Q&A: Making music at Perkins

Arnie Harris has taught music at Perkins for more than 30 years.

On the first day at school, Zachary, a student in the Secondary Program, practices chords on the guitar during a one-on-one lesson with Perkins Music Director Arnie Harris.

From center court at TD Garden to Perkins School for the Blind’s own Dwight Hall, music teacher Arnie Harris has guided Secondary Program students in vocal and instrumental performances for decades. As he prepares his students for the annual holiday concert in December, he took time to chat with Perspectives about what he’s taught – and learned – over the last 30 years.

How do you approach teaching music?

I’ve never really felt any different teaching here than teaching in public schools. Music is really important to these students. They listen to music all the time. For me, it’s intellectually stimulating, and I think it’s the same thing for them. I teach all the chorus music by rote (memorization) and use brailled copies of the lyrics as a teaching aid. With instruments, which can range from flute to drums to steel guitar, the challenge is where you put your fingers and hands – I use Velcro (positioning strips) a lot to guide students.

Why is it important for Perkins students to collaborate with outside groups?

Playing with other people is really what music is all about. Our choruses and orchestra have active and long-standing collaborations with many local adult ensembles, participating in concerts with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, Chorus Pro Musica, Emmanuel Music, Vocal Revolution and Revels. It’s a great experience for our students to play with all these wonderful and varied musicians. I also take my chamber singers group to a local high school every year. Our students are at an equal level of skill as the students in the public high schools, which is great for our students – and their students – to see.

What have you learned from your students over the years?

I had this one boy who wanted to play violin but his hands couldn’t quite do it. He came back on his own and said, “I’d like to play the QChord.” I’d never heard of it in my whole life! He bought one himself and brought it in. It has buttons and you can strum along a track pad, which gives students who can’t manipulate strings a chance to use it. After playing this for a while, he still really wanted to play the violin. It turns out his right hand could push the strings down and he could bow with his left hand (opposite of the traditional arrangement), so I switched the strings around. Now he’s in our orchestra.

What’s the best part of working at Perkins?

It’s a great pleasure to teach music here. Besides teaching all these talented and interested students, working collaboratively with the other music teachers in the Secondary Program, Jennie O’Brien, Vera Dumova and John Buchanan, is the best part. In order to get it to where we have a nice performance, a lot of people have to be supportive: the administration, other teachers, families, parents.

What can we expect from the holiday concert this year?

In our concert we’ll be singing songs in English, German, Spanish, Latin and Hebrew, and we’ll be performing songs in a variety of musical styles such as barbershop, Dixieland, classical and folk. I really try to make it eclectic.

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