TORRINGTON, Wyo. — From a plastered prison workroom, Luke Owens sits at a computer every weekday to give a gift that almost no one else can: the gift of allowing the sightless to learn and play music.
Owens, an inmate at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution, is one of only about 45 people in the nation certified to transcribe sheet music into Braille notation.
It’s a monotonous but complicated job: Every musical note, symbol and instruction in a musical piece has to be converted, line by line, into a series of raised dots, or Braille cells. In this way, a blind musician can read the music with his or her fingers, memorize it, then sing or play it.
A computer program assists with converting the music to Braille, but it’s up to specialists such as Owens to double and triple check each piece, note by note, for errors or possible improvements.
A warden in Texas introduced Owens to transcribing music into Braille in 2005. Since then, he’s transcribed music for everything from vocal pieces to a woodwind quintet.
Earlier this month, he was recognized by the music fraternity Sigma Alpha Iota for transcribing one of the fraternity’s songbooks into Braille — a challenging task, as it included music for a variety of instruments.
Talking with a couple of reporters on Thursday, Owens was visibly passionate about working as a music Braillist, though he seemed humble and a little embarrassed to be receiving public recognition for his work.
Owens, 49, has been in prison since 1984 and is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Transcribing music, he said, has helped him “get into a lot more positive frame of mind.”
“It’s one of those things that you just know you’re accomplishing something,” he said. “I can mop floors or sweep floors or do the laundry, and those are necessities, but you don’t really feel like you’re really going somewhere, you know what I mean?”
Owens certainly doesn’t do it for the money. To date, most of his projects have been volunteer work. His only compensation is the usual prison pay rate of less than $1 per hour.
Yet he’s at his computer transcribing five days a week, eight hours a day, along with nine other inmates who transcribe books and images into Braille.
“I think a lot of us wouldn’t take weekends if we didn’t have to,” he said.
Owens can read sheet music from playing the saxophone in junior high school. But, ironically, he can only sight-read Braille — he can’t make out words with his fingers alone. And he often never actually hears the music he’s transcribing.
Right now, he’s working on transcribing two songbooks, including an instructional piano book for young children. His goal, he said, is to transcribe Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos, which he said is currently available in Braille only for violin and in Dutch.
He’s done most of his work for Karen Gearrard, the Braille music adviser for the Library of Congress. Gearrard lauded Owens as “an ideal student” who will revise and re-revise a piece of music until it’s exactly correct.
“Luke is a very articulate, he asks excellent questions, he’s a very determined, persistent person,” she said. “He’s a perfectionist in his work, and he has a great heart for helping people.”
Owens’ work is especially important, Gearrard said, as many music transcriptionists are aging at the same time that the demand for Braille music books is growing.
“When we have younger, very capable ones like Luke, who are interested and qualified, then it’s a real blessing,” she said.
But, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Owens would be spending his time in Torrington on Braille music transcription.
Torrington Prison Warden Mike Murphy said he was initially skeptical that Braille transcription met the two requirements he has for any new “industry” at the prison: that there’s a demand for the product and that inmates can make a living off of their training in the real world once they’re released.
Now that he’s seen the program at work, though, Murphy said, those doubts are long gone.
“I was against it at first,” he said, “But I was so corrected.”
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at email@example.com or 307-632-1244.