Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2010.
When Rhoda Bernard, Ed.M.'99, Ed.D.'04, heard a recording of an autistic teenager singing the National Anthem before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park this past summer, she was beaming with pride.
The girl was one of nearly 25 children with autism enrolled in the Boston Conservatory's Students on the Autism Spectrum program where Bernard, as chair of the music education department, equips the next generation of music teachers with tools for educating all children equally.
"The best thing I can do is prepare the strongest generation of music teachers as they go off and teach in a program and create quality music education that advocates for the field," Bernard says, noting that an outstanding music teacher can do terrific things for children, even those with autism.
Although Bernard grew up singing and involved in theater, she didn't always foresee a future as a music educator. After attending Radcliffe College and earning a degree in political science, she planned to become a lawyer, even though she continued to act and sing on the side.
When she recognized the state of music education, particularly how it continues to be first on the chopping block when schools' budgets are cut, Bernard reflected on everything music had brought to her own life. She knew it was important for other students to have the same opportunities that she'd had. Thus, she decided to attend the Ed School to gain more perspective on the problems facing schools.
During her time in the Arts in Education Program, she opened her eyes to the many different facets of music education. "I learned much more academically about arts education policy and it made me interested in what it takes to be a good music teacher in the current policy climate," Bernard says.
Becoming a great music educator doesn't happen overnight. Beyond being a strong musician, Bernard stresses the importance of music teachers equally having pedagogical knowledge and an understanding of the various components of teaching. "Effective music teachers need to understand multiple contexts," she says, pointing out that many often become music teachers because they either had wonderful experiences or want to give back what they never had. However, Bernard cautions, those intentions aren't always enough. Music teachers today must have interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Also, Bernard notes, music educators today must be prepared to work with students of special needs. "It's a weak area in [music teacher] training overall," Bernard says.
To date, much of the focus of music's effect on special needs students has been on music therapy - an area in which music is used to help build social skills and aid communication. So, in 2008, when Bernard was approached by the Autism Higher Education Foundation about launching a program geared toward teaching students with autism age 9 and older to play musical instruments, she knew it was a unique opportunity to give back to the students and the community, as well as to focus on broadening music teachers' experience and education.
"Music therapy programs are great, but the aim is something nonmusical - to help build social skills or deal with communication issues," she says. "Our program is teaching people how to play musical instruments with goals of becoming better musicians. If these other skills develop, it's great, but that isn't the focus."
The program matches a team of graduate students at the Conservatory to a student on the autism spectrum, who typically has some experience with her instrument. The graduate student teachers undergo intense and ongoing training, including observation during the private lessons by two consultants who help support and individualize teaching. There are nine lessons throughout the semester, including a midweek check-in via Skype. Additionally, group meetings throughout the year provide opportunities for teachers, students, and families to get to know each other.
At the end of the year, there is a recital where students perform for the community. "It is an incredible experience and there is not a dry eye in the house," Bernard says. "It's amazing to see the progress these students have made.
The program can transform the lives of students, like the teenager who sang the National Anthem and plans to pursue a college degree in musical theater. "I hope others will apply to college and major in music," Bernard shares, noting that she is often in awe of the students with autism as they learn to play instruments.
Through the program, graduate students also realize the importance of relationships in good teaching, especially nurturing relationships with students who may be nonverbal or have difficulty with social interaction.
"It changes the perspectives about what autism is and what it means to work with special needs students," Bernard says. "They come to appreciate how special these students are and some are incredible musicians. They are terrific people and fun to get to know and it's exciting for them to see, 'Wow, here's this really terrific person I get to work with...and be a part of their lives.'"