Sharing Hope Through Music
Intro: Musician, educator, scholar and humanitarian, Richard Donald Smith, is making a difference in the world by assisting in the development of musicians and music education in Africa and beyond.
The Story: I consider myself to be a two-tiered worker, one as an instrumental music teacher at the United Nations International School, and one as an independent scholar and musician. Let me tell you about each role; first as an independent scholar and musician, then as a long-time member of the music faculty at the United Nations International School in New York City.
Visually impaired, but not totally blind, at birth, my initial education occurred in schools for the blind and visually impaired. Later, I was mainstreamed into regular schools. I received my Ph.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia where my dissertation, "Music Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria and Beyond — A Case for African Development," was focused on assisting in the development of musicians and music education in Africa.
My vision loss was progressive, but I stayed focused on my goals. Even after becoming totally blind, I auditioned and was accepted, as a student of internationally renowned French flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, with whom I studied at the Academie Internationale d'Eté in Nice, France. The following year, I was accepted to be a student in James Galway's master class in Switzerland. Having first embarked on an African tour in 1974, I had already begun to develop a strong bond with that continent, eventually being considered a continental African as well as an African-American.
Since then I have traveled alone to many African countries, doing research, teaching at universities and secondary schools, giving classical and African music concerts, and engaging in various scholarly activities. Many of my Nigerian students have become music educators in their country, some now reaching the Ph.D. level. I have also had strong affiliations with schools for the blind in Nigeria, Ghana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Blindness has not prevented me from gaining the confidence, respect, and assistance of African governments, educational institutions, musicians, scholars, and others who have granted me almost unlimited access and assistance towards accomplishing my goals. My involvement in Africa is on a professional and scholarly level, as well as for personal enjoyment. So, never let a disability get in the way of your dreams.
When I travel internationally I prefer to guide myself using a white cane. Nevertheless, when in Africa, I am always with a sighted guide because the terrain is full of pitfalls. For example, there are possibly open sewers, a lack of sidewalks, and nothing that would indicate a separation between pedestrian areas and those for vehicles. The pitfalls are endless, so I would not be likely to travel around without a sighted person.
Another important reason for having a sighted guide in these circumstances is because although I do speak French rather fluently, and a limited amount of Spanish, it is often likely that persons in the African countries I visit may frequently speak vernacular languages, which means that my sighted guide can also serve as a translator.
Traveling in Europe is very different, however, in that I most often depend on my white cane, asking for assistance when I need it, just as I do in the United States. If I am in a rural area or some other less-than-metropolitan area, I either have someone accompany me or I just try to be extremely cautious about my movements.
Through my work I have become a friend or colleague with many African musicians, scholars, government officials, and educators. As a result, in 2007, I had the privilege of presenting a paper and workshop at the International Conference on New Perspectives in African Performing Arts and Visual Arts, held at Ohio University, and presented another paper at the biennial conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, in Boston. I've also enjoyed the opportunity to serve as a United States Fulbright Research Scholar in Nigeria.
As a member of the Association of Composers, Arrangers and Publishers (ASCAP), I've composed and arranged musical works, as well as authored scholarly and other writings. Recently I completed a book on the understanding of African music and currently have another book in progress titled, "Travelogue of a Blind African-American Musician," which details my travel, research, and interactions over a 20-year period in Africa; a blind witness, if you will, to African history and cultural change.
My music and scholarly work has led to opportunities to host African music programs on the radio, give workshops and lectures, compose African and African-related music, and arrange other types of music — classical, African-American, and music of other countries.
At the United Nations International School, my work week is four days, where I'm primarily teaching flute students and doing other ensemble-related work. My colleagues and students come from all over the world since this school is the official school of the United Nations, functioning mainly as a private school for children of diplomatic and other staff of the United Nations.
A typical school day consists of teaching students individually, in small groups, and sometimes in larger class settings. When teaching ensembles, it is often the case that the music they are learning has been composed or arranged by me. I teach instrumental skills, beginner to advanced, because this school encompasses grades K-12. When a student begins studying with me in the fifth grade, often that student will continue to study with me all the way through the twelfth grade.
When I started this job many years ago, I was already teaching music in schools where my students competed successfully in all-city, all-county, and even all-state bands and orchestras. The company supplying musical instruments for the United Nations International School knew about me and the success of my students, so when an opening at the school became available, they recommended me and I got the job. Within the United Nations School, my students do very well and many participate in the New York State School Music Association's (NYSSMA) evaluations each spring, and receive high ratings. Seeing them do well brings me much joy.
Regarding work, I use tape recorders very extensively. I use a small recorder or digital device to record messages and information for myself. I use these and larger recorders to record music that I have to know well, referring to these tapes when necessary. Once a week I go to the Lighthouse Music School to go over new music with a sighted person or to have someone copy music that I have composed or arranged.
To accomplish my goals I work extensively with readers, since my scholarly work requires research, production, and keeping abreast of things. I use many audio devices related to music listening, music research, and music production. I work once a week in a studio with a pianist in order to learn new music, have my own music transcribed, or any number of things that require the employment of a sighted musician. To accomplish the extensive writing that I do, I dictate material on to my tape recorder in my own time, then my readers type it in my presence, with me supplying any guidance they need. This means that I sometimes dictate material at 2:00 in the morning! However, in order to succeed, one has to be dedicated to what they want to accomplish.
I like my job partly because my students are very accepting of me and tend to produce at stronger levels than other instrumental students who are taught at my school. They or their parents choose to study with me, even though I am the only blind person (student or staff) at the school, so I appreciate their trust. What I don't like about my job has to do with my skills beyond the demands of the job. I would like to develop more programs, cross-cultural and instrumental, at the school. Also, I have a great deal of educational, intellectual, and creative product for which I am just waiting to gain exposure, and I'm working on that!
I would advise other visually impaired persons who want to go into my line of work to be aware that you will have to spend a great deal of time developing your goals, taking into account the amount of knowledge or training you can acquire, and identifying just how much you can accomplish. If your standards are high, make the sacrifices and go for it! The challenge is well worth it!
(Dr. Smith is a member of the board of Art Education for the Blind)
The Contact: Richard Donald Smith