NPR Ed
3:04 pm
Wed June 11, 2014

A High School Band Where Everyone's Voice Can Be Heard

Originally published on Wed June 11, 2014 5:53 pm

(This is Part 2 of a two-part report. Read the full piece here.)

On the surface, the PS 177 Technology Band looks like a typical high school orchestra. But there are two big differences. First, while they use traditional instruments, they also play iPads. And all of the band members have disabilities. Some have autism spectrum disorders.

"I'm Tobi Lakes. I'm 15 years old. I'm in ninth grade. I'm four grades away from college."

Morning sunlight pushes through large, old windows into the school's well-worn and empty-seated auditorium. On the stage, iPads on small stands sit in a semicircle. It's rehearsal time. The students mingle and chat before practice starts. Tobi, a tall, wire-thin teen with thick glasses, sits at an electric piano. He taught himself to play.

"I'm very good. I like the piano. I like the keyboard. Keyboard is the best. Number one!" Tobi says with a wide smile. On his school-issued tablet computer, using a music app called Thumb Jam, Tobi also loves his iPad "guitar."

Adam Goldberg is the music teacher at PS 177 and the director of the band. "They're just learning how to be free and expressing themselves that way freely. Instead of being afraid, 'Oh, that isn't going to sound good.' "

Leslie Schect is director of technology for New York City's Department of Education: "It really opens doors. At times we don't often know what's really inside because they're not speaking. This helps give them the voice. There's much more to these children than we realize."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now, the second of two reports on how tablet computers and music have changed the lives of some special needs students in a New York City public school. In some ways, the kids in the PS 177 orchestra are like those in any high school band. They joined for the love of music and friendship. But what they play is different. A mix of traditional instruments and music apps on their iPads. And all of the members have severe learning disabilities, many with autism spectrum disorders. From the NPR ed. team, here's Eric Westervelt.

(VIOLIN MUSIC)

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: 10 teenagers are psyched up to take the auditorium stage at an old public school building in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens, New York. A dozen iPads on stands sit on a semi-circle on state.

WESTERVELT: Do you guys call your band a name?

JASON HOUGHTON: Yeah 2013, '14.

WESTERVELT: 17-year-old Jason Houghton walks in a little rock star late for rehearsal.

Hi Jason, I'm Eric. Nice to meet you.

HOUGHTON: Nice to meet you.

WESTERVELT: All members of this band have severe learning disabilities. Jason is what one of his teachers calls classically severely autistic. Jason's speech is often marked by echolalia, a communication disorder where he repeats back what you say to him.

WESTERVELT: Do you like to sing?

HOUGHTON: My singing?

WESTERVELT: I liked your singing.

HOUGHTON: Singing.

WESTERVELT: Before this band, Jason rarely spoke at all. But music changed that. The band's creator is 53-year-old Adam Goldberg, a classically trained pianist who found his calling teaching music to children with disabilities, including Jason Houghton.

ADAM GOLDBERG: Some people were very surprised when they could see that he could sing because some people thought that he was nonverbal. At first, I kept saying sing, sing, sing and he wouldn't sing until I said, Jason, like this (Singing). OK, and then he would go (Singing). And I would say, no, Jason, do something of your own.

WESTERVELT: Adam eventually got Jason to hum his own notes. And the veteran music teacher soon built a song around that phrase. And then he made it into a wider orchestral piece using the iPad. Now Jason sings and he doesn't just echo back lyrics - he even improvises or scats in his own way.

(Singing)

GOLDBERG: It was mostly persistence, you know, and the confidence that it was there inside of him. It kind of goes back to that summer where we had some extra time and I just kept, you know - I mean, I kept pushing him. I'll admit it that I sometimes pushed the kids, not in a mean way, but in a way that because I know inside there's something and I have the confidence in them that they can find a way to bring it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WESTERVELT: More and more educators of students with special needs say it isn't just hype - tablets are proven to be revolutionary for some children. Apple, Samsung and other tech giants certainly didn't intend for their tablets to become essential tools for students with disabilities.

LESLIE SCHECT: I have a feeling they had no idea.

WESTERVELT: Leslie Schect is the director of technology for New York City's Department of Education. There's almost no research on the impact of tablet computers on special education students. But Schect says the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that they are proving to be transformative for many with special needs.

SCHECT: It really opens doors for these children. We don't know at times what's really inside because they're not speaking. And this gives them the voice that we realize that there's much more to these kids than we realized, much more.

WESTERVELT: Schect says she's seen it in schools across New York including PS 170.

SCHECT: I have seen students that in one year are totally nonverbal and the following year, they're not only using the device, but they're now mimicking the device, which means they are trying to say the words. That's what we really want these children to do - is to transfer this learning. I've done a tremendous amount of training with parents and they realize that the iPad is definitely a game changer because it is affordable and accessible.

WESTERVELT: Still, Schect and others are quick to point out that tablets are just tools. Students still need a creative engaged teacher like Adam Goldberg to make the devices transformative.

(SINGING)

GOLDBERG: I like to push them. They can always do more, just learning how to be free and expressing themselves that way freely instead of just being afraid that, oh, this isn't going to sound good.

WILLIAM HERNANDEZ: My name is William Hernandez. I play the iPad and the piano. I love Mr. Goldberg so much.

(SINGING)

WESTERVELT: The band turns to a new tune. Hernandez is on his iPad using an app called Midi Touch. They want to get the sound just right on the South African anti-apartheid song "When You Come Back," which they perform as a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela

(SINGING)

WESTERVELT: Teenagers Rachel Rodriguez and Ulysses Rivers are on backing vocals. And 19-year-old Ryan Rodriguez takes the lead.

(SINGING)

WESTERVELT: Perhaps even more important than the music, Goldberg says, the band has given the student a sense of belonging, friendship and joint accomplishment.

GOLDBERG: They all support each other. It doesn't matter who's singing the lead, who's taking solo - they're essential to making the whole thing work. And that translates to a wider idea of socialization out in the general world. And I see a huge leap in their socialization and social abilities. And even the fact that they say hello to each other - a couple of years ago that wasn't happened.

WESTERVELT: Now band members dream of performing for a wider audience. Jaquan Bostick says he wants to try to make music his professional.

JAQUAN BOSTICK: You know, when you graduate, we should all go on tour, like a world tour.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: There you go, I like the idea, thinking big picture. I like it.

BOSTICK: That's what I've been thinking about a lot. I've been thinking about that since yesterday.

HERNANDEZ: Me too.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Me three.

WESTERVELT: Goldberg knows from experience how brutally tough the pro-musician road is and he's straight with them about it. Yet, he says, he'd never strip them of their vision.

GOLDBERG: Some of these kids, you kno,w don't have a chance to dream, again, it comes from confidence, I think. It may be a very difficult dream to achieve, but it's attached to reality. They really do play music, you know. They're not dreaming of being a Superman or Spiderman, you know. They're dreaming of doing something that they know that - I have this.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can hear more of the music at NPR.org/ed and on Weekend Edition.

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.