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Meet David Pinto of Academy of Music for the Blind

Today we’d like to introduce you to David Pinto.

David, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
We educate blind youth in music and the performing arts who reside in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, the San Fernando and San Gabriel Vallies.

AMB is a 501(c((3) not-for-profit music school exclusively dedicated to educating and addressing the unique challenges and gifts of blind and visually impaired youth by developing their musical, creative, academic, social and physical skills. AMB also endeavors to assist blind students to flourish in their public school environment, to prepare them for transitioning into higher institutions of learning, and prepare them to become independent fully productive members of society.

There are thousands of excellent institutions of music designed to meet the needs of the non-disabled. AMB was created to specifically address the needs of blind music students so that they can fully develop their unique talents and eventually find their rightful place as productive members of society. Blindness poses severe challenges that societal resources rarely meet. But AMB not only successfully addresses those challenges, it also nourishes the unique talents and perspectives of its blind students.

Although there are a few other institutions for the blind that offer classes in guitar, piano, or choir, AMB is a comprehensive music and performing arts school, and the only one in the world solely dedicated to serving the needs of blind youth. Students take 5 private classes: piano, a string instrument or guitar, a wind instrument, percussion, and voice, and 3 group classes: drama/speech, dance/movement, computer recording engineering. In addition, all classes are tied to learning related STEM subjects, for instance, learning mathematics through rhythm exercises, learning anatomy through dance, and learning Braille reading and writing through drama and lyric writing.

Blind youth are most often under-served and under-educated. Because blindness is a low-incidence disability (there might be one blind student in the school), the strategies to educate blind students are either not known, not applied, or teachers aren’t sufficiently trained in the challenges of teaching the blind. Gayle Pinto, teacher of the blind in the public schools and co-founder of AMB, has documented countless stories of her public school students being marginalized, neglected and (because of low expectations) under-educated.

But at AMB, with a student-to-teacher ratio of nearly 1:1, we have 22 students (and growing) taught by 19 teachers, both blind and sighted, and all having degrees from prestigious music schools. So for the first time in our students’ lives, they’re receiving an education tailored to their needs, their challenges and their special gifts. But the stigma and ostracism that blind youth continue to feel is an ever-present challenge, one that is especially difficult for students enrolling while losing their vision during puberty.

With image and peer pressure so acutely felt, our support system has proved time after time vital to students’ well being. And because most of our students come from minority and low-income families, most parents are stricken with fear for the future of their child. However, after enrollment at AMB, families start shifting their gaze from bemoaning the burdens of having a dependent blind child, to the blessings of having one who is wonderfully unique, increasingly independent, and thriving in a supportive, creative and educational environment.

Our outreach into under-served communities has resulted in serving students with the following demographics: 27% Anglo, 45% Latino, 18% Asian, and 9% African American, 25% on Public Assistance, 25% Working Poor, 25% Lower Middle Class; and 25% have some discretionary income. Educating this population (one with the added burden of having a blind child) has resulted in an increase in student self-esteem, quality of life, and significant improvement in public school performance.

In addition, our students have a busy schedule of performance opportunities where they perform in public concerts 3 times a year, as well as perform for other non-profits once a month. And each week, AMB opens its doors to the public to see its weekly Sharetime performances at the end of the school day. Individual students are also singing at school, in church, for weddings and at sports events.

AMB has twice been featured on the CBS news show 60 Minutes, PBS “Reading Rainbow” hosted by LeVar Burton, and most recently one of our students was featured on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots”. Our presence in public eye has resulted in inspiring thousands of other children, both with and without disabilities, that truly anything is possible.

TIMELINE:
1996. David Pinto accidentally meets his first blind musician at David’s Pierce College Classroom
1997. David starts developing “CakeTalking”, adaptive software that allows blind musicians to use mainstream music software for creating and recording music
1997. David starts holding free seminars for professional blind musicians
1998: Starts teaching blind children and develops a Typing and Computer Tutor software program for the blind
1999-2002: David joins Southern California Conservatory of Music (SCCM) to teach 8 blind children computer music recording, arranging, drama, dance and piano.
2002: Establishes the YesAccessible company to disseminate David’s software
2002. David develops “Sibelius Speaking” adaptive software that allows blind musicians to use the mainstream Sibelius Music Notation Program
2003: David & Gayle incorporate the non-profit Academy of Music for the Blind (AMB) with an all-day Saturday program in Music and the Performing Arts.
2003: David starts teaching Ray Charles.
2003. From promised support of Ray Charles, the name change of AMB to RCAMB (Ray Charles Academy of Music for the Blind). Establish a website and shoot a promotional video with Ray and AMB students.
2004: Ray Charles passes away and Ray Charles Foundation withdraws support for AMB. Name changes from RCAMB back to AMB.
2005-2013. Teaching 11 students with 7 teachers out of Gayle and David’s 10-room home.
2008: AMB on CBS 60 Minutes News Hour
2008: Teaches Stevie Wonder CakeTalking
2013: Moved teaching facility to Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles who generously offer us 12 classrooms free each Saturday. We reached out to the larger community and immediately gained more students and teachers
2014: Opened a second center at Therapeutic Living Centers for the Blind in Reseda who also offer us 12 classrooms free. Once again, we reached out to the larger community and immediately gained more students
2015: Both JBA and TLC now need to charge rental. AMB moves to First Christian Church in Whittier.
2016 to present: Gained support of Josh Groban and other celebrities. AMB public performance schedule steadily increasing and now averaging around 2 performances each month.

Has it been a smooth road?
With mostly one-on-one instruction, 20 students require around 16-20 teachers. So teaching staff overhead is high. Tuition for students is $125 per Saturday, which will theoretically pay for the faculty. However, most students can not afford the tuition. So, most pay either nothing for a portion of tuition. We have never turned away a student because of economic difficulty.

Therefore, our struggle has always been to find generous donors to help fund our scholarships. Other struggles include helping students heal from bullying at school, helping them handle difficult family situations, educating parents on bringing up a blind child.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Academy of Music for the Blind story. Tell us more about the business.
We are the only music school in the world that has a comprehensive music and performing arts program for the blind. We offer one-on-one instruction for most of our courses and have both blind and sighted teachers, all with music degrees from prestigious universities. Our 5 blind teachers provide wonderful examples to our students of successful blind adults living an independent, creative and productive life.

To be enrolled in the Academy one has to be:
-Blind or visually impaired and be a cane user and Braille reader
-5-18 years old
-Have a musical aptitude
-Able to learn at normal or faster than normal rate
-Take care of own hygiene
-Socially appropriate and of no danger to self or others

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
There may be a cure for some types of blindness. But there are many types and some have no known pathway to a cure. The incidence of blindness will decrease in developed countries but may hold steady or even increase in less developed countries. Around 40% of our students are immigrants from less developed countries.

Contact Info:

  • Address:  6355 Greenleaf Avenue, Whittier, CA 90601
  • Website: www.ouramb.org
  • Phone: 626-358-5379
  • Email: info@ouramb.org

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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