iPads Allow Kids With Challenges To Play In High School's Band : NPR Ed On the surface, the PS 177 Technology Band looks like a typical high school orchestra. But there are two big differences.

iPads Allow Kids With Challenges To Play In High School's Band

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We're going to spend a little time now with a public school band in Queens, New York, that rocks, swings and breaks new musical ground. This is not your typical high school orchestra for a couple of reasons. First, while they do play some traditional instruments, they also play iPads, and all the student musicians have serious learning disabilities. The tablets aren't merely novel and fun, although they're that. With the help of a creative teacher, the iPads are opening doors for some children with mental and physical challenges. From the NPR Ed team, Eric Westervelt has our story.

TOBI LAKES: My name is Tobi Lakes. I'm 15 years old. I'm in ninth grade. I'm four grades away from college.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's morning, and sunlight pushes through large, old windows into a well-worn auditorium at Public School 177 in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens. On stage, iPads on small stands sit in a semi-circle. It's rehearsal time for the PS 177 technology band. The students mingle and chat before practice starts. A tall, wire-thin teen with thick glasses named Tobi Lakes loves to play piano. He taught himself to play.

LAKES: I like the piano. I like the keyboard. The keyboard is the best - number one.

WESTERVELT: Toby also loves his iPad guitar. He plays on his school-issued tablet computer using a music app called Thumb Jam. As rehearsal heats up, Tobi takes the lead on rock guitarist Jeff Beck's version of Puccini's "Nesun Dorma."


WESTERVELT: Tobi Lakes, iPad guitar shredder, has a learning disability. He's autistic, and he's blind in one eye. PS 177 is a school for students with serious learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders.

ADAM GOLDBERG: The first note of the second line, please.

WESTERVELT: The band is the brainchild of music teacher Adam Goldberg.

GOLDBERG: I think it's in blue, this second line. There you go, perfect. That's that pizzicato we were talking about, with the cello supporting, right?


GOLDBERG: OK. And one - (singing).

WESTERVELT: The 53-year-old is a classically trained pianist who, 20 years ago, began substitute teaching here while playing jazz and rock gigs nights and weekends - work the music dream, then go to work. He was soon offered a job at PS 177. He's been here ever since.


WESTERVELT: All of the band members happen to have severe learning disabilities. Many of them are autistic to some extent. Some of the students were previously nonverbal or only occasionally verbal. Many don't just play iPads, they play traditional instruments. Several love to sing. There are a about a dozen band members including William Hernandez on piano and iPad. Jaquan Bostick and Jeremiah Estic (ph) sing, play the iPad and drums.


GOLDBERG: Remember, keep going back. And - pick up where you know we are. Use your ear.

WESTERVELT: Goldberg was a hesitant technophile. I'm an acoustic guy, he says, and sits down at the piano and starts playing jazz, his first musical love.


GOLDBERG: I was always kind of reluctant to get involved with technology, but that was mostly because there was just so much work involved to get the technology to work properly.

WESTERVELT: But Goldberg says the iPad and its array of apps have allowed the band to produce complex orchestral-style arrangements, for kids to play all kinds of different virtual instruments by just tapping buttons on the touch-screen, instead of getting bogged down in learning technique.

GOLDBERG: All the technical stuff that, you know, admittedly is very, very worthwhile. I mean, I'm coming from a classical background, so I appreciate all that. But for people who can't, if you give them something like this as a musical instrument, you can really kind of break through all those barriers and teach so much of the art of the whole process of music making, which, these guys do beautifully with that, I think. Right, guys?




GOLDBERG: Let's go through this again. Thank you.

WESTERVELT: But just what is it about a tablet computer that makes it work so well with some students with disabilities? There's something about the combination the big, bright, clear visual cues of some of the music apps and the tactile easy-to-use touchscreen. But beyond that, the fact is educators aren't really sure. It's still a bit of a mystery.

GOLDBERG: We have some really, really low-functioning students who I could never really involve in the music activities, but the iPad has pretty much taken care of that. I can't say I have a hundred percent involvement, but it's pretty close.

WESTERVELT: And here's another way tablets are proven to be game-changers. They've made mostly obsolete those large and costly special-ed learning devices.

KAREN GORMAN: It has changed the way people look at people with disabilities.

WESTERVELT: Karen Gorman is the head of Assistive Technology for New York City's public schools. Before, some kids with severe autism, cerebral palsy or other serious challenges needed these giant, clunky and expensive assistive-speaking devices. Some looked a little like small accordions around kids' necks. She says they looked odd and screamed disabled kid. Now the iPad and other tablets, she says, have helped level the playing field, socially.

GORMAN: Parents thought, for the first time, my child with disabilities is using something that looks very cool and modern and current. And other kids will come over to them now and interact with them, whereas before all they saw was the disability. That's all they looked that - oh, kid in a wheelchair - kid in a wheelchair - kid in a wheelchair with an iPad? How interesting. So it really - socially it has had a big impact.


GOLDBERG: Hold it, good. And, T. That's okay.

WESTERVELT: Student Tobi Lakes stands and sways rhythmically back and forth on stage, the iPad braced in a stand, summoning his inner Jeff Beck. His thumbs furiously tap the music app buttons as Nesun Dorma begins to crescendo.


GOLDBERG: Guys - really awesome. We got it 99 percent there.

WESTERVELT: For some of the PS 177 technology band, including Tobi, the group has changed their lives.

LAKES: I feel excited. I feel happy. I love music. It feels like I was going crazy, and all the audience was clapping.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: Later today on All Things Considered, the band dreams big.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: You know, when we graduate, we should all start a tour, like a world tour.


STUDENT 1: That's what I was even thinking about, a lot. I've been thinking about that since yesterday.

STUDENT 2: Me, too.

MONTAGNE: That's later on All Things Considered. This is NPR News.

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