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Summer 2012

The Trill of It All

Adrian AnatawanAs he says in the documentary that came out in 2008 about his life, "When you see a one-handed violinist play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, you can always say, there's a story behind the notes."

For Adrian Anantawan, Ed.M.'12, that story began in Toronto in 1983 when he was born without a right hand and some of his forearm. By the time he was 10, his parents wanted to make sure he wasn't left out of playing an instrument. He and his classmates were learning the recorder, but he was struggling to hold it with only one hand. His parents decided the violin might work. With the help of a team of biomedical engineers at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, a custom-made adaptive device called a "spatula" was designed just for him. The piece attaches just below the elbow, allowing Anantawan to clip on the bow. He fingers the strings with his left hand.

Although the learning curve was steep at first, Anantawan quickly fell in love with his violin, in time establishing himself as a "rising star in classical music," as The Globe and Mail once wrote. He attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the music school at Yale, studied under Itzhak Perlman, played for President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II, and performed at the Kennedy Center and with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

And since last September, he has spent every Thursday, all day, with his violin at the William H. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Boston, where disabled students study alongside nondisabled students. Working primarily with the school's music program, Anantawan got the job through the Ed School's Field Experience Program. It was a huge commitment for a full-time student, but right away, Anantawan knew he had to work at the Henderson.

"The first time there, I was floored by the commitment that the teachers make," Anantawan says. "The way they put together lesson plans, the way they work with kids in the classroom. And the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model is great for different ways of engaging different learners."

An incident in March reminded him of why he's so committed to working at the intersection of education, special needs, and music. As the kids were rehearsing a play for black history month, he and the staff brainstormed ways to include a girl with cerebral palsy. They realized they should let her do what she loved best: clapping with the portable communicator she uses.

"Every time I see her, she's trying to bring my hands together, in hopes that I'll start clapping," Anantawan says. "Very much like a musician, she enjoys recognition." With the help of a paraprofessional, the girl learned the rhythm and tempo of the songs.

"If you could measure engagement based on someone's face," he says, "this girl had it." With graduation around the corner, Anantawan now hopes to design a UDL curriculum for teachers, especially music teachers, to use in public schools. He'd also like to see the music program at the Henderson — as developed as it is — expand even more.

"I'd love to create an instrumental afterschool program," he says. One that combines traditional instruments like — what else? — the violin with adaptive music technologies.

"I really want to create not only a meaningful music program," Anantawan says, "but also one that is accessible for students from the margins."