“Teaching children with disabilities is an enriching experience”

In August 2022, educator and musical director Natalia Gutiérrez Guzmán formed the choir “Voices that See” at C.E.B.E. “San Francisco de Asís” in Lima, Peru. This choral group is made up of 19 visually impaired children between the ages of 7 and 14. In this interview for the 3Love Inc. blog, we talked with Natalia about the formation of this choir, the challenges and satisfactions of teaching children with visual impairment, their upcoming projects, among other topics.

You formed the choir “Voices that See” for visually impaired children who study at CEBE “San Francisco de Asís”. How did this idea come up? It is a long road. It all came about because of a private student I had, to whom I gave piano lessons. She was a 16 year old girl who was a former student of this school. Since I started day one with her, I fell in love with that hour of class because it was a learning experience not only for her, but for me as well. For me it was a challenge, I had the challenge to conquer her. Then from there I started to do a lot of research on visual impairment and I realized that in other countries there are choirs of people with visual impairment, such as Argentina, Chile and Spain. So I said: “And here in Peru, when?” I was finishing my last years of my music degree and in a course I was asked to propose a work methodology for a specific audience. So I chose visually impaired people. At first I contemplated adults and then when I started looking for places where I could carry out this practice, I found this school and I contacted the director. Thank God a place opened up for me to enter here. First I started in the virtual world with the children. Last year I was already in the classroom and I realized that the children were at zero in what was music, they may have some musical skills, but not the training that a child usually has in a private school. Although studying music in our country is a luxury, unfortunately it should not be so, because music is a language, it is a way to communicate. Then I realized that here the children needed to sing, they needed to play the piano, they needed to listen, they needed to feel the vibration of the instrument and feel the vibration of the teacher’s voice singing and they needed to experience other things in music, which is not only listening, but also feeling, and they are very sensitive. When I had been working at the school for about a year, I had already mapped all the kids and chose those I could count on. So we started our rehearsals last year officially with the choir “Voices that See”.

Almost a year after the creation of this choir, how do you evaluate the results? What skills have been developed in the children? I see that the children really needed this experience in several aspects. They are more confident, more secure, apart from the fact that they learn things and there is also a cohesion as a community, they protect each other. They have developed their confidence. I think that if they took away our sight, we would be very nervous and fearful, because we don’t know what is happening around us. So I think that’s something that these kids come with. And because of those insecurities, they may suddenly have blocks to socialize or to express themselves. Thanks to the choir, I have observed this group of children who are looser, more independent, because in the choir they have responsibilities. There are songs in which one child has to play the cajón, another child has to play the bass drum and that implies a responsibility. They have also developed the discipline that music gives you. The children take it seriously, they have a rehearsal schedule, they know they have to learn the music because if they don’t learn it, then they can’t sing, they have to practice. Today the children respond fluently, they express themselves better and have better diction, because the visually impaired person, not having a visual reference of how to gesture, sometimes speaks in mumbles or sometimes their diction is not very clear. So we work with a cork or with different objects so that they can modulate their voice or pronounce some words better.

What is the importance of musical and choral training for children with visual impairment? Musical training is important for any person. The corporal theme is especially important for people with visual impairment because music and sound allow them to locate themselves. For example, when they walk, they go from one side to the other, but thanks to music, listening or having a sound stimulus, they know where to go. Music has different rhythms and different sound dynamics, which also allows them to explore with their body. The child who cannot see has to follow with his hearing, so he has to be more attentive to the fact that if the instrument plays softly, he has to sing or walk a little more stealthily, and if it sounds louder, he has to walk with heavier steps. So I believe that through music they are able to have a little more control over their bodies and get to know their bodies. Singing allows them to gesture in a better way. At school I try to work on all these things in the music classes I teach here. From the very youngest I try to work on their motor coordination and thanks to the music they know that they have to march in a certain way and that when the beat is loud, I have to take a heavier step, so they also begin to coordinate their movements. All these things are useful for the children, such as associating the sounds of some instruments, for example, the castanets to the gallop of the horse. It is a musical instrument that connects them, they hear that and say: “The horse”, then they are already galloping, because naturally the body asks you to do it.

What was the experience like for the choir members when they had a concert at the school?It was in December last year and it was very nice. I wanted the first concert experience to be very meaningful and for them to feel comfortable because it was the first time they were facing an audience. Even though they don’t see, they feel that there are people in front of them. It was the first time they were going to stand for almost an hour, because it was song after song and they don’t sit down when they are singing. It was the first time they had to stand still without moving. Quite a lot of people came, the kids were happy, I would say they gave even more than I expected. I know it is difficult, I have been singing since I was seven years old, I belonged to the National Children’s Choir of Peru and I know how uncomfortable it can be sometimes to stand for so long, one gets distracted as a child, but they were still. The concert had two parts, the first was world songs and the second part was Christmas songs. When we took a break, the kids wanted to go out again, they were so excited. I think I was more nervous than they were. It was a didactic concert, this implies that people participated, I gave them some instruments, people played and the children sang.

Do you have more concerts scheduled for the coming months? After last year’s concert we have been preparing and now we have received several invitations for some concerts that we have until November. We have presentations in July at the Club Regatas, in August at the Municipality of Lima, in September at the Embassy of Brazil, in October with Orquestando, which will be the first time we will sing with an orchestra and in November for the Musician’s Day. I believe that things happen for a reason. We are beginning to have a little more visibility to reach more people, because I think that one of the main objectives I had in mind when I started this project was to raise awareness in society and include so many people who are visually impaired and want and can sing or play something, but many times they are rejected in different activities, not only musical, even by the same music educators and people who are dedicated to music, they say “Oh no, I do not know how to teach him, to avoid fatigue better not” and I say: “Well, they do not know what they are missing”. Because from day one when I met this young girl it was a challenge for me to teach her piano, she was my motivation every day, I said: “And today, how am I going to teach her?” I started to search, to read and to think, at home I would sit in front of my piano and I would cover my eyes. So it is a very enriching experience, not only as a professional but also as a human being. For me, coming here and rehearsing with the children is a gift. I am happy to be here with the children and to do what I like, which is music.

What is the main thing you have learned from teaching children with visual impairment?There are many lessons, such as tolerance and being able to put myself in the other person’s place. I think my main learning is to respect other people’s time and processes. Sometimes as a teacher you say: “I program that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am going to do such and such a thing”, but if you have a group that needs Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and one more week, then you have to stop thinking only in a professional way, in your objectives and your competences, you have to think also as a human being. It doesn’t matter how much a child learns, but the quality of what he learns or how he learns. It’s not about pushing someone to understand or comprehend something, but to learn well. So sometimes we forget that we are educating human beings.

What advice would you give to people with disabilities who are interested in practicing an artistic activity, but are not yet encouraged?To encourage them and to find the right person. Now music is taught in many places, but I think that not all people have the same sensitivity to be able to reach others. I have always considered that teaching is a relationship between teacher and student. If there is no good communication, it will not work. As a student I have perceived it when I was studying music, there were very good teachers, but suddenly something was missing, I lacked understanding and vice versa. And even more so with a person with a disability, because it is not only about knowing the person, but also about knowing his or her context. So I would say that you have to find the person with whom you feel comfortable, a person who gives you confidence and with whom you not only learn, but also have a good time. Being able to teach a person with a disability implies adapting yourself to the person and adapting your work material. I have been teaching music for years and I teach on my paper with staves, but I can’t bring it here, so I have to think about how to adapt my material to the needs of children with visual disabilities and bring material that they can touch, that they can recognize. In terms of musical textures, for example, I bring a silk fabric that is soft, I bring a rougher fabric and we analyze what that transmits to me musically.

Share the Post:

Related Posts