Group of male students in front of a pipe organ in the Assembly Hall in the Main Building of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston
Group of students in front of a pipe organ in the Assembly Hall in the Main Building of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston, circa 1893.

Music has always had a prominent place in the education of children who are blind. Music inspired the work of Valentin Haüy, founder of the world’s first school for the blind in Paris. It is said that Haüy, after hearing a group of talented musicians who were blind and wondering if they could learn to read music tactilely, created a system with pasteboard notes. Another story has it that Haüy was inspired when he met Mademoiselle Paradis, a blind pianist of Vienna. She pushed pins into a large cushion to represent notes. “[H]e had found a new avenue to the minds of men, and ascertained that they possessed eyes in their fingers’ ends, which needed only to have objects properly adapted to them, to enable the blind to see.” Tangible musical notation swiftly led Haüy to develop tangible letters, the beginning of real education for children who were blind.

The importance of music

Samuel G. Howe, the first Director of Perkins, considered music as important as intellectual and physical education. Within a year of the school“s opening, a music teacher joined the two instructors that Howe brought with him from Europe. Perkins pupils devoted “four hours daily to intellectual labor; four hours to vocal and instrumental music; four to recreation and eating; four to manual labor, and eight to sleep.” (Annual Report, 1837, p. 8)

Howe considered music a science, and had little regard either for rote learning or teaching students to “play by ear.” His pupils learned to read music and to polish their understanding by hearing fine music performed by professionals. Howe also saw great potential in musical careers for some of his students. With proper technical training, he believed that those with genuine talent could be employed as music teachers, church organists, and piano tuners.

Howe insisted that all students study music, even though he recognized that most students did not have the talent to become professional musicians or teachers. “We do not, however, confine musical instruction to those who have so much natural talent for it, as to fit them to become teachers; but we cultivate a taste for it in all pupils; and they almost without an exception are found capable of bearing a part in the choir, or performing in the orchestra.” (Annual Report, 1841, p.10) That philosophy has remained a constant feature of the Perkins music program. All students benefit from the rhythm, physical coordination, and concentration called for in musical study.

Bringing music to Perkins

By 1873, Perkins had established a department for special instruction in music. The music library was vast, much of it in braille music notation. The music instructors used braille long before the rest of the school adopted literary braille as a reading medium. Other schools for the blind often sent their most advanced music students to Perkins to benefit from the excellence of its instruction and the richness of its library. Howe wrote that it “is so pleasant to the blind and to others to have the atmosphere of a house constantly vocal with sweet sounds, that it requires some firmness of purpose to prevent the institution from becoming a mere conservatory of music.”

The school’s location was selected in part because the Perkins students could easily attend concerts and the other musical offerings of Boston. Benefactors furnished the school with tickets to the opera, symphony and concerts by well-known artists. Musicians also visited the school to perform for the students. Both practices continue to this day.

Michael Anagnos, the second director, expanded the music program to include a small orchestra. “The ensemble playing of an orchestra affords a far better test of real achievements in music than fine singing or individual brilliant performances on the pianoforte; for it is not nearly as hard to teach a single talented pupil as it is to train an orchestra so well as to gain the approval of intelligent listeners and the favorable commendations of competent critics. Thus far no institution for the blind in this country or in England has attempted a task equal to that which has been undertaken and successfully accomplished by our school.” (Annual Report, 1903)

Part of the curriculum

In 1907, Dr. Edward E. Allen became the Perkins director, and soon thereafter reorganized the music department, with a focus on the practical educational benefits of music study. The program continued to train aspiring music teachers, piano tuners, and a few exceptional musicians with professional potential. However, for the majority of Perkins students, the study of music mainly brought the cognitive and social benefits of a well-rounded education. Mr. Edwin Gardiner, a long-term director of the music program, describes it this way:

“The music school is one of several departments, each of which has its peculiar value and place in the general curriculum. Music is taught for its educational value, and practice and lessons are conducted exactly as study and recitations in grammar and mathematics might be. Pupils go to their appointed music study, lessons, or supervised practice as they go to their geography classes or to the gymnasium. From this regular study and practice, there is no escape.” (1930)

Perkins’ music program operated under this philosophy for many years, flourishing under the directorship of Dr. Farrell and Dr. Waterhouse. The choruses in both the Lower and Upper schools swelled with eager young voices, and the campus hallways echoed with joyful refrains all year, particularly during the Christmas season. John F. Hartwell, the music director, described the preparations this way:

“There’s music in the air almost everywhere about Perkins these days. Over in the Lower School, the youngsters are learning Christmas carols and singing them on the slightest provocation. They are looking forward to the Christmas concerts, and especially hoping that they may be allowed to sing in Jordan Hall, the goal of all ‘artists.’ In the Upper School, rehearsals of Christmas music are held nearly every day, and from the music practice rooms strange sounds issue, as some anxious Caruso works at what will be eventually a smooth tenor line in some carol. The ’Christmas spirit’ begins early at Perkins, and continues until the final note of the last concert.” (Lantern, December 1943)

Bring on the bells

In 1935, the ringing of hand bells was introduced at school by Roger Walker, a Perkins graduate (Class of 1919) and the only blind carillonneur in the country at that time. They proved to be so popular that in 1936 a set of hand bells was commissioned from England and donated to the school by the Boston Committee for the Blind as a memorial to Mrs. Louis Rosenbaum, its founder. The hand bell ensemble became a regular feature of the Perkins Christmas concerts.

Beginning in the 1970s, children with disabilities in addition to blindness began coming to Perkins in greater numbers. Many of these students found it difficult, if not impossible, to participate in the traditional music performance classes, but benefited greatly from the therapeutic qualities of music. Lower School music teacher Judith Bevans rediscovered the set of English handbells and recognized that they were an excellent way for students with vocalization or language problems to perform in a group. The hand bell ensemble continues to this day and participates in regional competitions.

Bevans also worked with Perkins speech therapist Debbie Maibor to institute a music therapy program, one of the first at schools for the blind. In this approach “music is used as a tool to achieve non-musical goals such as language development, gross motor skills, social skills, body awareness, awareness of space and directionality, listening and following directions.”

A musical legacy

There have been many dedicated and skilled music teachers since the school opened, and each has left his or her own unique imprint on the program. For the orchestra, the marching band, the music festivals, and musical shows, the staff have adapted scores and even written original music for Perkins students to perform. Each generation of students has benefited from the talents and dedication of these exceptionally talented teaching musicians.

Music is still in the air at Perkins. The Perkins community is treated to musical performances by students during the holidays, graduation, and special assemblies. Voice and instrumental lessons, orchestra, and music therapy are a regular part of the program. Senior recitals and visiting artists offer additional opportunities for musical enjoyment. The chorus, chamber singers, and hand bell ensemble go out into the community and to music festivals to share their music with the world. Through the efforts of dedicated staff and eager pupils, Perkins has enjoyed “an atmosphere of a house constantly vocal with sweet sounds” for more than 175 years.

Suggested citation

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Music. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

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