Teaching to a new tune

Choir Class: Teaching to a New Tune
Posted on 10/25/2021
This is the image for the news article titled Choir Class: Teaching to a New Tunegirl sitting at desk reading brailleWhen the school year began in August, Arju Sapkota found herself not only in a new school, but in a new school district. The Lakota East freshman was nervous about learning the ropes at her new school, as most students would be. However, the task ahead was a little more daunting for Sapkota because she is blind. 

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, in January 2018, more than 55,000 students, ages 21 and under, in the United States were legally blind.

Born in Nepal, Sapkota, who has been blind since birth, moved to the United States when she was two and a half. When registering for her classes at East, Sapkota was excited to add choir to her schedule. Musically inclined, she plays piano by ear and has been singing since she was young. “My mom took me to my aunt’s house in Nepal when I was two,” said Sapkota. “My family still talks about how I just started singing there.”

Becky Huddilston is the choir director at both the main and freshman campuses of Lakota East High School. One of the requirements for high school choir students is that they must be able to read music. This requirement would typically be waived for a blind student, but Huddilston had a different idea. During a conversation with Sapkota on the first day of school, Huddilston asked if she would be interested in learning how to read music. “Arju’s eyes lit up as she said yes,” recalls Huddilston. 

“I thought it would be cool (to learn to sight read),” said Sapkota. “I’ve heard of braille music and thought it would be cool to learn something new.”

One of the tenets of Lakota’s mission statement is “WE are Personalized.” Teachers throughout the district differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of their students. Huddilston saw this as an opportunity to do just that. Never having taught a blind student before, Huddilston told Sapkota, “this is going to be a learning experience for both of us.” 

Huddilston’s biggest obstacle has been finding music in braille. She reached out to colleagues both locally and statewide, but was told repeatedly that blind students typically learn to sing the songs by ear. That wasn’t good enough for Huddilston. Through the Hamilton County Educational Service Center, Huddilston was able to find a beginner’s book for playing the recorder in braille, including both the teacher and student edition.

Huddilston works with Sapkota on sight reading weekly, putting the learning into practice by singing the notes and playing the recorder. Sapkota has picked it up quickly and Huddilston is already making plans for the next step. “I learn really fast,” said Sapkota. “I love music. It’s something that I want to do in life,” she continued, noting that she thinks she might like to teach music. “I’d maybe like to teach kids who don’t have opportunities as good as me.”

While Sapkota continues to learn how to read music, she is learning songs in class by ear. In addition, her classmates help her follow along. Students in Huddilston’s class learn hand motions for notes on the scale as they practice new songs. At the beginning of the year, one of the students placed Sapkota’s hand over hers to help her learn the motions to the notes they were singing. Now, it’s common practice for the students.

Sapkota is very appreciative of Huddilston’s efforts. “She’s really nice because she’s using her own time to teach me (how to sight read),” she said.

The next step for Huddilston is finding a way to have the songs her choir sings printed in braille. This can be cost prohibitive - she has received estimates of up to $6,000. However, she isn’t giving up. “I’ll continue searching so that Arju can sight read with the rest of the class. It’s a journey for her and it’s a journey for me.”