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Duncan’s great song is about to be sung

Duncan’s great song is about to be sung

Duncan, 19, has found his feet as a songwriter in the Whitireia music programme.

He has just completed a song, called Ari Para, dedicated to young vocalists Ari Watene and Paranihia Solomon. He won’t say much more about it, except to reject suggestions it is a love song or poem. So perhaps it is a song in appreciation of the young women?

“That’s the one,” he says. “I wrote it for me to sing to them.”

Duncan, Para and Ari were among 18 students taking the Certificate in Foundation Music course at Whitireia Community Polytechnic, in Porirua, in the first semester this year.

The percussionists, guitarists and vocalists have spent their time learning what it takes to make a career in music. All of them had to audition for a place on the course but for Duncan, a keen drummer, it was more complicated than that.

Duncan has Down Syndrome, so in order for him to study successfully at tertiary level, Whitireia staff worked with him and his family to overcome the barriers.

Whitireia Disability Co-ordinator Clare Hazledine met Duncan and his family at the start of the course to find out what difficulties he was likely to face. Clare says Duncan identified that he needed support with reading, writing, working with people and with transport to take him by train from home near Wellington, to the Porirua campus.

She says there is a legal requirement to make a reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities. But there can be no predetermined approach. The solution has to be designed for the individual and it has to involve the whole institution – tutors, administrators, classmates.

”Because it’s a tertiary environment, part of the role is to help students make the transition from a secondary environment.

“We help people learn to be more mature, more self-determining.”

A big part of Duncan’s solution was Brian Stewart – a fellow student who was employed as a learning assistant to help him on the course. Brian’s brief was to take notes, to discuss the work with Duncan and make sure he understood the material, and to help him read music. Taped comments were attached to written assignments to allow Duncan respond to the questions more easily.

Regular meetings between Duncan, his family, Brian, Clare and Marino provided a continuous assessment of whether the support was working effectively.

“Brian is great. As time went by, he changed the way he helped him. He has also got the biggest heart you’ll ever find,” Clare says.

A 52-year-old bass guitarist from Upper Hutt, Brian enrolled in the course to increase his appreciation of music. “Hearing music wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand it as well,” he says.

His work as a learning assistant was paid for through a special supplementary grant to the polytechnic from the Ministry of Education. Learning assistants earn between $11.50 and $15 an hour, depending on the level of support required.

In the case of Duncan and Brian, the working relationship became a friendship.

Brian, who has a 28 year-old son working in computers in England, found himself hanging out with Duncan. “He said ‘Hello’ to me and from that day on just glued himself to me and it’s been very good working with him.

“A lot of the time I don’t look at his disability. He is capable of doing a lot of things that other people can’t. His time-management is phenomenal,” Brian says. “If I forget something, I just ask him.”

Brian is in a 12-piece dance band, called Flux Hill, and Duncan has met the band and had his first taste of playing an electronic drum kit. “I took him to band practice and the drummer let him play the beat.” It was the Eric Clapton song Wonderful tonight.”

The Foundation Music Course is a first step for students like Duncan who play a musical instrument or sing, and is designed to prepare them for further study in music. Tutor Marino Karena says its main emphasis is on music performance and music theory.

Students learn how to improve their playing, and they are given an introduction to performing in a band and learn what it takes to work in the music industry.

The big challenge for Duncan has been coming to grips with the music theory and professional studies side of the course.

“For me, the passion is just really working with people like Duncan and knowing that the place here has the support systems in place,” Marino says.

“I have had somebody who has come through the Foundation course who was actually blind,” he says. “You don’t say to Stevie Wonder, ‘Sorry, bro, you can’t cut it.”

Duncan’s mother, Max Riddle, says having support from a fellow student was the key to his successful experience at Whitireia. She says teacher aide support can separate a student from his classmates.

“They might link the student into the intellectual life of the class, but they provide a barrier to the social side of the class. It seems to me that peer support rather than outside support is always going to work better.”

Duncan’s course ended in July and he is still making up his mind about what he will do next. Duncan crosses his fingers when he is asked how he expects to do in his exams.

Many of his fellow students will audition for the Certificate in Rock, Jazz and Commercial Music course that starts at the beginning of 2009. But competition is fierce.

“There are only four slots available for drummers, and there are eight drummers [four from each semester course],” Brian says. “Being a drummer, he is in a competitive area.”

Duncan says he hasn’t decided whether to audition – ‘It’s harder,” he says. “I may not. I haven’t decided yet.”

Whether Duncan goes back to Whitireia next year or not, this course has taken him closer to his dreams.

Whatever the outcome, Clare counts Duncan’s experience as one of the success stories. In regular meetings throughout the course, she noticed changes in him and she pays tribute to Duncan who let Whitireia know what he needed.

Clare also says Whitireia was challenged by the “energy, passion and commitment of his family”.

“I think it was an amazing success. It’s not always an easy job, but I think Duncan had a great journey here.”

In the music studio, the noise level is extreme. Duncan is belting out a rhythm on the drums, other classmates are strumming and singing into microphones. Marino calls for silence “while we get organised”.

The noise dissolves into soul music. The studio is full of the sounds of Sister Sledge and We are Family. With Duncan keeping time at the back, Marino on keyboards, the boys on guitar, bass and congos and Ari, Para and Ariana singing vocals at the front, they seem exactly that – family.


ENDS

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