Feeling the Music: Berklee Offers Workshops at Perkins School for the Blind

The Movement, a student-run group, organized a series of workshops in assistive music programming to students at the Perkins School for the Blind.

June 11, 2015
Colby can’t see or hear, but there’s no question he was feeling it. The teenager, a student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, was sitting on the stage floor in a small auditorium on campus, playing with a MIDI keyboard.
Chi Kim ’06, assistant professor of music therapy at Berklee, brought his equipment, including transducers and a resonance board, to the school for the third installment of a recent workshop at the historic institution’s Deafblind Program. About a dozen students and a similar number of volunteers and teachers from both schools attended the workshop, part of a series organized by the Movement, the student-run volunteer group at Berklee that offers music-related programming around Boston.

On a Friday afternoon in early May, Berklee musicians brought a cello, an electric guitar, kettledrums, and other instruments to the school for students to experience firsthand. While the first two installments were a bit more formally presented, the Berklee contingent let the Perkins students explore the instruments however they liked during Friday afternoon's workshop.

Hunched over on his knees, Colby rocked back and forth excitedly as he fingered the small keyboard with his left hand and held a transducer to his chin with his right. He couldn’t hear the notes, but he could undoubtedly feel them: Kim’s setup featured “bass shakers,” the low-frequency device that makes your movie-theater seat feel like it’s rumbling during the action scenes. Kids at the previous session were lying on the resonance board to feel the vibrations of the music with their whole bodies, said Kim.

A few feet away, a boy named Tim moved his hands across an electric guitar being idly strummed by Noe Socha ’13. The recent graduate is now a teaching assistant in Berklee’s assistive music technology lab, which is equipped for visually impaired students.

“I like to give back what I’ve had,” said Socha, who is himself visually impaired. A recipient of Berklee’s Jimi Hendrix Award as its top guitarist, he has performed on tour with fellow alumna and voice professor Paula Cole ’90.

“They’re young, and they deserve something that makes them happy for the day,” said Socha, who is from Italy. “Even if it’s just a little thing, it’s important.”

Integrating Music on a Deeper Level

Kelsey Crawford, the Movement’s outgoing president—a week later, she would graduate with the class of 2015—explained that the goal of the Perkins workshop was to help the school establish a deeper commitment to assistive music programming.

“It’s been such a beautiful experience,” she said, beaming. Behind her, Socha plucked the notes of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for a student.

The collaboration between schools came about after some discussion between Megan Connaughton, a teacher in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, and her sister, Jean Connaughton, marketing and media manager for Berklee’s Office of Education Outreach and Social Entrepreneurship.

“Our philosophy is ‘total communication,’” said Megan Connaughton, who was at the workshop with one of her students, a little girl in an adaptive stroller. “We use speech, signing, photos, objects, and symbols.”

And they’d like to make music a more integral part of the program. The Deafblind students have a guitar and a keyboard at their disposal for use during “free choice” time, she said, but they would certainly benefit from more concentrated music studies.

“The kids responded really well,” said Connaughton as the workshop wrapped up. “They typically wouldn’t attend to something so long. This was a great opportunity to get Berklee in here. It would be great if we could do something like this long-term.”

Judging by the smiles on the students’ faces, they thought so, too.