In the band 

At the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, rock music's making a lot of sense

click to enlarge Alison Utters flute playing lends polish to the Bad News - Bulldog Bands version of Van Morrisons Moondance. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Photo by Brienne Boortz
  • Alison Utters flute playing lends polish to the Bad News Bulldog Bands version of Van Morrisons Moondance.
It's mid-February at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and the Bad News Bulldog Band is gearing up for practice. Bass player Justin Coffin, 15, straps on his Yamaha Electric. Alex Khan, 16 and one of four guitar players, strums a few chords on his Fender Stratocaster.

The school's electrician, doubling as the band's sound technician, tweaks knobs on the soundboard as music teacher Julie Novak clutches a Simon and Patrick Acoustic and sings a few notes with Roni Kerin, 16.

Novak calls out a song name: "What I Like About You," the upbeat 1980s song by The Romantics. After a requisite three-count, they start up.

Members of the band dance and shake in varying degrees; while some stand still, others, like singer Zach Brunetti, snap and move to the beat. Novak and teacher Robin Theryoung provide backup singing at the perfect volume, never overshadowing the students, who bring the all-important energy, joyous if a bit frenzied.

That sound gives way when the band moves on to a cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance." Alison Utter, 14, plays a smooth flute, and the band's various talents gel; it's obvious they've worked a lot on this song.

Diane Covington, CSDB's community liaison and the only other person privy to this rehearsal, leans in and explains that Novak's trying to teach them to smile and be more aware of their appearance. Of the 13 members of the Bad News Bulldog Band nine students and four teachers 10 are vision-impaired.

The Bad News Bulldog Band is "already pretty famous on campus," according to Khan. But its real coming-out party is March 12. That's when it plays to the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives at the state Capitol, per request of local Rep. Michael Merrifield.

Chord progression

Khan first came to the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind from Berthoud, a small town north of Denver, as a freshman in February 2007. Khan's parents sent him to CSDB whose 37-acre campus east of downtown Colorado Springs welcomes approximately 220 students believing it could meet his needs as a legally blind young man.

Khan was born with a visual impairment called nystagmus. It's caused by ocular albinism a lack of pigment in his eyes, which is believed to be integral to the formation of optical nerves. The nystagmus causes the eyes to shift back and forth. The shifting isn't overtly noticeable; it's hard to see past Khan's easy grin and freckles.

For Khan, that first semester was tough. He'd never met another blind person before. It also took him some time to adjust to living with 100-plus other residential students in the castle-like stone dorms scattered around Institute Street and Pikes Peak Avenue.

"I never wanted to stand out," says the redhead, sitting in the large music room, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and a baseball cap. "I just didn't want people to think of me as different."

When Khan returned to CSDB from Berthoud after summer break, Novak asked him to be in the band. Khan wasn't sure at the time.

"I didn't want people to see me being on stage," he says.

But Novak cut him a deal: She asked him to try out the band for a week.

"I learned two chords," he says, adding, "I was pretty proud of myself, so I decided to stay."

Khan says that as his involvement in the band continued, he realized he also wanted to stay at CSDB. Performing, he says, taught him that even in conversation, people aren't out to judge him; they just want to hear what he has to say.

"I always thought people would think bad things if I made a little mistake," he says. "Now, I love the feeling that people want me to play music for them."

Opening notes

Julie Novak started the Bad News Bulldog Band whose name was selected by a vote of members in August 2006. The teacher, tall and blonde with a bright smile and warm voice, says it began after she took a year off from her job as CSDB's music teacher to complete her master's degree in music therapy at Florida State University.

click to enlarge Despite a bit of early stage fright, Alex Khan has grown into - his guitarist role. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Photo by Brienne Boortz
  • Despite a bit of early stage fright, Alex Khan has grown into his guitarist role.

Sitting in front of her desk, among scattered instruments, Novak explains that she had first started a hand-bell choir when she became CSDB's music teacher five years ago. But after returning to CSDB, Novak realized she had a rock band.

"Justin [Coffin] plays the bass and drums so well," she says. "And Carlos [Ramirez] could already play the keyboard."

Not everyone had previous musical training. But she says everyone was able to learn three chords, the baseline knowledge for playing most pop songs.

"I know that some traditional music teachers [would] roll their eyes and say, "Why do a rock band, when the kids should learn orchestra?'" says Novak, who knows of only one other such band in the country. "I think kids come to this school after a frustrating experience at public school. In a rock band, I can set them up with a guitar and some chords and [get] them set up right away for success ... I've watched them gain confidence."

That's clear at band practice, which takes place during regular school hours. Today, some of the kids are singing quietly to themselves between songs.

"That seriously sounded like John Denver," says flute player Utter to Brunetti, the baritone singer.

The band plays an appropriately loud and slightly raucous version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." But its gem is "When You Say Nothing At All" by Alison Krauss.

Student Roni Kerin covers Krauss almost understatedly. Someone else might belt out the lyrics Shania Twain-karaoke style, but Kerin stands still at the front of the stage, singing each note clearly, emphasizing the lyrics instead of a quivering, dramatic voice. Ramirez holds the song together while Coffin lays down a well-timed bass beat.

click to enlarge e5f8_capsule.jpg

Novak navigates the center of the stage, at times smiling toward onlookers and at other times facing her players. She moves around with ease, using music and body movements (leg shaking and eye connection) to communicate.

Rhythmic keys

Leading the Bad News Bulldog Band, of course, comprises only a small part of Novak's job. She not only teaches music to kids at the School for the Blind, but also to elementary school students, and to older kids who request extracurricular music classes, at the School for the Deaf.

Most people with hearing impairments, Novak explains, have a hard time hearing higher pitches. By using lower-frequency instruments like the bass guitar or percussion, she can expose them to music. In fact, in her own grad-school research, she found that people who are hearing impaired or deaf identified rhythmic elements of music (beats, tempo change, etc.) as well or better than hearing people.

So she shows them rhythm notation, or dance moves. For one class, she's teaching kids the dance routine from Will Smith's "Men in Black" video.

"I want them to learn that visual beat of four," Novak says.

She also exposes them to the emotional element of music, illustrating how sounds and high-pitch concepts relate to the environment. For example: Music from a flute can represent a small, delicate bird; sounds from a double bass might represent an elephant. She shows them movies and talks about what's happening when there's a tense situation and the violin plays a tremolo, which is a very fast repetition of the same note.

"I want to explain how music affects people's emotions," Novak says.

"Basically," she adds, "I expose them to the ideas of music that people who hear take for granted."

Similarly, there are musical aspects that sighted people take for granted, such as the ability to read music. For people who are visually impaired, notation is available in Braille, but there are shortcomings.

Musicians with vision impairments can't keep a hand free to read as they play their instruments. So they have to memorize the piece, then practice. Plus, they have to learn intervals, since notes aren't written on a scale in Braille. (Instead, Braille notation relies on a specific symbol to indicate intervals.)

Novak chooses to have her guitarists, who all have some vision, read enlarged versions of tablatures, which indicate where to place their fingers on their instruments. Novak implements the three-chord progression in pop songs to have the kids explore the patterns in the music, which develops into music theory.

"I want them to realize how the chords relate to theory," she says.

click to enlarge At CSDB, classmates arent questioning Justin Coffins - musical ability. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Photo by Brienne Boortz
  • At CSDB, classmates arent questioning Justin Coffins musical ability.

So they explore the verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure in pop songs. She also uses the chords to teach them to solo or improvise.

"I'll ask them," she says, "'What note would work well in that chord structure?' Or, "What melody can you use in order to make it work in that chord structure?'

"We try to get away from the melody of the song so they can be creative."

In chorus

For the record, CSDB's not awash in cash. It's funded by state and some federal money, the latter coming since it admits certain percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. But Louis M. Tutt, principal of the School for the Blind, says that while many schools cut funding for music and the arts, CSDB emphasizes "that the visual and performing arts are just as significant as the core subjects."

So when the band needed a new keyboard, he approved using some of the money the school generated in a physical-education fundraiser. He explains the Yamaha keyboard fits into the P.E. program as an aid in the "Music and Movement" class.

Not everyone would be so open-minded; indeed, Novak says two years teaching in Florida public schools felt like two years in "a child factory."

But all around CSDB are reminders of how important music can be to young people.

On a Thursday night, Coffin, Ramirez, Khan and Brunetti sit at a kitchen table in the common area of their dorm. They speak softly. Ramirez, 15, and Coffin sit with their chests pressed into the table as they talk about their experiences at public school.

Coffin plays not only bass guitar, but also drums. And he raps. Yet kids at his public school in Arvada, he says, doubted his musical ability.

"They would always tell me, "You can't throw rhymes like me,'" he says. Now a high school freshman, he came to CSDB in the sixth grade because he was flunking all his classes in public school.

Ramirez adds that in public school, he never got the opportunity to be in a rock band.

"I just got left alone."

And yet Ramirez had been playing the piano since he was 5. At 12, he met a professional pianist who was so astounded by his ability, he gave Ramirez free lessons.

Brunetti says his musical experience came from performing with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He's 19, older than most of the other kids (though the school enrolls students up to age 21). While he'd gone blind as a toddler, it wasn't until his junior and senior years in high school that he started having problems.

He was flunking classes, and teachers found him wandering or standing in strange places throughout the school. Last August, his parents got him into CSDB, but the problems continued.

Finally in November, doctors found that a cyst had grown around the remnants of the tumor that had necessitated surgery and left him blind at 17 months old. Pointing to a white scar dividing his crown just behind the hairline, Brunetti says he went in for emergent brain surgery a couple months ago.

He had been singing in the band since he came to CSDB, but with the neurological difficulties, he hadn't really connected with anyone.

"I was quiet," he says. "I didn't know how to act."

When he returned from surgery, fully aware and sentient for the first time in two years, he found friendship with band members and assimilated into the CSDB community.

The group's cohesion is evident as the band members speak for one another. Coffin chimes in: "Zach's always humming a tune." As he talks more about music, Coffin lifts his chest off the edge of the table. He and Ramirez become animated when Coffin raps.

click to enlarge Carlos Ramirez has played the keys since he was 5 years - old. Hes now 15. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Photo by Brienne Boortz
  • Carlos Ramirez has played the keys since he was 5 years old. Hes now 15.

"You know nothing about the blind school / It's so cool / The music teacher's so tight ..."

Ramirez beatboxes and Khan starts drumming the table with his hands. Brunetti adds to the sounds by tapping his feet as he moves back and forth to the beat.

Being sharp

In the course of conversation, Khan contends that generally, blind kids are more interested in music than sighted kids. Ramirez disagrees, saying, "I happen to be visually impaired and musically talented, but that doesn't mean the two are related."

It begs the question: What's the relationship between being visually impaired and sonically aware?

Well, research appears to support Ramirez's experience.

In Visual Impairment in Children and Adolescents, James E. Jan, Roger D. Freeman and Eileen P. Scott recognized that most people regard children with visual impairment having a proclivity for music. Throughout history, children with visual disabilities have been taught to sing for a living. And in the absence of vision, blind children play with sounds.

But, the authors stated, "research has shown that fundamentally, people with visual impairments are no better at music than the sighted. They are not extraordinarily gifted musically, as many believe, and they have to receive just as much, perhaps even more, training."

Studies have shown that people who are visually impaired are more likely to have perfect pitch the ability to decipher a note without hearing it in comparison to other notes than people who are sighted. A recent study done by Canada's University of Montreal found that people who went blind before the age of 2 are up to 10 times better than sighted people at determining changes in pitch.

Novak says that people with perfect pitch can be good instrumentalists because they're never sharp or flat, and the ability to stay in tune is really helpful in music. But they can also struggle when singing or playing along with an instrument that's not in tune.

"Most singers without perfect pitch would adjust," she says, "while the person with perfect pitch might have an extremely difficult time."

Researchers from the Montreal study concluded that the brain will compensate for a deficiency in one area by developing a heightened sensitivity in another. But this study and others like it only suggest that people who are visually impaired may have a better sense of sound, not necessarily special musical talents, or even a proclivity to play music.

When talking about why he's drawn to music, Ramirez mentions a reason that's less scientific.

"People think we're limited, that we need help," he says. "Personally, when it comes to music, it's something I don't need help with, so I feel good doing it."

The big show

Khan's perspective might be limited by his age and experience. And perhaps that experience can never be reconciled for a sighted person. But his claim that the Bad News Bulldog Band is famous on campus proves accurate.

A classroom of 10 elementary school kids confirm the buzz. When asked how they feel about the Bad News Bulldog Band, one girl in a hot-pink shirt and yellow beaded necklace raises her hand, her yellow, pink and green plastic bracelets clinking together. Without being called upon, she says, "They play so well it makes me want to be in a band. I have a feeling someday they'll be traveling all over the world."

But first, the State House. While the band has played at various events around town Lions Club gatherings, school fundraisers, the State of Colorado Braille Challenge the Capitol will be the most prestigious place at which they've performed.

They're excited, but not too worried. After all, says Khan, "When people say we sound good, I take that real seriously because people are really good listeners around here."



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