David Pinto began working with blind musicians as if by fate. In 1996, he was a professor at Pierce College in Los Angeles. During his Audio Computer Recording Class, he encountered a blind music student and realized that the software required for the course was unusable for those with visual impairments. Soon after, he created an audio recording software that blind musicians could utilize, and began working with greats such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, among others. Now, Pinto is the Founder of The Academy of Music for the Blind (AMB), a school just outside of LA with the mission to enhance the physical, cognitive, and social development of blind children through an education in music and the performing arts, no matter their economic or geographic circumstances.
AMB strives to ensure that blind musicians are fully integrated into the music culture of modern society, both professional and personal. For over 12 years, AMB has been encouraging and promoting music and performance art for blind youth. Through one-on-one instruction, children who attend the one-year comprehensive program flourish. Unlike many traditional conservatories, AMB encourages creativity and technique, rather than forcing its students to learn traditionally through limitations and specific guidelines.
The benefits of music on learning in general have been thoroughly documented, and Pinto noticed similar effects when working with blind music students. "Cognitive development can be challenging for the blind," he tells The Creators Project, "because concepts tend to remain more abstract than for the sighted. But music develops cognitive skills, including math, language and memory, by making abstract concepts concrete through rhythm, harmony and melody." He goes on to list the social benefits of musical study for the blind as well, noting that it allows students an avenue to connect with others in a world where the lack of vision often creates a barrier to everyday social interactions that sighted individuals take for granted.
One of the most interesting concepts at the heart of AMB has to do with the way the students process music. "Most blind music students use their ears more intensively than their sighted peers," Pinto says. "Just as children learn to speak before they learn to read, the blind almost always learn music before learning how to read Braille music. This is not true for most sighted music students. They tend to be the victim of notes […] going at the pace dictated by their ability to read.
"This allegiance to the page stunts the development of sighted musicians ability to really 'hear' music," Pinto continues. "Most sighted students cannot play by ear. Even the greatest classical musicians in the contemporary world cannot play the ‘Happy Birthday’ in any key without music. Whereas this is a cinch for any blind music student. Because of the blind students' ‘big ears,’ teaching the blind is an extraordinary pleasure to music teachers: the blind connect directly to the music, while the sighted have the intermediary of notes on a page."
Beyond music education, AMB students travel around California performing at a variety of events, including singing the national anthem at Lakers games. AMB also collaborates with other organizations in order to broaden the creative opportunities for the students at their school. Recently, Cantor Fine Arts, a gallery in Los Angeles, commissioned AMB to write and perform the soundtrack to their new documentary about tactile art which features a sculptor who creates physical images for the blind.
AMB is a place for students to learn and grow, both as musicians and as people. From the one-year program for youth, to student counseling and computer literacy, to social and living skills classes, AMB offers blind youth more than a musical education; it offers them a safe space in a world that is not always kind to those with disabilities. “Some of our multiple-impaired students were thought to not be educable,” Pinto recalls, “but through music, they learned to read Braille, to speak coherently, to perform and entertain others with their musicality, and to move with grace.”
For more information about The Academy of Music for the Blind, please visit their website.