Early university admission for HSC music braille student

Leumeah High's Kiara Risnes is one of only two students to complete this year’s HSC exams in braille. Alyssa Terese reports.

A teacher with a student holding a cane and a certificate in front of a banner. A teacher with a student holding a cane and a certificate in front of a banner.
Image: Karen Christophers with Kiara Risnes at the NSW Minister’s and Secretary’s Awards for Excellence 2023.

Recognised by her peers and teachers as an “outstanding role model in the school and broader community”, western Sydney student Kiara Risnes has demonstrated an unwavering determination to succeed in her HSC studies, despite the challenge of being born blind.

Kiara’s passion for music, talent and hard work has paid off, being awarded early entry into a Bachelor of Arts, Major in Music at the University of NSW.

The eldest of 10 children, Kiara is a talented pianist and aspiring choral singer who started playing piano at age seven and was drawn to the instrument as its “easily played by feel”.

Throughout her schooling, Kiara has consistently achieved strong academic results, and in September 2023, was awarded an Excellence in Student Achievement at the NSW Minister’s and Secretary’s Awards for Excellence 2023 for “always demonstrating positive engagement, an incredible work ethic, commitment, and dedication to her academic pursuits”.

The aspiring music teacher and performer is one of only two NSW students to use braille to help complete their HSC studies and examinations in 2023.

‘It’s like learning a second language’

Kiara used both literary and music braille to complete her examinations, which she said came with its challenges.

“For most of my exams, I write on an electronic braille device, but that device doesn’t support music notation, so I had to use a manual device for the music part and then an electronic device for the rest of the exam,” she said.

“It all worked out in the end, but it was an interesting challenge.”

Kiara discovered music braille at age 10, but it was not until she attended the National Braille Music Camp in Mittagong at age 12 that she was able to start excelling in the code.

“Music braille is a very different code to the literary braille code,” Kiara said.

“The notes aren’t the same as what the letters would be in braille, so it’s like learning a second language.

“I’ve enjoyed learning to read braille music notation, and it was an essential part of being about to complete HSC Music 2.”

A very special teacher

In Year 7, Kiara met Leumeah High School music teacher, Karen Christophers, who could instantly see Kiara’s musical talent and potential.

Ms Christophers had not taught a sight-impaired student before, but quickly knew learning music braille was not just an option, but a necessity.

“I wanted to do the best for her to make her feel comfortable and ensure she could participate in the curriculum,” Ms Christophers said.

“It’s our job as teachers to make the curriculum accessible for all students – and Kiara is one of those lifelong learners who just loves to educate herself, so it has definitely made it easier to go that extra mile.”

The dedicated music teacher devoted her free time to learning the Music Braille Code; using manuals, attending braille camp with Kiara in 2019 and collaborating with specialist braille teachers and external supports to ensure Kiara could accesses the curriculum at the same level as sighted peers.

When Kiara started Year 11, Ms Christophers connected with a retired music and vision support teacher and music braille expert, Leanne Newham, to help with transcribing the music and required symphony.

“Music braille is very complicated and different to print music. The two concepts of print and braille music are completely different,” Ms Christophers said.

“It’s been a lot of work to research it all, but this will open up future opportunities for Kiara, so it’s important to invest in her now.

“Kiara loves music, has great listening skills, can easily reproduce things she hears, has good theory skills, and she’s got that ability to explain things to other people – the doors will open for her.”

Ms Christophers’ commitment is reflected in Kiara’s HSC success and aspiration to pursue her studies in music and she has no doubt the Handel, Mozart and Beethoven-loving student will go far in life.

For now, Kiara has her sights set on taking more singing lessons, seeing what the new year brings, and is very grateful to her music teacher of six years for helping to achieve her goals.

“It’s pretty amazing what Ms Christophers has done to support me, and I’m really grateful to her for going to the effort so that I could learn everything that I needed to,” Kiara said.

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