My strong bond with Nigeria, Africa —Blind American music teacher

Dr Richard Donald Smith, a blind American music teacher who is presently in Nigeria, gives insights into his life and works.

THOUGH visually impaired, Richard Donald Smith is a gift that keeps giving. The musician, educator and scholar is making a difference by assisting in the development of musicians and music education in Africa and beyond.

While others would have been overwhelmed by their condition, the musicologist has refused to allow his challenge to limit him. A brief encounter with the teacher of teachers who is in Nigeria presently and who taught the current Head, Department of Music, Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Ijanikin, Lagos, Dr SunboLoko how to play the flute, was very interesting.

Starting from his early life and pursuits, the 77-year-old musicologist began: “I consider myself to be a two-tiered worker. One as an instrumental music teacher at the United Nations International School in New York City and the other as an independent scholar and musician.

“Visually impaired but not totally blind at birth, my initial education occurred in schools for the blind and visually impaired.  Later, I was mainstreamed into regular schools. I received my Doctorate from Temple University in Philadelphia where my dissertation, ‘Music Education in Sub- Saharan African: Nigeria and beyond- A case for African Development’ focused on assisting in the development of musicians and music education in Africa.

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“My vision loss was progressive, but I stayed focused on my goals. Even after becoming totally blind, I auditioned and was accepted as a student of the internationally renowned French flautist, Jean Pierre Rampal with whom I studied at the Academie Internationale d’Ete in Nice, France. The following year, I was accepted to be a student in James Galway’s master class in Switzerland.

“Having first embarked on an African tour in 1974, I had already begun to develop a strong bond with that continent, eventually being considered a continental African as well as an African American. Since then, I have travelled alone to many African countries; researching and teaching in universities and secondary schools. I have also been giving classical and African music concerts and engaging in various scholarly activities. My involvement in Africa is on a professional and scholarly level, as well as for personal enjoyment.  So, never let a disability get in the way of your dreams.”

On the challenges of getting himself around, Dr Smith said: “When I travel internationally, I prefer to guide myself using the white cane. In Africa, I am always with a sighted guide because the terrain is full of pitfalls. There are possibly open sewers, a lack of sidewalks, and nothing that would indicate a separation between pedestrian areas and those for vehicles. The pitfalls are endless, so I would not be likely to travel around without a sighted person.

“Traveling in Europe is very different. I often depend on my white cane and I ask for assistance when I need it, just as I do in the United States. If I am in a rural area or not a metropolitan area, I either have someone accompany me or I just try to be extremely cautious about my movement.”

On his musical and academic works, the American disclosed that “as a member of the Association of Composers, Arrangers and Publishers, I have composed and arranged musical works as well as authored scholarly and other writings. Recently, I completed a book on the understanding of African music and currently have another book in progress titled ‘Travelogue of a Blind African American Musician’ It details my travel, research and interactions over a 20-year period in Africa; a blind witness, if you will, to African history and cultural change.”

The scholar and musician currently on a tour of Nigeria added of how he works: “To accomplish my goals I work extensively with readers because my scholarly work requires research, production, and keeping abreast of things. I use many audio devices related to music listening, music research and music production. I work once a week in a studio with a pianist in order to learn new music, have my own music transcribed, or any number of things that require the employment of a sighted musician. To accompany the extensive writing that I do, I dictate material on to my tape recorder in my own time. Then my reader types it in my presence, with me supplying any guidance they need.”