Overcoming Obstacles






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Novak, Jessica
Date published: August 24, 2011

An impressive collaboration among a handful of entities is making it possible for children with disabilities to learn a career in studio recording. Syracuse University, SubCat Studios, the MTAP (Music Technology Access Project), Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), University College and the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) came together this summer.

"The idea is that it is entirely possible to teach, to bring kids into a situation that they might never have been included in and they can learn a lot of this stuff," said program director and SU music technology administrator/instructor James Abbott. "It's not a music therapy idea. We're not just giving them something to assuage a disability. We're trying to give them a tool set for them to use. It might be a vocation that they could someday get into."

The program began when Abbott was developing an iPad app to enable someone in a wheelchair or with limited movement to activate parts of the studio using voice controls. When he told BBI chair Peter Blanck about the project in early 2011, Blanck was so impressed that he named Abbott a BBI Fellow in February. That means Abbott has the opportunity to be involved in policy development and research related to people with disabilities. At the same time, Abbott applied for an Innovative Summer Program Fund grant from University College and once he obtained the funds, he began developing the studio recording program.

His inspiration was Alex, his 13-year-old son with Down syndrome, who James and his wife Elizabeth, an art teacher in the North Syracuse Central School District, have seen through various struggles. "That was my light bulb," Abbott said. "My profession and my son. How can I change the world just a little bit for him?" his wife Elizabeth, an art teacher in the North Syracuse Central School District, have seen through various struggles. "That was my light bulb," Abbott said. "My profession and my son. How can I change the world just a little bit for him?"

Abbott began with the idea that the program would focus around an undergraduate studio recording course, and disabled students would be brought to the studio to learn. When he ran into John Coggiola, SU associate professor and chair of the music education department, he quickly expanded the idea to include graduate students studying music education.

"He explained the idea of doing a course and having the students with disabilities as part of it," Coggiola said of Abbott. "And I said, 'Music education students-we will be a part of it. We will be there.' And there's 10 really great music ed students down there. Those guys are great teachers."

They opened up the course to both graduated and graduate students in music education. Several in the program are already active teachers in the community including Andrea Voutsinas, a music teacher at Hughes Middle School in the city. The student teachers began learning about the recording studio themselves in early July and put the entire curriculum together before the students arrived at SubCat on Aug. 1. The students were there three days a week for two weeks for several hours a day.

"It was just everybody shooting ideas around and then we sort of brought all our ideas together and formulated what we thought were the most important things to teach them," Voutsinas said. "We had two weeks to learn ourselves, and then the kids came. So it's very intense."

The program totaled 10 teachers and 13 campers-12 high schools students (three without disabilities) and one SU undergraduate. They taught the students about the studio, performance, how to set up their own equipment and how to set up a band's equipment as if they were clients. Local Latin group Grupo Pagan served as the "client" band during the second week of the camp. The students also created their own album art, performed and recorded their own song, "SubCat," set to the tune of The Beatles' "Get Back," and recorded a live performance on Aug. 12 at the Redhouse with musical guests the Jeff Bradbury Trio and the Sarah Aument Band.

The Abbotts reached out through local school districts to invite high school students to the program, and through word of mouth, attracted students without an IEP (individualized education plan), also called typical students, as well. Elizabeth Abbott personally interviewed each of the families interested in having their child in the program.

"We got a couple of typical students through word of mouth, people who had heard and their child was very interested," Elizabeth Abbott said. "And in the spirit of being truly inclusive I said, 'Ya know, we really should consider this because it's just as important for the special ed students to have good peer role models as it is for the peer role models to have contact,' which herein lies the crux of the whole thing."

As students progress through school, worries about test scores and class size mount and many see opportunities denied. Elizabeth Abbott added, "What I have said through this program is, 'Isn't it amazing when you make kids or anybody, when you make them feel important, respected, included and you raise that bar really high...they will rise right up to that.'"

James Abbott chimed in, ". . . or jump right over it. It's pretty preposterous really when you think about it. Telling the world that someone with autism can learn to operate Pro-Tools on a computer, and in fact they might be much better at it than you because that's the mind-set. The kid might be really talented at computers. The technology is so adaptable."

The Abbotts hope through careful journaling of this first run-through of the program that they will be able to expand and duplicate it, here in Syracuse and perhaps beyond. The idea of measuring how this instruction could also improve understanding of math and science among the students is also a consideration. Further, they hope that the student teachers will take what they've seen and heard through participation in the program and bring it back to their classrooms, making noise when necessary to assure that students with disabilities are not left behind.

After all, Frank Carmickel, the recording engineer who mixed what students had recorded during week one of the program, is living proof. Carmickel is blind since birth and not only runs the studio effectively, but is considered a world-class engineer. "He's an example," James Abbott said, "of how the technology exists now where a person who is blind can work in this industry, if somebody just gives them the chance."

-JESSICA NOVAK

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