Music, Accessible to Everyone
by Nura Aly
For as long as I can remember, music in school has been “all-inclusive.” Students with, and without, disabilities come together to learn and create music. Well, that’s the intention. My observation has been different.
My friends with disabilities were ignored, left to get instruction from their teacher assistants who, more often than not, knew nothing about music.
In 4th grade, I started playing in my school orchestra. I had been playing violin for 3 years by then. One of my best friends, Lorraine, saw me play and wanted to learn. She happens to have Down syndrome. We were so excited… we were going to be in orchestra together!! She received her instrument, came to the first lesson. And, she was ignored. She was only one of many. On one hand that’s great, because she wasn’t singled out as different; but, on the other hand, she wasn’t given the proper one-on-one attention she needed to succeed. Soon she quit coming altogether. I was furious.
To this day, she still has her violin — and still talks about wanting to play.
I continued to play. Music gave me a place to belong. I was a musician who just happened to have a disability. As I continued my educational career, Lorraine was always in the back of my mind. It’s not fair. Why can’t everyone get the chance to learn music and have the community that I have? There’s got to be a way. The intention was there — what went wrong?
By high school I knew I wanted to teach. I wanted to fix things. I wanted to give back to the two communities that made me who I am today — the music community and the disability community. I want to change the thinking from “you can’t” to “how can we?”
Ten years later here I am, teaching. I’ve taught at a music camp for people with disabilities, in Pittsburgh, for two summers. This camp gives people with disabilities the chance to try music, just for the sake of music. My goal is to create a similar program here, where I live. I have begun what could be the start of that.
I am currently teaching a girl who is deaf how to play viola. One of the first people I told was the owner of the shop that repaired her instrument for us. He looked at me and said, “Do you think that this is a good idea? Why don’t you have her play something else that might be easier for her to learn?” At the time I thought that maybe he was right — but — this is what she wanted. Who am I to tell her no? I wouldn’t be any better than the teachers who ignored their students with disabilities. I want to be different. I want to try. What’s the worst thing that could happen it doesn’t work and we try something else? Who knows what could come of this?
She arrived at the shop and I placed the viola under her chin, plucked the strings. Her face changed. She smiled. She signed to me that she could feel the vibrations. I was so happy. She was ecstatic. Suddenly, a whole new world had opened up. I knew in that moment that she could learn to play, and I was glad there were people there to witness it. I wasn’t a crazy person with an unattainable dream.
My dream and her desire were becoming reality. This is just the beginning of a journey of growth for me, for her and hopefully for many others.
Music without limits, music truly accessible to everyone.