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A Community Music School for Blind and Visually Impaired Students, Part 2

Continued from last week.

Part 2

My second day at the school, which was a Saturday, was spent observing private lessons and group classes. Saturday at the school is mostly reserved for the youth programs. I was eager to attend as many lessons as possible and what I saw was fascinating and memorable.

A young student using large print music. Photo courtesy of  Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School

I attended a piano lesson of a young boy who is visually impaired. The student used large print piano music that was extended with a swan neck clip very close to his face. However, he had memorized his music and did not need to look at it. The student was working on mastering the correct physical movement that would not only facilitate fluency of the hand crossing but help to produce the appropriate tone for the piece. Having taught piano myself for 30 years, I could sense that the instruction was high caliber, with the student learning important new skills in a relaxed atmosphere.

Next, I attended a dance class for the younger children. The music school partners with the National Dance Institute, which teaches more than 6,000 students throughout the city with a belief that art motivates young people to strive for excellence.

Each of the students was paired up with a volunteer intern from the National Dance Institute who danced with them side by side.  As a former ballet studio pianist, I was struck by the earnest attitude of the students and how well they followed verbal instructions. When the class was learning to make a circle with their bodies, I heard an intern say, “Luke, just follow my voice” as he made a big circle while gently talking to his young charge. Luke made his own circle, bending his knees without being instructed and standing up erect at the end. Everyone in the room was completely engaged and worked hard for the duration of the class. At the conclusion of the class, the students were able to string together 5-6 movements they learned into a dance that was wonderful to witness. I became emotional watching the students and their attentive interns work together; the interns were young and this is how they chose to spend their Saturday mornings. The children were totally engrossed in dancing and did not seem a bit inhibited by their lack of vision, and their movements were strong, beautiful and graceful.

The next class I stopped at was choir, which was preparing a few fun songs for their Halloween concert. Since the school has the capability to produce any music they need, they don’t have to restrict their repertoire to the songs that are already available in braille or large print. That gives these students a huge advantage over their peers in most public school systems, who may never experience getting their parts in an accessible format. The singers at the D’Agostino Greenberg School are able to learn their songs by reading the music instead of relying solely on listening and memorization.

One of the highlights of my visit was meeting our library patrons. Pictured with me here is a long time Music Section patron who takes music lessons at the school.

I also chatted with a violin teacher who currently teaches both blind and visually impaired students. One of her students gets the majority of her violin books through NLS and the teacher was thankful for our service. I was told that this student is the Concert Mistress of her school orchestra. How cool is that!

The violin teacher explained how she uses light colored tape to cover the area near the bridge of the violin so students with visual impairment can see where their bow has to travel. For these students, she also uses bright colored fingerboard tapes that are highly visible to mark where the fingers go. She uses audio recordings to help blind students learn; she records herself singing the fingering and bowing so beginning-level student can practice with the recordings at home.

At lunch time, I went to the deli on the same floor as the school. The eating area was crowded with students talking and laughing at two large tables and parents at another table busily catching up with each other. Most of these families have known each other for a long time, and every Saturday they bring their children as far away from central Pennsylvania and Princeton, New Jersey, for lessons and group classes.

Right after lunch was a workshop in improvisation that was led by Matthew Whitaker, who is an 18-year-old jazz pianist who concertizes all over the world. I recognized him as one of the students in the lunch room. Matthew started attending the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the age of five and still comes to the school for an assistive music technology class. Matthew performed with a saxophonist and they explained how they improvise. They both played wonderfully and Matthew dazzled the audience with his excellent musicianship and technique. A theory teacher challenged Matthew to improvise on a classical tune and someone yelled out “Für Elise.” Matthew looked pensive for a moment but put his hands on the keys and started playing. Suddenly, he broke into a big grin as he found his groove and started ripping through the keyboard. At the end, his friends went up to the piano to give him a congratulatory hug. This workshop brought me a sense of serendipity I was not expecting and it was wonderful.

Sitting on the bus for the long ride home, looking at my notes and reflecting on my visit, a couple of proverbs came to my mind: it takes a village to raise a child – the parents for whom the time and distance are no obstacles in providing their children with strong music education, the dedicated teachers for whom teaching is a mission, not just a job, and the young interns who want to share the beauty and joy of dancing with these young kids. The other proverb is give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. This school is definitely one of the most comprehensive and forward-thinking music schools that could serve as a great model for similar programs. I hope they will indeed thrive and continue helping the families, students and teachers to fulfill their musical goals. I take my hat off to you, everyone at Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School Community.

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