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Blind artists make beautiful music with Miami Lighthouse for the Blind program

Written By Josie Gulliksen
September 3, 2020 at 2:53 PM

The four-story mural on the south side of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind building is an artist rendering of the children in the learning center, created by twin brothers William and George Hustus.

 

With a 90-year legacy in Little Havana, the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind is a haven for blind artists. Perhaps their motto “It’s Possible to See Without Sight” and their inclusion program especially for musicians are what has kept them thriving since the 1930s.

President & CEO Virginia Jacko, who lost her eyesight later in life said, “too often blind people only know how to hang around with blind people and musicians only performed as soloists.”

Wanting to change that, she launched a 26-lesson curriculum of Braille music through distance learning, “because if you’re totally blind you’re listening to music not reading sheet music.”

As described on their website, they are, “the only organization in the nation offering an all-inclusive music, audio instruction, and youth development programs for the blind and visually impaired.”

It is the only comprehensive Braille music distance learning curriculum always accessible to any musician nationally and around the world.

During her 15 years leading the organization, Virginia developed The Better Chance Music Program Youth Summer Music Camp for students in 6th through 12th grade as well as an Adult Music Program. The two programs have since grown to more than 100 participants annually.

“Through our curriculum, blind musicians and singers have the exact same information that’s in a music store and this helps them be at less of a disadvantage,” she said.

Because they were so ahead of the game in providing remote learning and performances, through a remote learning license that’s accessible for the visually impaired, “and in tandem, the instructor can enable the musician to know exactly the keystrokes being used as well as the auditory feedback,” she said.

While in the adult sound engineering program, instructor participants with aid from a sound engineering instructor, “use industry relevant technologies and instruments to test their compositional skills, technological mastery, independence and creativity,” according to their website.

“We do sometimes allow the teenagers in the adult program because this kind of training is vital for them getting employed,” Virginia said. “One of our graduates now runs the entire sound system at Miami International Airport and supervises 11 employees.”

Several key individuals helped Jacko realize her dreams of giving the musicians the tools necessary to thrive and succeed in the program.

The late musician and producer Henry Stone was instrumental in conceiving the music program with Virginia.

“Late in his career Henry Stone lost his eyesight and became a client of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. It was then that Henry and I conceived the current music program,” said Virginia. “So we submitted a proposal for a Knight Arts Challenge stating we wanted to create a music program for youth whereby the blind and the sighted could perform together.”

At the time, Dennis Scholl was Miami Program Director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation which includes the Knight Arts Challenge.

“Dennis was familiar with the Lighthouse for the Blind and in 2010 we received $125,000 through the Knight Arts Challenge,” she said. “That matching challenge really launched us to another level. It allowed us to complete our recording studio in our attic where we had been doing little gigs since 2006.”

Those little gigs, she says, were something, “the Fire Marshall didn’t appreciate, so receiving that funding to finish the attic and make it our music wing was a blessing. Now that space has practice rooms, a performance and recording studio.”

Receiving the Knight Grant allowed students in the program to begin releasing CDs of their music. To date they have released a total of five albums, one of which was nominated for a Latin Grammy.

“For the Latin Grammys, there were four finalists in the Children’s Category,” said Virginia. It was after the Grammys that the band Phish awarded the money through their Mockingbird Foundation. “I believe this must be where they first discovered us and after that nomination was when we received their award.”

The Mockingbird Foundation once again recently solicited them to submit a proposal, this time for COVID-19 funding “because of our successful collaboration and I’m thrilled to report that we received that funding,” she said.

Most recently, Virginia wrote a proposal to the Children’s Trust also for their teen program, hoping to expand their services to include entrepreneurship for the youth.

“We received the Children’s Trust grant, which gives us funds for multiple years. With that money we are able to teach our teens how to expand their musical career,” she said. “They can expand to do jingles and also learn about copywriting their music.”

With all these tools at their disposal, it’s no wonder students of the program have gone on to graduate from Berkeley College of Music and the University of Miami Frost School of Music.

With the music program thriving and funds secured there was one very recent discovery that Virginia made, this one about the adult program.

“I recently learned we have a gospel choir and was so surprised to make that discovery. Turns out the senior group participants began gathering on their own and putting on performances at churches,” she said. “The first thing I heard them sing was ‘No More Shackles, No More Chains.’ It was transformational when I heard them. It made me think that is what Miami Lighthouse does for the blind, it gives people the ability to shed the shackles and chains of blindness.”

Virginia encourages anyone who visits Little Havana to take a drive by the campus at 601 SW 8 Ave. and take particular note of their colorful mural.

“Twin brothers William and George Hustus painted our beautiful mural,” said Virginia. “The four-story mural is on the south side of the building and is an artist rendering of the children in our learning center.”

To learn more about their music programs, their additional arts programs or read their blog, visit the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind website.

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