Music was my first language. My mom used to sing to me when she was pregnant – communicating through the incredibly beautiful channel that only a mother and her baby share.
I grew up learning new things through music and from an early age knew how to speak some Portuguese from listening to my mom’s Samba and Bossa records. You know, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania... Although it was happening in such a natural, fun, organic way, the truth is I was learning a new language. My English teacher was basically MTV and I now feel that education can be, and should be, like your favourite music.
As a self-taught artist, visualising music has always been one of my passions. Following my passion I began working on an exhibit called “The Muse Seek Project: The Romantic Idea of Visualising Music” – presenting visual art next to headphones playing songs. There was a little note next to each piece stating: “Observe the song, listen to the painting."
During my days working on the exhibit I visited a local public school to become a volunteer, having no idea that this school was divided in two groups of students: the hearing and the Deaf.
I felt it in my guts, I could develop a project that broke barriers between music and Deaf children across the Dominican Republic, a project that uses music as a tool for education.
When I saw the Deaf students signing and visualising sounds as a way to communicate, it blew my mind and immediately felt like “my calling”. I soon started a performance-research piece for the National Biennial of Arts. I wore noise cancelling headphones, didn’t use my voice for 60 days, and locked away all of my records and music instruments. I felt it in my guts, I could develop a project that broke barriers between music and Deaf children across the Dominican Republic, a project that uses music as a tool for education.
One of the things that makes our organisation so cool is that we do very weird initiatives. The Muse Seek Project’s vision is to make a fabulous and majestic musical out of the education system. Whale Muse Seek is an example of this – an outdoor educational activity that brings live whale music to Deaf students. Students can then learn about humpback whales, climate change and ocean conservation.
Just imagine more than 100 people – students, teachers, parents and guests – on a whale watching boat, wearing a special technology called SubPac, as it transfers musical vibrations directly to the body, creating the physical experience of music while humpback whales jump, play and sing all around.
After the success and impact of Whale Muse Seek I started my second research project. I asked the National School for the Deaf to allow me to attend high school – going everyday with the uniform, taking classes, and doing my own homework. I wanted to connect with the students, teachers and parents, so that I could get to know them, their fears and their dreams and understand their problems and help create solutions.
This is how my next initiative, If You Were Waiting For A Sign, was born. After being in the classrooms everyday I saw how teachers and students struggled to communicate, especially when it came to science. So to address this, we started producing books with marine biologists and professionals including:
- Pioneer Marine Biologist in the Dominican Republic, Idelisa Bonelly
- Marine Biologist Nathalie Ward
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation
- Scientist and Yale professor Richard Prum
- Columbia University’s Teachers College Deaf Education Program and Dr. Julia Silvestri
- The very first Dominican financial institution to promote Sign Language, access and inclusion Asociación Popular de Ahorros y Préstamos and Billini Hotel
- Domingo Contreras, National Direction of Special Projects (Ministry of the Presidency)
- The National University Pedro Henriquez Ureña
- Local and international schools for the Deaf
- Photographers Sahira Fontana, Geber García, and Richard Sobol
I was honoured to meet so many inspiring students and families – one such student was Luis Alberto. Most schools for the Deaf in my country don’t continue into the high school years, severely diminishing career and job opportunities. Since Luis Alberto had no access to 8th grade he repeated the 7th grade for three years – in the hope that one day he could advance.
Today, not only is Luis almost finishing high school, but he is a founding member of our organisation. Luis Alberto’s mom, Regina, shares her testimony: “I’ve always known that if these projects would not exist my son wouldn’t have been given any opportunities in life, because I am a single mother, very poor and he is Deaf. It has not been easy. But, now I feel different. Very different. This is changing our lives."
There are currently 70 million Deaf people in the world and only two per cent have access to suitable education in sign language. Join us and make a change. If you were waiting for a sign, this is it.
Learn more about Maria Batlle and the Maria Batlle Foundation here.
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