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January 16, 2005

Breaking The Sound Barrier

From: Newark Star Ledger - Newark,NJ,USA - Jan 16, 2005

Students at a Jersey school learn to sing in sign and dance to a beat all their own

Sunday, January 16, 2005
BY PAULA SAHA Star-Ledger Staff

Maureen Butler stands with her arms in front of her, as if encircling a giant belly. She does not have such a belly, but a snowman certainly would.

"Watch me!" she says out loud and in sign language. "I will be the snowman. Watch this song."

The children giggle as Butler starts to sing, and sign.

Snowman, snowman, don't fall down.

Snowman, snowman, don't fall down.

Later, she is a snowflake, arms outstretched above her, twirling to the ground. Her voice, clear and strong, floats into the hallways as she leads her students in song:

See the little snowflakes, dancing, dancing.

See the little snowflakes, falling to the ground.

Some sing along, others watch her hands carefully and imitate. Butler's fingers flutter downward to show snow, and on "dancing," she swings two fingers over the other hand's palm, like legs on a dance floor.

Everyone has lots of fun "falling to the ground."

Teaching is a full-body activity for Butler in her music class at the Lake Drive School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Mountain Lakes.

Lake Drive is a regional public school that receives students from some 95 school districts and 13 counties of northern and central New Jersey. Many of her students have had little experience with music before joining her class.

Her goal is simple: "I really want to just expose them to the world of music."

Some students learn instruments like the guitar and the saxophone. At Christmastime, they put on a program complete with holiday songs, costumes and adoring parents in the audience. In the spring, there will be a musical.

"We want to expose children to many cultural activities," said David Alexander, the principal of Lake Drive who himself has significant hearing loss. Music, he said, "is an area that has been overlooked for so many years. ... It makes the education here much more than academic."

Butler, who writes about teaching music to the deaf and gives workshops to other teachers, says music can increase self- esteem. It also provides a means of expression and can increase auditory awareness, cognitive ability, attention span, memory recall and vocabulary.

"There's a lot of research that shows introducing children to music can also be helpful in learning language, the rhythm of language," Alexander said. "It's another mechanism, another method for teaching language."

In addition, technological advancements such as digital hearing aids and cochlear implants -- devices that convert speech into electronic signals and transmit those signals to the auditory nerve in the inner ear -- have broadened the hearing abilities of many children.

"It's an exciting time in the field of deaf education," said Todd Houston, executive director and CEO of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C.

"It's really opening the world of sound and language and music and everything else to new generations of children that previously we couldn't reach," Houston said.

Music is becoming an increasingly common hobby for deaf students, Houston said. The association has arts scholarships that in the past were sought primarily by deaf students who excelled in the visual arts.

"The past year or so, we've seen a 70 percent increase in the number of kids who are now applying for music scholarships."

There was a time that even Butler, who studied music education, did not think music could be part of a deaf child's life. Her daughter, Janine, was born with a profound hearing loss, and came to Lake Drive from their home in Ringwood at the age of 1. Her musical family assumed she would never share their interest.

But then Butler, who is not hearing-impaired, learned Lake Drive once had a music teacher. She did some research and then offered her services to the school. That was 10 years ago.

There is a lot of movement in Butler's classroom. She often uses instruments that play in lower registers students can hear better. She signs songs. She teaches them about rhythm and notation and feeling the beat.

It can be challenging to try to explain music to deaf students, Butler said. But it is important to try.

"Music is such an important part of our culture," Butler said.

Her students understand that, even if they can't hear everything. One day last week, she handed a student a guitar for the first time. Jake Green, 11, immediately turned into a rock star. Mouth gaping, head banging, he silently strummed metal riffs Slash would envy.

And Marissa DiDonna, 9, lit up when someone uttered the name Hilary Duff. She's her favorite, she explains.

"That's the new one," her mother, Eileen DiDonna, said later. Duff has replaced Britney Spears in her daughter's heart, she said.

DiDonna said music class and being before an audience also "just kind of raises their comfort level and builds self-esteem."

Alexander, the principal, recalled how he desperately wanted to be a part of the jazz band as a child. He wanted to play the baritone saxophone, he said, an instrument that made the lower sounds he could hear better. But the option was never offered to him.

At that time, if you did not have normal hearing, it was automatically assumed you could not enjoy music, said Alexander.

"But that is untrue," Alexander said. "A deaf person's perception of music is not the same as someone who has regular hearing, but what they are able to hear becomes music to them."

Paula Saha covers Morris County. She can be reached at (973) 539-7910 or

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