By Kyle Conley | April 9, 2018
Article from Alfred Music
"I enjoy sharing my story since I want people to realize that you do not have to see to be a successful teacher."
Though blind since birth, Kyle Conley never lost sight of his passion for learning, teaching, and playing music. Born prematurely at just 23 weeks, and given only a 10% chance of survival, Kyle, now 28 years old, defied all odds and is currently making a career out of doing what he loves: teaching music. We recently spoke with Kyle to learn more about his background, influences, and experiences, and to share his advice for other teachers who face similar challenges, or have students with disabilities.
When did you first discover your passion for music?
I started out as a musician at 4 years old when my parents placed me in a music therapy program at the Cincinnati Association of the Blind. I played piano for 5 years before I picked up the violin at age 9. I also joined the Cincinnati Boychoir at age 9 and it changed my musical life forever. After I moved on from the boychoir, I played in many orchestras and continued in many choirs through high school and college.
When I was in the Cincinnati Boychoir, I was able to learn every part since I have perfect pitch, and I was often called upon to lead sectionals, even for sections I was not singing in at that time. I knew right then that I wanted to be a music teacher. I currently teach elementary music at St Louis School in Owensville, Ohio 2 days a week.
How did your teachers inspire and motivate you, despite challenges you faced?
When I was in high school, I had one of the best orchestra directors in Ohio. She worked with me to learn the parts, and I learned so many teaching tricks from her that I still apply in my general music classes. She gave me the confidence and the drive to choose music teaching as my career. While I was at Wright State University, I learned that I would be the first blind music student to complete the program from start to finish, and that gave me even more drive that my goals could and will be accomplished.
What's your best piece of advice for other teachers?
If you ever feel that you are not successful, which we all have those days sometimes, sit back and relax. Look back on your successes as a teacher, and not that day that everything seemed to go wrong. I can give a great example. Last year, I was a long-term sub for orchestra and choir classes in a West Virginia school district. I set high goals for my students, and my choir students were set to perform the Chichester Psalms by Bernstein. My junior high students loved it, and they only had 25 minutes to rehearse the piece with me due to scheduling problems. My high school students on the other hand did not like it so much, and I had to work with them twice as hard, even with 20 more minutes in each class. A lot of them were not used to this style or complexity of music, whereas my junior high students did not know anything different since a lot of them had not sung in choir before.
My classes were small, 17 in each group, but they had a big sound. That is why I knew they could make such a big piece sound so good. I had one student who was so dedicated, she memorized the 44 pages of Hebrew in 3 weeks, and she was a seventh grader! I think she helped to motivate the rest of the class, while I had a high school student go on a rant about how the music was too hard and we would never be able to sing it. When we combined for a dress rehearsal, I almost cried. They sung that music so beautifully, and it was an amazing performance. Was every note, word and rhythm correct? No, but they proved my point that if you have a group of students that is dedicated, and if we do not give up as teachers, we can put together almost anything that we want to do.
What advice can you give to teachers who might have visually impaired students?
If you have students who might have a visual impairment, or any kind of disability, make sure you find out exactly what they need and how you can, best serve them in class. My high school orchestra was a prime example of that. My director and I would talk about how she could best help me, and she would record my parts for me so I could practice at home. She even gave me music to take to my private lessons, which was helpful especially on the more challenging pieces. She would always sit in on my IEP meetings, even though she was not always needed. She just wanted to be there to support me.
How have you made a difference in your students' lives?
As I mentioned earlier, I had a student memorize the entire Chichester in a short time she would later tell me that I changed her life for the better and she would never have another teacher like me. She wanted to make a difference in people’s lives just as I had made in hers. That was impactful for me, knowing that even with that one student; we can make a difference as teachers for our students. I enjoy sharing my story since I want people to realize that you do not have to see to be a successful teacher. I cannot tell you the number of times that students would stay after class to help with logistical things. I had students last year that took a shorter lunch period to come down to label chairs for a combined rehearsal. They just wanted to make sure that we had as smooth of a rehearsal as we possibly could.
Kyle Conley has been playing piano for 24 years and violin for 19 years, and performing in orchestras and choirs since the age of nine. Kyle is currently in his first year of teaching at St. Louis Elementary School where he teaches kindergarten through eighth grade general music and choir. He previously taught in Williamstown, West Virginia, where he taught orchestra and choir classes.