A Springfield music teacher's techniques for teaching people with disabilities has earned her the attention of prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy near Traverse City in the northwest part of Michigan's lower peninsula. Trudy Fleming has been asked to develop and teach the academy's first-ever Violin and Piano Institute for the Visually Impaired next June.
Music instructor Trudy Fleming sits at a Yamaha keyboard in her home studio opposite a violin student, 45-year-old Jeffrey Weiss of Jacksonville.
Jeffrey, who lost 75 percent of his vision when he was 18, sits on a bench, shoulders straight and bow ready.
He plays several songs as Trudy accompanies. They play slowly but steadily. "Can you play that last line again?" Trudy says. "Try to go to the tip."
He repeats the last line, this time running the bow to the end for a fuller note. Trudy nods her head, "Good job!"
They move on to "Song of the Wind," which is a quicker number in martele style. Martele means "hammered," and it sounds choppier with shorter notes and strokes, almost staccato.
"This is more technically difficult," Trudy tells Jeffrey. "It's all at the frog."
The "frog" is a nickname for the bottom of the violin, and Jeffrey plays the song with a few mistakes. The atmosphere is relaxed, though, and he tries again.
"I'd say 500 times a day or more, and you'll be just fine," Trudy says. They both chuckle.
Trudy established Fleming Academy of Performing Arts in 1985. Located in Springfield, the academy offers programs for both adults and children. One of Trudy's specialties is her method of teaching students, young or old, with physical disabilities.
Trudy's methodology for working with students who experience physical challenges is being recognized by the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy near Traverse City in the northwest part of Michigan's lower peninsula. She has been asked to develop and teach the academy's first-ever Violin and Piano Institute for the Visually Impaired next June.
The program, open to high school and college students, will feature daily master classes focusing on group lessons and practice techniques. Trudy also will work on Braille notation for the institute.
She is already familiar with the rigorous standards at Interlochen, which offers a summer performance and visual arts camp that attracts students from around the world, and a residential Arts Academy High School.
As a teenager, Trudy started practicing violin from 4 to 6:30 a.m. each day, and then practiced piano until it was time to leave for school. When she learned that Interlochen offered an eight-week summer music camp, she remembers a teacher told her, "'Oh, that's the best. Maybe you should look into some other camp.' All I heard was 'that's the best' and decided, that's where I'm going."
But instead of a summer camp, Trudy applied for the Interlochen Academy at age 15. She auditioned and was awarded a merit scholarship. There, she studied violin as a major and piano as a minor.
She is delighted at the prospect of returning full circle to teach next summer.
Kedrik Merwin is head of the music division at Interlochen Center for the Arts. His goal was to upgrade the summer programs to keep them fresh and relevant to new audiences.
"Trudy's program is important for reaching out to new communities," he says. "She has a terrific track record of success and is really an expert in teaching visually impaired students. I think it is unique. I'm not aware of any other programs out there."
A special calling
Trudy first discovered a passion for non-traditional students in the 1980s, when she taught at the Jack Benny Center for the Arts in Waukegan. A family approached her with a 4-year-old girl with severe disabilities. She used a wheelchair, had spina bifida and was also blind.
"I believe that teaching her was when the seed was planted to teach others with similar disabilities," Trudy says. "My experience indicated that there must be an easier way."
While teaching at the Jack Benny center, Trudy's life and career were disrupted by a drunken driver. She came home to her family in Chatham to recover. After more than a year of rehabilitation and relearning the violin, she started the Fleming Academy.
Her first student was Joshua Beck, a 4-year-old who was visually impaired with glaucoma.
Joshua took violin lessons and progressed to an advanced level. Eventually, he traveled to Washington, D.C., with the academy to play for President George H.W. Bush. Now legally blind, he practices law in Washington and still occasionally plays the violin.
Part of Trudy's success can be found in the small, wooden guides she has developed. Jeffrey Weiss, who became interested in taking lessons after attending a bluegrass festival in New Salem, uses one of the guides that Trudy created to help keep the bow in place during the first phases of learning.
The guides are designed to allow beginners to focus on one thing at a time and cut down any frustration they may feel as they learn the basics. Trudy says the guides help strengthen their positions and technique.
The guide is in the process of being patented, and Trudy compares it to using training wheels on a bike. Those "training wheels" have made all the difference for her violin students.
In 1991, Trudy received an invitation from Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki method of teaching music empahsizing memorization, to study with him in Japan.
"I was very excited about showing him the guides I had developed and how they aided students to learn more quickly," Trudy says. "The invitation was such an honor, as we were the only American school that year to be invited. Seven students and I traveled to Japan to study with him. He was evaluating me through my students and what I had done so far. I was able to get his blessing on my guides and new teaching methods."
After studying with Suzuki, Trudy continued to refine her teaching methods. Today, students of all abilities - including those with physical challenges - enjoy lessons in both the violin and piano.
The pianos in the room
Reuben Densmore, 7, is a piano student at the academy along with his 10-year-old brother, Karl. He is considered borderline on the autistic spectrum, and he attends regular classes at Dubois Elementary. His mother, Erin Gasiel, is a former piano student who wants both of her kids to enjoy the relaxation that comes with sitting down and playing the piano.
"We were looking for consistent teaching," Erin says. "We wanted a teacher who was willing to take on a student as an individual, address the problem they are having rather than plopping down a framework on top of them. For Reuben, consistency is a huge factor."
Reuben sits down at the piano with Trudy next to him on a chair. She asks him to name all the white keys, which he does in short order. Same with the black keys. When she asks him to find all the C keys, he does so, pressing the lower notes with special enthusiasm.
"Sounds like an organ," he says. "Do organs have little hammers inside with strings? How do they make noises?"
"Hmmm," she says. Trudy is momentarily stumped on the inner workings of organs, and they move on to a warm-up song, "Hot Cold Hot." She reminds Reuben to keep his feet flat and to shape his hands over the keyboard as if they are cupping a bubble. She molds his hands into the proper position.
"If you hold a real bubble, though, it pops," he tells her with great seriousness.
They start working on the song "Honeybee." Trudy plays first. He watches intently. Then he starts to play. He is relaxed on the piano bench, and his fingers move confidently on the keyboard. His version is not perfect, but he's clearly onto the right notes and rhythms.
"He is extremely bright, and he's very high-level performance," Trudy says later of Reuben's practice. "He learns at a high level. He is interested in many different things. His memory is outstanding. I can't get by with anything!" She laughs.
Trudy smiles and laughs often as she gently directs her students. She is careful to take her time in Reuben's lessons, even when his imagination takes over.
"They all go off topic," she says of her students. "With Reuben, I don't notice that I do that much different than I do with the other kids. It's just that I'm extra aware and patient and try to reel him in gently. You have to take your time. More than anything, I'm just aware of that."
As Trudy prepares for her institute at the Interlochen Academy of the Arts next summer, she recognizes her goal as a young teacher in northern Illinois is coming full circle.
"We'll start with visually impaired and then expand the program," Trudy says of the Interlochen institute. "I definitely don't want to leave it there. I want to expand it. You can't start too big and too diverse, because we want this to succeed and be a long-term program. We're looking at the long haul."
That long haul can be found in the first beliefs statement in the Fleming Academy brochure:
"We believe that anyone, regardless of handicap or obstacle, can reach their full potential as a violinist or pianist."
With Trudy's help, they do.