Story Of Braillebeats is a Musical Miracle For Visually Impaired Children

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While some service projects grow from the drive and dedication of one person, others spring into life through collaboration. Get the right people together, in the right setting, at the right time, and great things can happen.

That's the story behind Braille Beats, an innovative fine arts and independent living program for visually impaired children, held each summer in Lapeer, Michigan. What started as a simple music-based day camp has grown into something far more ambitious, a place where kids not only learn how to play instruments, but also gain much-needed confidence and independence.

It all began with a music class. Steve Hornbeck, a Detroit-area piano tuner, regularly gives presentations to piano teachers and their classes, so students can understand how the instrument works. At one such session, music teacher Susan Gardner brought along a student who happened to be blind. He enjoyed having the chance to feel the inner workings of the piano, and eventually his mother, Brunhilde Merk-Adam, asked Hornbeck to put together a presentation for an entire group of blind children.

The parents watched as their children passed around piano parts and held tuning forks to feel the sound vibrate through their bodies. And they wished their children could have this kind of firsthand, visceral experience with music more often.

"A lot of blind kids don't have access to school music programs," says Merk-Adam. "They get left out of chorus or band because they can't read the music, and because they can't read the music, they're never taught music theory."

In 2003, Merk-Adam, Gardner and Hornbeck put together a week-long day camp called Braille Beats, inviting musician friends and colleagues as guest speakers. The program quickly grew far more ambitious. Now held at Lion's Bear Lake Camp, about an hour north of Detroit, it is referred to as a summer residential intensive program—rather than a camp—because of its ambitious schedule and high standards. Over the course of nine days, students study music theory and history, composition, performance skills, Braille music and even have the chance to make their own recordings.

But Braille Beats is about much more than music. Students also have hands-on art lessons, learning techniques such as oil painting, mosaic and sculpture. To encourage physical activity, there are dance classes and daily yoga routines.

Underlying all these lessons is one common thread: the desire to help visually-impaired children function as independently as possible. "We work a lot with social skills," says Merk-Adam. For example, performers who take part in the formal recital at the end of the session are expected to dress themselves appropriately, go on and off stage without assistance and maintain the correct posture while playing. "It's a wonderful thing to see them get their instruments and find their place on their own," says Merk-Adams. "When they develop those independent skills, it allows them to participate in their school and community, whether it's marching band or a church choir."

Because the program is held at a Lions camp, it has received donations from local clubs in southeastern Michigan. Last year, Merk-Adam and Hornbeck joined the Ortonville Lions Club, and they hope their personal experiences will help educate other Lions. In the past, says Merk-Adams, some Lions programs seemed more concerned with providing assistance than promoting independence. At summer camps, for example, children would be escorted around the grounds and be given help with unpacking and eating. "It was well meaning, but it didn't help them develop independent skills," she says. "I thought, maybe the issue is that people are very charitable-minded, but they're not aware what the needs truly are."

"We decided it's better to work from within," laughs Hornbeck.

The founders of Braille Beats are passionate about their work because they see the impact each summer session has on students. "Creative pursuits bring fulfillment to your life," says Merk-Adam. "If you're alone—and many blind kids spend lots of time on their own—you can entertain yourself. But if you're in a social setting and you play music, it draws people to you. It can be an icebreaker."

Just as importantly, the program gives children with similar interests and similar challenges a place to come together. The 18 participants last summer included children from as far away as California and New Jersey. "Many of these children might be the only blind person in their school," says Merk-Adam. "This gives them the opportunity to share with other kids like them."

"It's the only program like this in the world," says Hornbeck. "We're on a mission."


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