Jason was a boy of few words. That’s how speech teacher Collis Meehan remembers the three years she worked with him at PS 177, the Robin Sue Ward School, a District 75 school in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
“He participated very little in class activities, and he was minimally verbal,” says Meehan.
Then Jason, who is autistic, was invited to join the school band, organized by music teacher Adam Goldberg. “When I saw him for the first time in the band, I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Meehan. “I always incorporate singing in speech therapy, and he never joined in. And then I see him up on stage singing.”
Jason, now 20, also has an original composition that he performs: “Being Me.”
“He found his own melody,” Goldberg says. “And I wrote the lyrics as a tribute to him. The song says that it’s just cool to be yourself, and this is who we are, and we have a lot of good stuff going on inside of us.”
That’s a good summary of the spirit animating Goldberg’s Technology Band, which is scheduled to perform at the UFT’s Spring Education Conference on May 30. All of the members have significant learning challenges or are on the autism spectrum, but Goldberg says, “You can take away the label. My students are messengers. And the message is, ‘We may have these challenges, but look at how we can overcome them.’”
Some play traditional instruments such as piano and drums, but most of the students play music using an iPad. Goldberg uses different apps, including ThumbJam, Midi Touch and GarageBand. “Each one has different things to offer and different ways for students to access and play the music,” he says.
Midi Touch works for Jason because he has tactile sensitivity and had an aversion to pressing a key on a keyboard for too long. The Midi Touch app enables Goldberg to adjust the iPad so it is more sensitive to touch. Jason can tap lightly and get the desired sound. Goldberg can also dial down the tablet’s colors and flashing lights if it is overstimulating for a student.
Band members are usually assigned a section of an orchestra or the sound of a particular instrument. Goldberg can modify the iPad screen so it looks like a traditional keyboard, or he can make it look like colorful squares or rectangles that students press for musical notes and sounds.
“I’ll narrow the choices to the scales the student is working with, so they can play comfortably and with confidence,” he said.
Their repertoire includes “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot”; the South African song “When You Come Back,” which was written for Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned; and “Space Circus,” a jazz piece by Chick Corea.
The band has drawn national attention. Last year, it performed at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., for International Education Week.
Goldberg started a smaller traditional school band at PS 177 in 2007. When District 75 made grants available to purchase technology, he researched how the tablets could help special needs students learn music. After winning the grant, he introduced the iPad to the band in 2011.
“My students are learning to listen, follow each other and understand time,” said Goldberg. “We talk about the multisensory approach in special education, and this has the sound, the visuals and feeling the vibration of the music as the iPad makes sound. They stay with it and stay focused as a result.”
Goldberg circulates among the classes and handpicks the students for the band. Sometimes he discovers a student with a musical gift, such as Tobi, now age 16, who plays the piano in the band.
Special education teacher Susan Schmidt had Tobi in her classes for three years. “He was always sweet and respectful and focused on his academic skills,” says Schmidt. “But he was more to himself.”
Once he joined the band, Schmidt saw Tobi blossom. “He was more confident, and speaking up for himself,” she recalls. “He became more social and playful with classmates during recess.”
At a recent rehearsal in the school’s auditorium, the nine students in the band took the stage. Music stands held their iPads at the ready.
Many, like Rachel, age 17, were smiling broadly, joyfully anticipating the chance to perform. “Rachel is very quiet, but she blew people away with her singing,” says Goldberg.
When William misses his solo on the iPad because he becomes distracted, Goldberg gently chastises him, “You have a great musical ear, but you have to focus.” They fist-bump, and William promises to do better.
To describe the change he sees in his students, Goldberg uses the analogy of a superhero. Music is the key to unlocking what they have inside. “Music,” he says, “is one of their powers.”