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Berkshire Hills Music Academy


Thomas Byrne

December 17, 2015

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I was recently invited to join Reach 4 Real program director, Kelly Surette, and assistant director, Nicole Berke, on a visit to the Berkshire Hills Music Academy. This remarkable school delivers post-secondary music-infused, college-like transition and graduate programs for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

BHMA is located on a stunning property known as the Skinner Estate—a gentleman's farm built by wealthy Holyoke mill owner, William Skinner. BHMA originally launched in Lenox MA in 1994 by offering camps for people with Williams Syndrome. After several attempts to acquire a suitable property in Lenox, they ultimately purchased the historic Skinner Estate in South Hadley MA from Mount Holyoke College, expanding programming to include music and life skills for people with a variety of intellectual disabilities, including Down's Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. BHMA is now home to 50 students, about half of whom reside onsite. During our visit, one young man proudly announced, "I'm from Canada!" Despite the size of this grand property, BHMA is actually at capacity and plans to expand their facilities in 2016.

Kelly, Nicole, and I met up with old friend, Robin Lane (of Chartbusters fame, and now the founding director of SongbirdSings) for a tour of the BHMA campus. Upon entering, were immediately greeted by what I can only describe as a joyful buzz—a phrenetic flurry of students and staff happily bustling about their business. We arrived close to lunchtime, just as groups of students were emerging from music lessons and life skills classes. Several BHMA students, very interested in who we were, approached us, asking each of us our names while warmly shaking our hands. Others enthusiastically proclaimed, "This is the best place in the whole world!" Their school pride was palpable and, in that moment, we believed them.         

Our host was Karen Carreira, BHMA's director of music and music vocation. Together, we shared backgrounds and stories about our respective work, and quickly came to view one another as 'fellow travelers' on parallel missions. Considering the obvious symmetry between Reach 4 Real and BHMA, we explored several partnering opportunities. One exciting idea is to leverage BHMA's presence in the Pioneer Valley to deploy local Reach 4 Real classes for members of their community who aren't currently candidates for BHMA services and, further, employing BHMA students to serve as assistant Reach 4 Real teachers. We also intend to invite the BHMA Performance Troupe for a whirlwind tour of Real School's performance venues in Burlington and Andover. (Click here to see a video of the Troupe in action!) We hope to flesh out these and other ideas over the coming months. 

Here's the thing. Students at BHMA not only receive training in music and life skills, but many of their students are actively working as professional musicians who earn their own living playing music! BHMA operates a booking agency for these talented musicians, getting them gigs, arranging for transportation and equipment needs, and thus creating a support system most musicians can only dream about. BHMA is 'putting their money where their mouth is' by activating and supporting musical careers for people with intellectual disabilities who might otherwise never have the chance. Simply put, BHMA is doing exceptional, singular work.

Before we left, we were invited to sit in on a portion of BHMA's Friday Afternoon Variety Show. This, too, was a remarkable experience, with students delivering solo performances in front of peers and faculty. Each performance was warmly received and rewarded with much applause and shouts of encouragement from classmates in the audience. Following their performances, just as I expected students to leave the stage and return to their seats, they remains while faculty in the audience rose to critique individual performances. This was objective, real-world feedback on ways the student might improve or enhance his or her performance the next time around. I was initially surprised at the candor with which feedback was given, even wincing at the honesty of some of the comments, thinking "Oh oh, that's going to smart." But just the opposite happened. The students listened carefully to this coaching, and acknowledged the constructive feedback in a mature, professional manner, only to finally exit the stage and receive even louder applause when they returned to their seats.      

We'll be sure to keep you posted as we schedule visits by the BHMA Performance Troupe, and I would encourage you to visit the BHMA website to learn more about these remarkable people—students and faculty alike—who make BHMA such an impressive, living and breathing music education and performance arts community! As a nonprofit entity, your charitable donations are tax deductible, and even a modest gift can make a world of difference for these truly gifted musicians. 

Reach 4 Real Visit to BHMA

From left to right: Nicole Berke, assistant director of Reach 4 Real; Robin Lane, founder of of SongbirdSings; Kelly Surette, director of Reach 4 Real; Karen Carreira, director of music and music vocation for Berkshire Hills Music Academy; and Andrea Franz, director of admissions and marketing for Berkshire Hills Music Academy.