Rhoda Bernard: Creating Resources and Opportunities for Students with Special Needs to Receive Arts Education

Mike Lawson • Features • June 10, 2019

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As director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, Rhoda Bernard is training the next generation of music teachers to serve a diverse population, including students with learning, developmental, and physical differences.

She created the Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s master’s degree program in music education with an autism concentration, and she oversees a complex array of programs that serve children and adults with disabilities, as well as their families, and provides ever-growing resources for music teachers in Boston and beyond.

The funny thing is, Bernard didn’t set out to be a teacher. At the start of her own college career, she was too busy looking for compromise between the music education she wanted and the broader background that her parents wanted for her. She entered Harvard University as a liberal arts student but joined every music-related extracurricular activity she could find.

“I paid for my own private voice lessons while I was in school. After I graduated, I went to New England Conservatory and majored in jazz voice performance; that was where I fell in love with klezmer music—Jewish music in Yiddish and Hebrew— which is what I do professionally as a musician,” Bernard explains. “I was also a T.A. for a lot of professors. After I finished at New England Conservatory, they made me adjunct faculty to teach music theory and some coursework in music education.

I co-founded a charter school outside of Boston that was music-focused. I got my doctorate in education from Harvard, focusing on how to train music teachers. By then, I knew I really wanted to train better music teachers.”

Here, we talk to Bernard about her own formative musical experiences, and the inspiring work she’s doing to improve the lives of students with special needs through music education.

I’m curious to know not only how you got involved in music education, but also how you developed your focus on the population of students with special needs.

My experience growing up relates directly to my work now. I started high school in 1980, the year Proposition 2.5 went into effect in Massachusetts. It’s a law that limits the amount that property taxes in a given year can increase to 2.5 percent, and when that went into effect, many school programs were cut. Music had always been huge in my life, and before Proposition 2.5 my school had a fabulous music program, but it was all gone. My high school chorus teacher, who also taught us music in elementary and middle school, called a meeting at the Papa Gino’s [pizzeria] across the street. She still had her job teaching at the elementary and middle school, but they cut her high school job, so she couldn’t meet with us on school grounds.

She told us she did not want our music education to end. She couldn’t take our money and the school couldn’t know, but she wanted to teach us. We just had to come up with places and times. She held auditions at a community center in the evening, and I got into the select chorus and the show choir.

My parents’ basement was big and we had a piano, so twice a week we rehearsed the show choir in my parents’ basement. What I learned from this was the importance of access. I don’t know what I would have done if I had not had access to a music education. When I think about people today who don’t have that access, it makes me very upset. So, I came to this work with students with special needs from the perspective of creating access.

How did you actually go from receiving your doctorate degree in education to spearheading these programs?

When I left Harvard, I got a job at Boston Conservatory chairing their graduate music education department. I was running graduate programs to train public school music teachers. I developed partnerships with schools, and although this had not been my area of study up until that point, I was aware of the research showing that arts educators get virtually no training and very little support to work with anyone outside the “typical” population. So I started to form some new partnerships to address this: We worked with a nearby K-8 school for students with disabilities where they didn’t have a music department. My students would go there one day a week and give the whole school music classes. That partnership was so successful that they ended up hiring one of my students, who is still there; that was more than 12 years ago.

In 2007 we started to develop programming at the Conservatory to provide private [instrument and voice] lessons to students with autism. We started with 12 private students, and it was a huge success. My graduate students did the teaching and got all kinds of training and support. Then local teachers wanted to come to our training, so we got approved to give them professional development. And then we got a grant to take that training on the road; we condensed what we’d been doing in three days of training and created a one-day greatest hits, and we took that to different school districts and colleges in Massachusetts.

This encouraged me to go to my boss at the time and say, “We need to do more professional development, and we need to think about graduate programs in music education and autism.” She said, “Let’s form a committee,” and around 2010 we started doing research on whether offering these graduate programs would be a good idea. It was, so we started offering the master’s degree and the graduate certificate.

Meanwhile, I was starting to raise more and more money for this work, including a grant for my own professional development. I did tutorials and went to conferences. I spent a long time in conversation with experts in the field of special education who could help me get my arms around the field on an academic and pedagogical level. It wasn’t enough just to set up programs; I needed a deep understanding of the work.

If the university was behind you, why did you have to raise your own funds?

This was all work that was not my job. It was a labor of love alongside my job. The conservatory said, “These are great ideas, and we have no money for you.” All the work I did was tuition-driven, so I started raising money to provide financial aid so we weren’t just giving private lessons to families who could afford it. We’ve been fortunate that a lot of private foundations have helped. We also received two grants from an anonymous donor totaling about $1 million, and they endow certain aspects of our work.

Then I started getting calls from families of very young children, and we had nothing for them, so I got a grant from the NEA to start an early childhood program. The next thing was, I went to one of our year-end recitals, which we do at the end of every year, and it was lovely, but it became clear to me it was single people playing all the time; I thought we need people to be playing together. So I got funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to start a chorus, and when that was successful, we got more money from the Cultural Council to start an iPad ensemble and a rock band.

If all of this was under the auspices of the Conservatory, how did Berklee get involved?

In 2015, the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music announced their intention to merge, and suddenly I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me or to this work. I soon learned that Berklee has “institutes,” which are focused areas that have to raise most of their own budget, and engage in different kinds of focused projects. Some are more internal and others are externally facing. Some relate to the curriculum, some do not. I got the idea that one possible post-merger solution would be if we became an institute. The good news was, I already had a track record of raising money. I floated the idea to people at the Conservatory and at Berklee, and the decision was made to go forward.

We became the Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs in September of 2017, and that has allowed us to expand beyond just music and autism. We now have two adaptive dance programs and a theater program, and we are exploring partnerships with visual artists. We also work with a huge range of disabilities and diagnoses: kids with ADHD and different kinds of learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, hearing loss, visual impairment, and more.

Then the other piece of the puzzle is, we do a lot of teacher professional development. A couple of weeks ago, we had our annual conference, the ABLE Assembly: Arts Better the Lives of Everyone, which is our flagship professional development activity. In addition to that we do workshops, consultations, mini-courses, and webinars.

I understand you’re trying to share resources with music teachers worldwide as well.

We have an online calendar (berklee.edu/berklee-institute-arts-education-and-special-needs/professional-development-calendar) for teachers, listing all the different kinds of professional development events going on in the field of arts education and special needs. You can use this calendar anywhere to see what is happening near you. Also, we’ve launched an online clearing house of resources—just for music teachers so far, but it will be expanded eventually. It’s called the ABLE Music Resource Center (guides.library.berklee.edu/ABLE), and we just received word that the software platform will be updated to a much more robust platform in the coming months.

There are books, lesson plans, Power Point presentations, articles, and websites of related organizations. Right now, you can key-word search pretty well, but eventually I want it to be sort of like buying shoes on Zappos: If you’re a fourth grade teacher, you can check off “fourth grade,” and if you teach band, you check off “band,” and if you have students with dyslexia, you check off “dyslexia,” and finally everything relevant to teaching band to a dyslexic fourth-grade student comes up. We’re moving toward that.

What have been some of the greatest rewards for you, from doing this work?

There are all kinds of rewards. I’m very fortunate that two or three times a week someone tells me that we made a difference. It might be a teacher who says, “That workshop you did helped me,” or it might be a parent saying, “My child did your weeklong summer day camp, and it’s the only time I’ve seen him happy for a whole week at a stretch.”

The other kind of reward is to see how the response to what we’re offering is growing. This year more than 200 people attended our ABLE Assembly conference, whereas our first conference had 50 people. There’s demand, and our programming is working for people who need it. That’s exciting to me. 

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