Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA) enrolls students who are 18 years old through age 30. The one activity that all Berkshire Hills Music Academy students must have is either a talent or strong interest in music. Intellectually, the students include those with an IQ range of 55-90. The school is best able to serve the 70-80 range. However, depending on the individual, a person with a lower or higher IQ with appropriate abilities and disabilities can be served. Due to the very low prevalence of William's Syndrome, other students who are in this IQ range and have both verbal and non-verbal learning differences are eligible for enrollment. The BHMA student cannot have significant behavioral or emotional problems.
On the day I visited BHMA, the students were performing at three different nursing homes. Every Wednesday, the students give concerts to various groups, practicing what they have learned during the past week. My timing was perfect as I was able to spend an hour listening to a concert performed for nursing home residents in Holyoke, MA.
It was a highly entertaining concert as the students played and sang several pieces that would resonate with the age of the attendees. The students inspired the audience by singing and playing guitar, electric violin, keyboard and drums. The audience responded by singing along, dancing and having the time of their lives. I would guess that musicians might say the house "ROCKED"! The band played Baby Face, Bicycle Built for Two, Can't Help Loving That Man, and several songs that were written by the musicians. The range of music played was impressive. One young lady beautifully sang an operatic song entitled Italian Sebben Crudele. Her poise, range of voice and presence was as good as I have heard. I particularly enjoyed hearing two of the band members playing an original piece which was written and put together in only two days. Another played the Jewish Dance on the keyboard. A concert like this has to have a great ending and the sing along to Ain't She Sweet was a touching end to the concert. Everyone sang along and someone shouted out, "That was a real toe-tapper!" To say I was impressed by this wonderful group of talented students would be an understatement.
I couldn't help but think of my son who is a musician. Through him, I understand the love of music and how important it is to this group of young adults. Through music, they learn social skills, confidence, discipline, organizational skills, confidence in speaking, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. All types of music are embraced at BHMA and acceptance of the music of others is the key.
Music is clearly the primary activity which is reflected with the emphasis placed on a wide variety of opportunities. BHMA also has a performance troupe comprised of the more experienced musicians in the school, which performs at larger and more challenging venues. The school offers numerous classes including elements of music, music appreciation, chorus, reader's theater, dance ensemble, voice lessons, and musical theatre. Overall, the objective is to bring out whatever musical talent the students may have. For Berkshire Hills Music Academy, music is the bridge that helps develop more pathways for improved communication.
Berkshire Hills Music Academy was founded six years ago by a number of individuals, including Kay Bernon and Sharon Libera, each of whom has a son diagnosed with William's Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder. This disorder brings with it a variety of difficulties such as heart conditions or lowered intellectual capabilities. Many of the students with this disorder have an affinity for music. The founders desired to develop a program that would address the issues affecting this population and accomplished that dream.
The academy is located on 40 beautiful acres and the students live in a stately 6,000 square foot mansion which houses class rooms, practice rooms, fitness areas, administrative offices and numerous music rehearsal and performance spaces. The school's location, in the heart of Western Massachusetts' Five-College area allows students to take advantage of a deep wealth of musical and arts presentations at local colleges and universities. Many BHMA students become involved in community arts organizations in addition to their work at the school.
Entering students may or may not have their high school diploma. Another primary goal is to help students improve basic academic skills, and some are able to finish their high school graduation requirements while at BHMA. The classroom focus is to provide good teaching practices for this population where students feel safe to accomplish improved skills. Sometimes students need to experience uncomfortable situations, even failing at times. Feeling safe and supported in their moments of failure encourages students to take chances and learn to succeed. Each success, day in and day out, increases confidence and the willingness to try more. The concept of cooperative learning and helping others ingrains the idea that each of them has much to offer others.
Social skill building is a primary focus for the school. Along with music, there are several areas of focus. Staff members provide excellent role models in all aspects of day to day living. At each meal, staff and students eat together family style. This enables students to practice good table manners and learn to have productive conversations with students and staff alike. The school social worker holds group counseling sessions with students to assist in communication and daily living skills. The primary goal is to have the students move toward independence. They learn to cook, take care of their rooms, and purchase food. Hygiene is also an important focus. Budgeting, banking, nutrition, current affairs, shopping and other life skills are taught.
The length of stay is two years, with the first year emphasizing basic academic and social skill development, along with musical training. The second year of the program continues social skill development and academic remediation, and also emphasizes vocational exploration and training, both in the areas of musical performance and in work in the field of music and human service. Students who want to pursue a career in music or just further their musical talents can remain at the school for the third year "Music in Careers" program. BHMA is primarily a residential school, but has recently begun accepting local day students.
BHMA also offers a summer program for ages 16 to 30 and has recently begun a Music Therapy Camp for young people ages 7 to 11. The focus of these summer experiences is encouraging individuals with special leaning needs to have fun, make friends, and develop their own musical skills.
Will Berkshire Hills Music Academy produce professional musicians? Most understand how difficult it is for anyone to break into the music business, but BHMA does successfully prepare its students to pursue music as a vocation. A majority of its graduates are now pursuing work as performers or work as musical assistants in human services settings. However, a much greater purpose for the student's pursuit of music is to enrich their lives by being a part of something exciting and fun, giving them enormous joy and hope in their lives.