Miami Lighthouse Youth Music Program: Reimagining Music as an Empowerment Tool

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Miami Lighthouse Youth Music Program: Reimagining Music as an Empowerment Tool

Virginia A. Jacko, President and Chief Executive Officer, Miami Lighthouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired


MLMP vocal students gaining real-world experience at Dolphin Mall stage. Photo: Cristian Lazzari.

Nearly two decades ago, when I started going completely blind, I came to the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to learn how to live as a blind person. It was there that I encountered extraordinary young people who either were born blind or went blind when they were young—but who were united in their abiding love of and talent for music.

Hearing blind musicians was an adjustment from what I was used to in my sighted life, listening to sighted musicians. I noticed that blind musicians tended to perform alone or play by ear. And every so often, when I heard blind musicians perform alongside their sighted peers, I noticed a half-second difference, with the former group playing based on what they heard and the latter reading the musical score in real time.

MLMP teenager plays keyboard by ear and touch during live performance at Dolphin Mall. Photo: Cristian Lazzari.

This made sense when I put myself in their shoes: Imagine being a budding musician but never knowing what your instrument looks like and never seeing your audience’s reactions, the music notes on the page, or your bandmates. You also have to memorize much more than your sighted peers. If you are a blind trumpet player, you can play with one hand and read braille sheet music with the other, but if you are a blind pianist using both hands, you must memorize musical scores in their entirety.

Music doesn’t discriminate, but being blind as a teenager can present unique challenges. Our youth music program, the Miami Lighthouse Music Program (MLMP), which serves 50 students a year, has been described as “life-changing” for the way it has structured collaborations between blind teens and their sighted peers—and, in the process, reimagined music as an empowerment tool. Under the tutelage of our instructors, who are also lauded professional musicians, music education is made accessible to our blind, visually impaired, and sighted participants in traditional and nontraditional ways.

Visually impaired students and their sighted peers work together to develop songs, perform at local venues, record original compositions, and develop business skills related to the music industry. Students learn, compose, perform, record, and produce music at our state-of-the-art facility, which features a wide array of instruments, several rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, Pro Tools for the Blind, and the latest music technology.

How do we do it? We ensure that accessibility is at the core of our curriculum and activities.

Let’s start with the basics: reading music. Our sighted students learn from regular print and image materials, while low vision students receive high contrast images and print enlargements. Our blind students receive literary braille (for reading the text of songs) and braille music (for reading notes on the staff). We also provide the only comprehensive 26-lesson Braille music distance learning curriculum, enabling blind musicians to access the sheet music of their sighted peers anywhere in the world. Our teachers use a variety of methods to engage our students and seamlessly bring the sighted and visually impaired students together as one fully integrated class. These methods include always facing the students when teaching them, sitting among the class instead of in the front of the room, asking questions, and summarizing key points of the lesson.

MLMP student sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and plays ukulele onstage at the Music Under the Stars fundraiser at Miami’s historic Biltmore Hotel. Photo: Cristian Lazzari.

Our curriculum includes learning an instrument, sectional playing, singing, composition, songwriting, sound engineering, and music entrepreneurship. Students can learn keyboard, piano, bass, violin, drums/percussion, music production, and vocal skills, while gaining the real-world experience of performing live at events. As participants progress in age and musical understanding, they engage in more complex music experiences, such as improvisation with more participant-led exploration. Group-based music experiences also promote participant engagement in a cooperative learning environment.

Although we use traditional methods of music instruction, our philosophy is very sensory-driven. We train students by ear and touch (sighted students often wear blindfolds to participate in this nontraditional music instruction). We establish ways for the students to connect what they are hearing with what they’re feeling. For example, a blind student learning the bass learns to identify which number fret correlates with each pitch they want to play.

We also offer master classes for our budding musicians, where they can easily interact with teachers in an intimate setting and explore areas of music they are passionate about, such as music history and different music genres, as well as enhancing their singing or instrument-playing skills.

Since its inception, our program has produced five CDs and been nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2013. Even more important, the lessons learned in our youth music program are opening doors to careers in music, University of Miami School of Music scholarships, and lifelong appreciation and enjoyment. Not to mention friendship and amazing performances!


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