Valerie Capers “Until my works are published they only exist in John’s handwriting.

I wrote ‘Portraits in Jazz’ a long time ago. The first time ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) selected my work for their piano grade syllabus they picked “Billie’s Song” from the collection. I was very inspired by Billie Holiday, I would say it took me around two weeks to have that melody composed and written down.

Generally, when I dictate a piano piece to John, it might take a week or two depending on how busy he is. I love to compose music but it’s very difficult for me. Now in this 21st Century they have a lot of computer programmes and things that are particularly created for the blind and the visually impaired. They are not as sophisticated as they should be at this point and there are many, many things, if we’re going to talk about writing large compositions, orchestral compositions, oral compositions, they are much more difficult to deal with than people would expect. And I’ve had people say well Stevie Wonder can do all this; well Stevie Wonder has millions and millions of dollars, and can come up with an idea for this or that or whatever, and I don’t know if Stevie Wonder himself would be able to write let’s say an orchestral piece. It’s just very, very, very, very complicated.

To get it into print – and unfortunately I’m not Mozart- what I do is I come up with the ideas and then I write them down in Braille music which is very cumbersome, extremely cumbersome. And then, after talking to John because he has a beautiful hand, he works and writes for me and we talk about how we can communicate, so I don’t have John sitting around while I write the music down and then give it to him, I will take time if I’m working on something ….. I’ll get up in the morning, work on the piece of music, write it all in braille and then I dictate the music on the cassette so that John can come in his own time, pick up the cassette and sit down and start writing.

He gave me some pointers to help him when he’s writing, for example, in Braille music the keyboard Middle C is called fourth octave C because it’s the fourth C on the keyboard and so any note from Middle C (which is below the lowest line on the treble clef) up to the B (the third line of the treble clef), they call it fourth octave C- that’s how you can get tones in Braille music, a register which is different from being able to know how high or how low a note is when you see it on a particular line space.

So John changed that a little bit to make it easier for him to pick up right away. He said “you know, we have the keyboard divided into certain sections like “Small”, (C Small, for example, is the second space of the bass clef and anything from the C to the B just below the middle C is called the Small area). Then you have the Grade section of the piano (so C grade would be from the second C on the piano up to the B which is the second line of the bass stave). Down at the bottom it’s called Contra (that’s the C from the low C at the very bottom up to the B below the C Grade which is below the two ledger lines below the bass).

Now that sounds awfully complicated and it is!

And John says we’ve got to find a way to make this easier. So when I’m talking to John and dictating to him I refer to the notes in the third octave range as C Small. For example if I want the clarinet to play a G below Middle C I wouldn’t say third octave G which, I’m comfortable with being a blind musician, I would say a “G Small”.

Every instrument has to be written individually. If I’m doing a piece for woodwinds, let’s say an alto saxophone, a tenor saxophone and a clarinet, let’s say together, this is what I have to do. I take the lower one first, I take the tenor, I say “here are the notes …., its first note is F Small” so I give John the notes maybe for the first phrase and I say, ”now I go back” and I give him the first note for the alto sax.

Then I give him notes for the clarinet, and remember you cannot see them all at once, you never can see a chord, you see that you go back and you have to remember…

When we were doing the “Ruby” for example, it was only us, measure by measure, because, in one an area there’s 64 bars of music that’s in the New Orleans polyphonic street band style. I said John ” This is going to be very tedious but let’s take it phrase by phrase … ” and I said “now, at the end of this 4 bar phrase, there were 3 instruments, a clarinet a trombone and a trumpet I said there are 2 instruments that have the same rhythm, let me know” … so he looks and says “yes the trombone has the same rhythm as the clarinet so I said “play the trombone part”.

He’s sitting there and I play it, and then I play more…

And then I make the decision as to which instrument I’m going to rhythmically change so because we had to maintain the polyphony, it was hard. You have to understand that anything that I dictate has to be dictated note by note by note.”

John Robinson “Well somebody saw my writing and he asked what computer I used and I said a straight ruler and a Pentel rolling writer! We have a mutual friend who’s a wonderful sight-reader and she plays through the material after I write it on the page so we can check it all.” (Valerie Capers with John Robinson 2014)


Dr. Valerie Capers was born in the Bronx and received her early schooling at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. She went on to obtain both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Juilliard School of Music. She served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, and from 1987 to 1995 was chair of the Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY), where she is now professor emeritus.

Her outstanding work as an educator has been lauded throughout the USA as being both innovative and impressive. Susquehanna University awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts in 1996, and Doane College (Crete, Nebraska) and Bloomfield (New Jersey) College (along with Wynton Marsalis) both awarded her honorary doctorates in 2004. Recent teaching and workshop venues include Doane College, Stanford University, the Cleveland (Ohio) public school system, St. Thomas (United States Virgin Islands) high schools, Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) and the Mozarteum conservatory, Salzburg, Austria.

Among the awards and commissions she has received are the National Endowment for the Arts, including a special-projects grant to present a jazz series at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Meet the Composer, the CUNY Research Foundation, the Smithsonian, and The Fund for Artists of Arts International.

Dr. Capers has appeared with her trio and ensemble at colleges, universities, jazz festivals, clubs and concert halls throughout the country, including a series at Weill Recital Hall and the 2001 Rendez-vous de l’Erdre in Nantes, France. Her trio’s performances at the International Grande Parade du Jazz Festival in Nice, France, the Martin Luther King Festival in Ottawa, Ontario, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague received rave reviews. The group has also participated in the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Mellon Jazz Festival (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and New York’s Kool, JVC and Downtown jazz festival.

Connect with Valerie Capers

See videos at the African American Composer Initiative website