Thursday, December 21, 2017

A part of their lives: The Sooriya Village gears up

As I pointed out in my last article, at best I am a spectator and not a connoisseur when it comes to music. When we discover the songs that we grow to love, we are thrilled, so much so that pedagogy and instruction, the finer points of music as a subject to be taught as a series of subjects and courses in an institution, come later. But then pedagogy and instruction are essential, not because they intellectualise a field that can’t really be intellectualised, but because they are a first step, a necessary first step, if one is to inculcate in others a rigorous, instinctive love for music. Nowhere is or can this be truer than in the field of music training for students with special disabilities, especially autism. This piece is about one initiative targeted at that field that’s found its way from one part of the world to the other, from the United States to South Asia.

Rhoda Bernard is the Managing Director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, a new, endowed institution aimed at children who are autistic, in fact the first of its kind to be established anywhere. “Berklee” of course is the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, referred to in Wikipedia as “the largest INDEPENDENT college of CONTEMPORARY music (the emphases are mine) in the world.” With courses ranging from rock to heavy metal, from hip hop and reggae to salsa and flamenco, and with a special merger in 2015 with the Boston Conservatory, it’s a veritable institute that’s probably the best and only of its kind to offer a specialised undergraduate music course for special needs children.

Bernard’s story takes us back to 2007, a decade ago, when together with the Boston Conservatory she, as a personal project, commenced a series of programs and workshops that delved into the pedagogy of music with respect to autistic children and even adults. She was pushed to this particular project because, as she herself has pointed out in an interview, there was really very poor support for instructing music teachers on how to teach, and adapt to, special needs students, a problem compounded by the fact that in a typical classroom, the needs of such students are somewhat diluted and subsumed in the needs of other students. Autistic children stand out in their instinctive love for music, but to transform that instinctive love into a lifelong interest is something only the most committed teacher can achieve. Bernard wanted to unleash a horde of such teachers, and to this end began with a private instrumental class.

There were problems. Firstly, a manifest lack of funds. Bernard got around that, during her first few weeks and months, by concentrating on a tuition driven model that would depend on individual merit and scholarships. From that private instrumental class, moreover, she and her initiative evolved rapidly to other courses, including early childhood programs that received funding, rather generously, from the National Endowment for the Arts. All these had been punctured by her vision for the entire project, which congealed into two philosophies: her belief in group ensembles as opposed to individual recitals when it came to the students, and her belief in differentiating the field she was engaged in (music education) from the field it was accustomed to in general (music therapy). The difference between therapy and education in that respect, she herself has noted, is notoriously difficult to sustain in the long term, since there’s a significant overlap between the two.

How so? Because, while therapy is aimed at a particular outcome (predominantly based on behaviour), education, or to be more specific music education, is aimed at making groups interact with and open up to each other. The one is geared at health, at cognitive functions that music can manifestly improve through certain prescheduled sessions with a qualified practitioner, while the other is geared at improving skills connected to a field, in this case music. As Bernard herself has observed, the overlap between the two is so considerable that the one cannot be distinguished from the other all the time. For instance, the group ensembles, the courses and classes designed to get students to interact with each other (through such endeavours as scavenger hunts) have at times led to infants opening up and saying their first words.

The focus had been from its inception on group recitals, on opening up and being interactive, so Bernard overcame her second problem – the fact that most if not many special needs kids lack the motor skills that are essential when playing instruments – by resorting to iPad ensembles. Such new initiatives helped rapidly expand Bernard’s organisation, and soon enough it had evolved into choral ensembles, professional development courses, and mobile workshops that toured the state of Massachusetts and received overwhelmingly positive responses from public school teachers. This led to the founding of the first and only graduate program (in the world) aimed at music and special needs, a Master’s Degree in Music Education with a special focus on autism. Bernard could have grown complacent with all these, but she wasn’t. She wanted more, for her institute and for her students.

She set about this by setting out two broad objectives: get the course beyond music and beyond autism, delving into other visual and aural art forms as well as other forms of special disabilities, and get it beyond the agreement with the Conservatory. The result of her endeavours and patience in this regard was the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs: the focus, as she had always wanted, had spread and become more multifarious. Going beyond music, the Institute, set up earlier this year, was the grand culmination of probably the most reckonable program she had conceived at the Conservatory: the Autism Spectrum Programs, which parents had grown to love so much that they kept on nagging Bernard to lower the age requirements and start classes for primary and elementary students.

The new initiative, now successfully implemented at Berklee, has, needless to say, proved to be more exciting for both Bernard and her students. They moreover received a grant recently, which they hope to use to start another welcome program: what is referred to in autism parlance as Social Stories, helping autistic students develop their interpersonal communication skills, only this time using Virtual Reality (VR) tools. Encouraged by the reception by the public of her projects and initiatives thus far, Bernard hopes now to develop the program at Berklee to include undergraduate and minor degree programs to help empower music teachers involved with special needs children. The problem, here, would be the development and formation of new courses, which has opened her up to another novel project: a broad and institutional partnership with Autism International Worldwide, a teacher training program that has expanded into Canada and South Asia. This is where Sri Lanka and the Sooriya Village come in.

On Sunday, January 28, 2018, from 5.30 to 7.30 pm, Rhoda Bernard will connect with local music teachers via Skype for a workshop on the pedagogy of music. “Would you like to integrate the arts into your teaching?” is how the poster for the event puts it, rather acutely I should think, and to a considerable extent that is what the workshop aims at, providing strategies and tactics that can prove useful for guiding, inter alia, autistic students. Bernard has chosen probably the best location of its kind for her one-day, two-hour virtual workshop in Sri Lanka, because no other location in Colombo caters to the kind of wider milieu that the Sooriya Village caters to. Malinda Seneviratne, who writes, might note (as he did, about two weeks ago, in this paper) that it “works for me”, and by the same token I have come across positive comments from, among others, Sumitra Peries, Kumar de Silva, Upecka Chitrasena, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, and the Music Circle of Ananda College (that trained, copiously, for their annual showcase item Rhythm of the Maroons, there, last year). While ostensibly established for musicians, both aspiring and established, it has taken a life of its own, extending to other art forms: in short, the perfect place for the perfect workshop.

Obviously, Sri Lanka and the United States are not the one and the same, so it’s pertinent to end my little piece with a reference, cursory though it may be, to some of the finer, more unique points of this workshop. Firstly, the basic elements of the workshop will not differ from the workshops she has conducted at Berklee and earlier at the Conservatory. Secondly, Bernard’s ideas for “globalising” (always a notoriously indefinable term) arts and arts education have been nurtured by the fact that Berklee has always been a melting pot, extending its arms to the rest of the world (it isn’t nitpicking to mention here that Sanchitha Wickremesooriya, who de facto runs with his father, Udena, the Sooriya Village, is himself a past student). Thirdly, the workshop has been fine-tuned to accommodate the various ethnic differences real and imagined that are present, today, in Sri Lanka (Bernard: “I do think that the emphasis on inclusivity that cuts across arbitrary borders amongst participants and students will differ in the South Asian context, for sure. I am curious to see how those differences play out as I work with the educators in the workshop, as well as through my continuing relationship and collaboration with the Sooriya Village”). Fourthly, while the curricula and the pedagogic philosophies underlying our country and Bernard’s are discernibly different, the principles underlying them in both countries remain essentially the same, easily adaptable.

There are realities that need to be accommodated. But these remain trivial, because what Bernard has done, in her special way, speaks to all of us. It took time for me to record what she has achieved in 10 years because words can’t, to borrow an oft-borrowed cliché, do justice to her actions. Clichéd, yes. But true.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 21 2017