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Gaining a Better Understanding of Williams Syndrome: BHMA Hosts PhD Candidate from South Africa

Image of John, Tori, Ewie Erasmus, and Tim Connor posing together around the piano in the ensemble room.

Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a post-secondary program for individuals with cognitive disabilities and a love of music, has its roots in a diagnosis many people have never heard of: Williams syndrome. Williams syndrome (WS), according to the Williams Syndrome Association, “is a genetic condition that is present at birth and can affect anyone.  It is characterized by medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning disabilities.  These often occur side by side with striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music.” In founding BHMA, parents of children with WS were motivated to create something entirely unique: a program that would teach their children essential independent living and vocational skills while simultaneously engaging them via a modality that came naturally to them- a love of music.  

Fifteen years later, BHMA has grown tremendously, and now serves a wide range of individuals with varying cognitive disabilities, such as Autism and Down syndrome, but we continue to also serve a number of individuals with Williams syndrome, and this was the attraction for Ewie Erasmus, a PhD candidate in Music Education from South Africa. BHMA hosted Ewie recently for six weeks as she completed research for her dissertation on how individuals with Williams syndrome learn through music. 

Ewie first learned about WS as a psychology major in college, and went on to do a Master’s thesis on the musical experiences of teens with WS. She notes that opportunities for children with cognitive disabilities in South Africa are very limited, as they are not integrated well into the school systems, and families often lack the knowledge and resources to provide their child with the tools needed for growth across all areas. Motivated by a desire to change the path of individuals with cognitive disabilities and a passion for individuals with WS in particular, Ewie hopes her research can help public schools in South Africa better integrate WS students into the curriculum, using music as the primary tool of engagement. 

What did Ewie come away with from her time at BHMA? First and foremost, an even greater desire to work with individuals with cognitive disabilities! Ewie was particularly impressed by the way that BHMA utilizes a strengths based approach in integrating students with varying disabilities and learning profiles into programming. Initially unsure of how our students would work together, she came away with the impression that having the students learn together works so well because they learn from each other, and each student brings a different dynamic to the classroom environment. She notes that WS students were able to model flexibility and empathy towards others, and they took pride in their ability to be supportive and encouraging. Easy conversationalists, she noted they were also able to help other students to increase their repertoire of social skills, but they too benefitted from learning how to engage in a meaningful, back & forth friendship with others that went beyond surface conversation. 

In terms of learning via music, Ewie noted the exceptional way BHMA is able to use music to teach non-music goals, such as public speaking, social skills, and professionalism. This was done via music ensembles and lessons but also in music vocation opportunities, such as our Music & Human Service Program, where students create and present music programs to elders in the local community. She was struck by the way that all students, whether or not they are musically talented, are able to benefit from the use of music as a learning tool, and how each student feels a connection to one another through this shared interest. A particular stand-out was our weekly Variety Hour, where a rotating roster of students perform a solo or group piece to the community. Ewie loved the fact that every student got positive feedback after their performance with a round of cheering, applause, a standing ovation or two. It was the ultimate demonstration of building self-esteem and confidence! 

Ewie will bring her experiences and knowledge back to South Africa, and is planning on working towards implementing changes for individuals with disabilities that will help them to be better served by school systems, especially in terms of considering the post-secondary model. Her lively and engaging presence was a gift to our community, and we are thrilled that we could support her journey to becoming even more of an advocate and champion for individuals with disabilities. 


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