When the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired opened in 1856, there were only three students. So in order to pay the bills, students were expected to make brooms and other goods to sell. Nowadays, students are able to focus on academics, life skills and enrichment opportunities, such as learning to play classical guitar. A new app is helping people learn through Braille.
It’s mic check before graduation at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin. Three students are playing their classical guitars.
The teachers making sure the volume and music are just right are Matt Hinsley and Jeremy Coleman.
Today is the culmination of many achievements for these students. Their performance will showcase one of the skills they’ve learned. But as perfectly choreographed as the graduation ceremony will be, Hinsley says the guitar program at the school began because of a series of serendipitous events. The first was in 2011.
“They built this facility and we were touring it,” Hinsley says of that time.
When the tour arrived at a classroom, the principal introduced Hinsley as someone who worked with an organization called Austin Classical Guitar.
“And one of the girls in the room put her hand straight up in the air and said: ‘I want to learn guitar.’ And then the boy next to her did exactly the same thing. ‘I want to learn guitar!’ So, that’s kind of where it all started,” Hinsley says.
Hinsley actually already had a curriculum ready. He’d been working with other schools, especially in under-privileged areas in Texas. But, the curriculum would need to be modified. It needed to be translated into Braille. And here’s where Jeremy Coleman, the other teacher we met during sound check, comes in. He’s a former Marine who got a degree in classical guitar performance at a college in Louisiana. And he became essential to the second serendipitous event.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I graduated,” he says. “I just wanted to move where the action was. For classical guitar, that’s Austin, and so I showed up at Matt Hinsley’s house one day for lessons. I wanted to be a music teacher – guitar teacher specially.”
While Coleman worked on his master’s at UT Austin, he started volunteering at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. That meant he needed to learn Braille.
“The Braille music is a different code. So I took what I learned from Braille and I learned another code,” Coleman says.
Coleman is the one who took Hinsley’s guitar curriculum and adapted it into Braille. Now, he’s the school’s full-time guitar teacher.
Coleman says his first day teaching was actually a learning opportunity
“What I thought would happen was – everyone would be prodigies and everyone would be, like, music geniuses,” Coleman says. “Because everyone I knew at that point who was blind was, like, a famous musician, you know?”
Of course, that’s not the case – blind and visually impaired musicians, like all musicians, rely on some talent and a ton of training.
It’s been seven years and the program is chugging along. Coleman and Hinsley’s students are improving by leaps and bounds, and some are becoming truly exceptional musicians. Recently, one of them moved to Arizona. She’s the protagonist of the final serendipitous event. She wrote to her teachers that her school in Phoenix, a school not for visually impaired kids, was able to translate its guitar program to accommodate her. Hinsley picks up the story.
“We were very excited that this transition had happened successfully – for like 30 seconds – after which I realized, ‘oh, my goodness, we have a problem here because we have kids who are learning a beautiful skill and are becoming passionate about guitar and the world doesn’t have resources to continue that study the way any other child would be able to,” he says.
But now, the world does have such a resource.
Coleman and Hinsley just released what they call a life-long learning app, called Let’s Play. It’s free guitar curriculum in Braille and it will allow a person who is blind or visually impaired to take advantage of the program that began here in Texas.
Back in the auditorium, I sit for a complete performance from graduating students Devin Gutierrez, Hector Lara and Davion Perez and notice that service dog Jetson and I move our heads in unison.