Future Reflections         Summer 2010

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by Dalia M. Sakas, D.M.A.

Students and teachers from the Comprehensive Music Program for Young People perform in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [All CMPYP photos are used by courtesy of Dorothea Lombardo and Travis Howe.From the Editor: Like all students, blind students study music in a wide variety of settings. In this article Dalia Sakas describes a special program for blind students in New York City.

The positive influence of music on children's learning has been the subject of countless studies, essays, and books. Exposure to music lessons is related to improved math skills, better problem-solving, and higher grades in school. For blind and visually impaired children the study of music and the arts brings the added benefits of increasing self-awareness and self-confidence. We see these positive effects every Saturday here at the Filomen M. D'Agostino Greenberg Music School of Lighthouse International in New York City.

Lighthouse International has existed in the New York area for more than one hundred years. It was founded by the Holt sisters to offer tickets for musical performances to people with vision impairments. Winifred Holt and her sister, Edith Holt, were the daughters of publisher Henry Holt. At a concert in Florence, Italy, they noticed a group of blind schoolchildren in the audience, enthralled by the music. They discovered that a free ticket program provided the children with access to the concert. Inspired to create such a program back in New York City, the sisters established the Lighthouse Free Ticket Bureau in the parlor of their Upper East Side home in 1903.

The Holt sisters quickly learned that more was needed than access to the arts. They launched a groundbreaking campaign to train blind people and to prevent blindness-causing diseases. Eventually the program expanded and developed into a formal music school. This community music program has served generations of visually impaired students. The school receives funding from a variety of foundations and individual donors. It was recently awarded first-time funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, which provided support to the school for a three-year period.

Over the past century the school underwent many changes. At times choral groups were strong and visible. For a while a yearly opera production held the limelight. Several instrumental musicians have passed through, garnering praise and admiration. These days the Comprehensive Music Program for Young People (CMPYP) is getting attention. The program flourishes with some twenty-five confident, dynamic students attending every Saturday.

The CMPYP began seven years ago with five young boys who were taking piano lessons at the school. Tough budgetary cuts to music programs in the New York City schools greatly restricted the students' opportunities. To fill this gap the Lighthouse Music School established a special program for blind and visually impaired youth. The program sought to empower children to become better musicians and, in addition, to facilitate a broader appreciation of the arts by making museums and other cultural institutions more accessible. Three classes--percussion, singing, and music appreciation--made up the core of the program. We believed that the students needed to be literate musicians, so we introduced and strongly promoted Braille music. The use of large print is customized for students with low vision.


A girl tries on the hat worn by the witch in the musical WickedCreated by Marc Wagnon, the percussion class develops rhythmic awareness and acuity, as well as the students' listening and response skills. The class runs with minimal discussion. Drum cues signal responses and changes in rhythmic patterns. Students must listen carefully to know what to do next. Marc introduces various rhythms and patterns, from samba to complex African beats. The students' reactions and responses become sharp and accurate.

Singing and solfège are developed in singing class using Kodaly hand signals. The Kodaly Method is an approach to music education developed in Hungary. It is named for Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), a composer and advocate for better music education. In solfège, sight-singing is taught using the sol-fa syllables for the notes of the scale. Kodaly hand signals corresponding to each syllable are made in front of the body, giving a physical representation of a vocal pitch. "Do" is at waist level and "la" is at eye level. Some of the students have perfect pitch and a very unique understanding of fundamental music theory.

General music and music appreciation classes focus on listening to and discussing great compositions. Various approaches are used to reinforce concepts and ideas. We listened to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and discussed the audio pictures the composer created after he saw a friend's paintings. Then we did the reverse--an artist visited the class and helped the students make clay sculptures based on the pieces of music they heard. We discussed form in music using Styrofoam shapes.

Classes explore different themes each spring, culminating in a Class Showcase Recital. Last year students illustrated The Seasons by Vivaldi, using dance, costumes, and songs. This year's theme is astronomy. We were recently honored with a visit and discussion with the esteemed author Dava Sobel.

Enrollment in the program has grown dramatically these last five years, and the nature of the classes has changed accordingly. Braille music and theory have become more important to some of the students. We teach computer music to the older students who have a working knowledge of the computer and have achieved a certain degree of skill on their instruments. We currently offer lessons on piano, drums, guitar, and flute, and will expand when the need arises.

Two classes taught and administered by the National Dance Institute are important additions to our program. Through piano and other music classes we could not teach movement or help students develop a better sense of mobility. The dance classes have been wonderful. They have instilled our students with confidence and self-assurance, and they are a good source of exercise, too.

Field Trips

Students with canes stand with adults in front of a marquee in New York's Theater DistrictWicked is one of the most popular shows currently playing in New York City, and this year our students had the opportunity to attend. Some of the actors came to our school to introduce the story and give the students a hands-on view of costumes used in the show. We also prepared by learning to sing one of the songs. The performance we attended had audio description, much to the students' delight. When we got to our seats they heard a detailed description of the theatre through headsets before the show began. A continuous description of the production gave our students a truly unforgettable Broadway experience.

Some museums in New York have set up special programs for visually impaired visitors. We have availed ourselves of programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. To visit the Rubin Museum of Art and the Louis Armstrong Museum, neither of which have programs for visitors with visual impairments, we worked with staff to arrange special tours. The Rubin Museum described works of Tibetan art and presented the students with a concert of sitar and tabla music. The Louis Armstrong Museum graciously opened its doors to us with a guided tour of Armstrong's home, complete with excellent verbal descriptions. As well as exposing our students to new facets of the arts, we have influenced the community to expand services to another segment of the population.

Since many of our students take piano lessons, we visited a piano factory. The students could touch and explore the various parts of the piano, giving them a better sense of the instrument they were endeavoring to master. We visited St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York, where world-renowned organist and conductor Kent Tritle gave us a wonderful demonstration and explanation of the church's new organ. Central Park has been the scene of several outings. On a guided tree walk, an expert helped us identify various trees and shrubs. We went for a picnic and listened to storytellers as we sat by the statue of Hans Christian Andersen.

Our Students

Our students are vibrant and curious. They are excited about music, the world, and anything that is presented to them. They are unendingly inquisitive and are an infinite source of questions.

A fair number of our students have excelled in areas outside our music program. Daniel Gillen wrote a wonderful essay that won him a week in Provence, where he studied the art of fragrance and perfumery with the company L'Occitane. Daniel also appeared online with a review of the audio-described performance of Wicked. Yerko Difonis attends Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. He won first place in New York State's VSA-ARTS Young Soloist Competition 2010. He will now compete for the top prize in the national contest. Several other students who attend our music program have been winners in the National Braille Challenge.

These casual observations, though undocumented and unscientific, strengthen my conviction that music study has an enormous influence in the lives of young people. It helps build character, reinforces learning skills, and promotes talent. The Music School and its youth program are unique and valuable resources for the visually impaired community in the New York Metropolitan Area and beyond.

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