Music that transcends sight and sound

Berklee College of Music helps students in Perkins’ Deafblind Program experience the joys of melody and rhythm

A student from Deafblind reaches out to touch the guitar

A student from Deafblind reaches out to touch the guitar.

May 12, 2015

Ten-year-old Brian draped his upper body across the top of a large table drum. Vibrations thrummed through his torso as a drumstick rhythmically thwacked the taut surface next to him. Even though Brian has profound hearing loss, he had found a way to experience music.

Brian was one of about a dozen Perkins students with deafblindness who attended an event sponsored by The Movement, a student-led coalition from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The Movement brings music into the community, and had previously performed at Boys and Girls Clubs, senior centers and the Franklin Park Zoo.

The Movement’s mission at Perkins was a little more challenging. They had to figure out how to share the joy of music with students who might not be able to hear notes or melodies, or see drums, guitars or keyboards.

“Music should be available to every single student, regardless of hearing loss,” said Martha Majors, assistant education director in the Deafblind Program. “For Brian, music is about letting it come to him and just enjoying it.”

For one hour on a Friday afternoon in April, Berklee students and professors translated their aural art form into something Perkins students could touch, feel and enjoy.

They did so by setting up a “musical zoo” in the auditorium of the Hilton building. Students could wander from station to station, placing their hands on different instruments to feel the sensation of musical notes and conversing with the visitors from Berklee via tactile sign language interpreters.

A cacophony of strings, keyboards and drums echoed off the walls as students strummed, plinked and banged their way through each station. While some Perkins students had enough usable hearing to hear the melodies, others could just hear certain notes and a few could only experience vibrations.

Perkins student Amrita, 20, placed her hands on a resonance board, a flexible piece of wood that gives auditory and tactile feedback. A Berklee musician played an electronic keyboard attached to the board so Amrita could feel the pulse of the music through her fingers.

Next to her, Colby, 15, held a tactile plastic bass clef, feeling the edges of the comma-shaped note with his fingers.  Kaitlin Pelkey from Berklee explained that when the note appears on a sheet of music, “the bass clef tells you to play the low notes.” Colby, who plays piano, nodded with comprehension.

A few steps away, a Berklee guitarist played a melody and let students put their hands on his instrument so the music could infuse their bodies. Another station offered braille sheet music where students learned about rhythm by clapping out simple quarter notes and half notes.

The Berklee musicians said they enjoyed the opportunity to find creative ways to make their music accessible to Perkins students who were deafblind – and make the universal language of music truly universal.

“This is one of our favorite activities,” said Sage Harrison, a Movement organizer. “It’s an experience our students won’t get elsewhere in their careers and in the world.”