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Alain Barker
Jacobs School of Music

Nicole Roales
University Communications

Last modified: Friday, June 6, 2008

Making music accessible for students

June 6, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University strives to create an environment that allows all students to thrive, including those with disabilities. In the IU Jacobs School of Music, arranging accommodation can be a puzzle, as some of the standard strategies -- for example, allowing students with learning disabilities more time to complete an exam -- don't fit neatly into a curriculum that centers on musical timing, sight reading and piano proficiency.

Gary Potter

Photo by: Jacob Kriese

Gary Potter, director of undergraduate and graduate studies for the Jacobs School of Music, recently accepted an Access Education award on behalf of the school.

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For its diligence in overcoming these challenges, the school recently received an Access Education award from the IU Office of Disability Services for Students (DSS) in recognition of its outstanding work with students with disabilities. From custodial staff making elevators more accessible for students who use wheelchairs to professors ordering sheet music in Braille, the faculty and staff at the school have showed extraordinary commitment and ingenuity in creating an inclusive environment for all its students.

"Finding appropriate ways to accommodate music students is a major collaborative effort, requiring that Jacobs staff spend their valuable time educating DSS into the many musical intricacies of such matters as course content or the rationale behind hours of programmatic content or even of the basics like scales, arpeggios and chords," said Martha Engstrom, DSS director. "It is only with their extensive help and cooperation that we know better how to coordinate services for the students."

Engstrom presented the award to Gary Potter, director of undergraduate and graduate studies, who accepted on behalf of the school. Potter explained that the award represents an unusual set of problems and solutions that the Jacobs School has addressed over the years.

"The fact that things need to be done in real time in music means you can't slow things down," he said. "Much of what we do here involved ADD [attention deficit disorder] and other learning disabilities, and the standard solution is extra time on tests. But where that gets hard is with things like ear training and taking dictation. A big part of aural skills is writing down things that you hear."

While it doesn't make sense for the music to be played more slowly -- identifying the correct time notation is a crucial aspect of musical proficiency -- faculty have been able to accommodate students by playing the piece a greater number of times. "We've adapted the number of listenings to fit the needs of the student," Potter said.

Ignasi Cambra

Ignasi Cambra, a Jacobs School of Music student, has been blind since birth.

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One individual's story that illustrates the Jacobs School's efforts is that of Ignasi Cambra. A pianist and student from Barcelona, Spain, Cambra has been blind from birth.

"We have a student who is legally blind, and all students have to pass sight singing. Think about that," Potter said.

Potter credited music theory professor Gretchen Horlacher with working closely with Cambra to find appropriate accommodations.

"Gretchen did extraordinary work with him in the first semester of freshman theory, getting work Brailled for him and learning about Braille writing and the hardware and software that could be used with it," he said.

Because Braille is read with the hands, Cambra had to memorize the music in advance of playing it. His teachers, including piano professor Edward Auer, assisted by teaching him one hand at a time, after which he would put the two hands together to play the piece.

"He didn't want to take any shortcuts," Potter said.

Aided by these committed efforts, Cambra has already had great success as a young performer, appearing at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations last December, in addition to being broadcast live on National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion this past February.

While Cambra has excelled on the piano, the instrument presents challenges for some other students.

"Learning piano is a requirement of the Jacobs School of Music," Engstrom explained. "For students with repetitive-motion conditions, they may be vocal students or play another instrument that doesn't exacerbate the problem, but then they'd go to piano class and start presenting with difficulties."

Engstrom said her office and the music faculty "worked backward" together to determine how the student could meet the same goals in a different manner, often adapting the requirements to the student's instrument.

For other students who have conditions that limit their stamina, faculty and staff have helped them identify the best courses to enable them to meet requirements without compromising their well-being.

"The Jacobs School's program is extremely vigorous," Engstrom explained. "Students may be working on their coursework more than 20 hours a week, and practices take time, and then they have to come up with their own recitals. It's very rigorous. Also, many of them will participate in the operas. They are very hard-working students. So one thing that helps them is getting good advice like, 'You know if you take this particular course, you will have to put in these kinds of hours, but here's another course that will satisfy the requirement but not be as physically demanding.'"

The process for finding accommodations begins with students visiting DSS and receiving recommendations. "In general, we have to take a look at what's being required of the student and what their limitations are, and work with those who are responsible for that requirement at the Jacobs School, usually advisers or individual instructors," she said. One of the ways in which the Jacobs School has excelled, she explained, has been in educating DSS staff about music instruction.

"Most of the time when the recommendation has to do with modifying a music course, we don't have the musical background to understand what's been going on," she said. "They have been more than willing to explain the pedagogical basis of things to us. They have always been willing to help us understand and work with us to develop some kind of accommodations."

Potter returned the praise with his own congratulations to DSS.

"I would like to get out the message that her office is really doing a wonderful service for students, and for faculty who shouldn't have to judge these situations one at a time," Potter said. "Her office does that for us and recommends accommodations. It's a very useful thing for the faculty."