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Berklee College of Music helps people with disabilities explore their love of the arts

Berklee College of Music helps people with disabilities explore their love of the arts
Berklee College of Music helps people with disabilities explore their love of the arts 02:30

BOSTON - There's a unique part of Berklee College of Music that's helping people with disabilities feel confident and explore their love of music. 

"There are people who encounter folks with disabilities and think a lot about what they can't do," Dr. Rhoda Bernard, Managing Director for Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education, said. "Our perspective, which is very much an opposite perspective, look at this amazing person, you can do so much. Let's give them every opportunity we can." 

WBZ went to the institute one morning to meet 18-year-old Alex Abdullah. He's been taking lessons in guitar, piano and drums for the last 10 years.  

"Very early he loved music. I want to say maybe three, two, he liked songs, he loved drumming along," Alex's mom, Dorina Abdullah, told us. 

As one of the top music education schools in the world, the institute wanted to expand opportunities for people with disabilities in visual and performing arts education. Alex is one of 300 students that the institute teaches with their direct services in their 14 different music, dance and theater programs. The institute makes and teaches non-traditional ways that people with disabilities can learn music. "What if you're going to learn the music better if you speak it, or if you stand up and walk around the room, or if you use gestures with your body, or if you hear someone else playing and you tell them what they're doing wrong," Dr. Bernard said about how their program utilizes different ways to teach students. 

To teach Alex the piano, his mother said instructors would pause and let him play the drums when his focus was off. "Berklee has been amazing with him, and it's been an amazing process," Dorina Abdullah said. She credits it all to the incredible teachers at the institute. "You have to have the right patience and the right teaching and that's what they provided here." 

The teaching aspect is what really sets them apart. Dr. Bernard told us that a lot of schools don't have people who know how to teach people with disabilities in the arts. "The field of arts education is slow to understand unique ways of learning and engaging," she said. Which can create obstacles and barriers for disabled people in the arts. But since 2014, the institute has had two only-of-their-kind graduate programs with a focus on autism. Staff who are teaching the lessons to students often come directly from those graduate programs. 

"The students in those programs are arts educators on a mission to reach every student. Someone who teaches art or dance or theater, they identify as an artist. The arts are magical in their life, and they want to share that magic with young people, with everyone," Dr. Bernard explained. 

Dorina and Alex have experienced the benefit of the specialized teaching directly. "He can read music and he knows key changes but he prefers to listen to a song and then just play it, so they worked with that, and it was phenomenal," Dorina Abdullah said. The institute also has an online database of resources for educators who want to learn more about teaching music to people with disabilities

Families come from all over the country to participate in the summer program that the institute runs. The feedback that they've gotten has been phenomenal. "A mom came up to me and grabbed me by the shoulders. It was like I had never seen. I just met the woman and she said, 'There's so much love here,'" Dr. Bernard explained. That love that creates a place where people feel valued, take risks, and can grow. 

"A mom whose family came from Texas this year came up to me at the final concert and said 'This is the only place that my 21-year-old son has ever felt included. Truly included,'" Dr. Bernard said.

The students themselves feel supported by the community that the institute has created. Dr. Bernard said one student called the institute his "happy place." "Because other places don't feel happy but when he comes here and he's recognized, people encourage him, people see what he can do and he gets to explore music," she said. 

Dorina Abdullah said she's seen incredible growth in Alex through his time at Berklee. "This is a great opportunity no matter what your disability. It's incredible how welcoming, affirming and how supportive this environment is," she said. His personality has blossomed through the last decade of lessons. "He likes to be in front of people, sort of being the showman. So that's an amazing thing to see in him also and that didn't come out until we had this venue to see that about him," Dorina said. 

The institute currently provides over 130 private lessons a week. Their students range from 3 years old to 93. There is a waiting list for their programs, but they encourage any family who is interested to sign up to get on the list. 

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