Michael Bertolami is a Board-Certified Music Therapist at Perkins School for the Blind and, for the last 18 years, has been observing the benefits of music as an auditory experience, a method of communication, and as a facilitator for social interaction and connection. As Perkins is a multi-program school with an early learning, elementary/middle, deaf-blind, and high school program, the music therapy department considers their role as therapists, instead of educators, to be interdisciplinary and integral to the full development of its students.
Meeting Kids Where They Are Through Music
During one of his first sessions, Michael Bertolami was introducing his group of students to a variety of musical instruments and explaining some of the ways that they were going to use music during their time together—playing together, individually, and above all, creating sounds and harmonies that they’d never heard before. One student wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t want to play the instruments, he didn’t want to sing, and he was adamant.
“I think there’s a misconception that everybody likes music and that music therapy is a modality or treatment option for everybody, and it’s not," Bertolami said. “I had to find a way to honor the fact that he didn’t want to make music and still find ways for him to be part of the group experience.”
Bertolami set out to learn more about the student’s interests and, as it turned out, he was a big Scooby Doo fan. “So, as a class, we started doing music storytelling based on Scooby Doo dialogues so he would do character voices and we did recording projects where his peers could create the music for these stories, and it became a big success for everybody.”
About a year later, he showed up in Bertolami’s group class and said he’d bought a guitar; he was wondering if Michael could teach him how to play it. He wanted to play rock and roll and wanted to participate in every group session. “I realized that he and I needed to go through that process together. He never felt that I was pushing an agenda on him and that created a lot of trust between us. Luckily, I’ve had that same experience repeat itself many, many times. It’s all about meeting the student wherever they are at.”
Music Therapy vs. Music Education
While many residential schools for the blind and public school districts have music programs built into their core curriculum, the active and passive benefits of a Music Therapy Program are clear. The therapeutic approach uses music and non-musical approaches and interventions as a way to develop an individual’s ability to effectively communicate with their environment, interact comfortably in social situations, build self-awareness, self-motivation, and ultimately, perform in academic and post-academic settings.
“Music has always been at Perkins School for the Blind and Music Therapy has been here almost since the beginning of music therapy as a field,” Bertolami said. “I’ve noticed that for our blind and visually impaired students, the most critical skills we are looking to develop are social skills, communication skills, and emotional regulation.”
Experiencing Music, One Kid at a Time
As Michael Bertolami has found, there’s no secret recipe when creating a musical experience for his visually impaired students. It varies, naturally, from kid to kid. He and his colleagues are committed to getting to know the kid and then developing the most effective interventions and adaptations for each kid individually.
Still, Bertolami has found that there are certain measurable outcomes of music therapy that seem to present themselves over and over with each class. He’s watched it build self-awareness, create an understanding of one’s role within a group, create comfort in social interactions, and facilitate connection and communication between the individual and their various environments. Bertolami and his colleagues are constantly finding new ways that music therapy taps into the Expanded Core Curriculum in areas such as self-determination, self-expression, social interaction skills, and basic orientation and mobility skills.
Social Immersion in Collective Musical Experiences
While music therapy at Perkins exists in both individual and group settings, the group model has proven to be very beneficial for students who are blind or visually impaired.
“Regardless of their level of visual impairment, these students can hear each other and experience what their instrument and music sounds like in relation to the instrument of their peers.” Playing in a group introduces them to what it feels like to be an integral part of a group, something that goes beyond just themselves. This lesson is valuable for all elements of social development, social awareness, social interaction, communication, and connection.
Preparing the Music Therapy Space
For students who are non-verbal or students with multiple disabilities, the music therapists at Perkins are committed to creating a space that is comfortable and accessible for the goals of the music therapy lesson.
“There is no incidental learning with a lot of our kiddos, so we want to make the experience as accessible as possible and look to provide opportunities for experiential-based learning. When I’m asking the students who have some functional vision to use their vision, it’s crucial to reduce the auditory, tactual, and visual complexity of the environment. This is particularly crucial when working with students that have cortical visual impairments (CVI), where accommodations are a necessary element to promote better use of their vision and to help facilitate progress.” These strategies include removing or covering distracting decorations around the classroom, reducing glare, or removing light all together as well as adapting instruments and playing spaces so the session can be as productive as possible.
“For students with low vision or cortical visual impairments, I am always looking for ways to help shape the environment to allow them to better maximize and develop the ways in which they are able to use their existing vision.”
Feeling Out the Music
With his students who are blind or visually impaired, Bertolami has found many ways to use auditory and tactual skill building. Unable to see his demonstration of how to play a scale on the piano or guitar and unable to see how to hold the drumstick or beat on the tambourine, their musical understanding comes from feeling it out and training their motor patterns as well as their ear to reproduce certain rhythms and tones.
“We really work in a collaborative or co-active experience so they can learn the instrument through playing with me or repeating what I’ve played or adjusting their own playing to match that song their peers are playing across the room.”
Bertolami implements this tactual learning through hand-under-hand techniques to help the student develop a better understanding of how to utilize an instrument to express themselves musically each musical notes and theory, holding the mallet or drumstick to learn the rhythmic composition between notes and beats, and training vocal chords to hit certain pitches.
Bertolami emphasizes the importance of assistive technology such as iPads with music-based apps or computer programs in the music classroom/music therapy setting. “With some of my students, with just the tiniest touch of the screen on an iPad, they can receive a huge expressive response, musically.”
With these students, Michael has found it so valuable to bring in clinicians from other disciplines—physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, orientation and mobility specialists—to assess the most wholesome approach for introducing each student to music or engaging them in active-playing. Bertolami also recognizes the adaptive workshop at Perkins as one of his greatest resources. At any time, with any adaptation issue, he can head down to the adaptive workshop for help creating or redesigning instruments so that they are less distracting, visually, or easier to play for a student with physical disabilities.