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Thesis Explores Music-Infused Program for Individuals with Disabilities

Headshot of Ewie Erasmus, wearing a black crewneck sweatshirt and hoop earrings; she stands against a black background.

Congratulations to Ewie Erasmus, who recently completed her Ph.D. in music with a thesis on our program! Four years ago, BHMA hosted Erasmus as she conducted research on how individuals with Williams syndrome learn through music. She first became aware of the rare genetic condition as a psychology major in college and went on to do a master’s thesis that documented the musical experiences of teens with Williams syndrome. Motivated by a desire to improve outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities in her native South Africa, Erasmus identified BHMA as a case study for her doctoral dissertation. As she explains, it “is the only institution that I know of internationally that specifically teaches life skills to individuals with Williams syndrome through music.” 

Former Director of Music & Music Vocation Karen Carreira was “immediately interested in supporting [Erasmus’] research and writing,” and recognized how the opportunity could bring BHMA’s mission and work to a global platform. With Carreira’s backing, Erasmus traveled to South Hadley in 2016 and joined the Music Department for six weeks—observing classes and lessons, in addition to interviewing students, parents, and staff. Her time at BHMA led her to argue that life skills are paramount for individuals with disabilities to achieve fulfilling lives. Using insights from psychology, education, and music therapy, she found seven key outcomes in our music-based program: coping, connecting with others, being hopeful, feeling good, developing vocational competence, becoming self-sufficient, and living well. 

Image of (left to right): John Libera, Tori Ackley, Ewie Erasmus, and Tim Connor posing together around the piano in the Troupe rehearsal room.

The 230-page case study has been accepted by North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, Faculty of Humanities, School of Music, in South Africa. Erasmus plans to publish several chapters and deliver her research at professional conferences, and she hopes her findings will be implemented to help school systems and post-secondary programs in South Africa better serve individuals with disabilities. Reflecting on her experience at BHMA, she writes, it “changed me in many ways and I truly believe that I am a better, more compassionate educator because of the opportunity.” We are proud of her accomplishment and look forward to increased worldwide awareness for BHMA.


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