Where Music Shines Bright

Daniel with his working Braille copy of the Chopin Etudes from the Lighthouse Music School

I’ve taught many wonderful students over the years, but one in particular stands out — Daniel Gillen, who is a physics major at Haverford College, and a lyrical pianist with a strong artistic voice. That Daniel has been blind since infancy doesn’t seem to hinder him much. Part of his confidence stems from the remarkable education he’s received from a place he often speaks about, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School at the Lighthouse Guild in New York City.

Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, a dancer and choreographer, invited me to visit the school when I was in Manhattan recently. We met in the sunny lobby of the Lighthouse Guild Headquarters on East 59th Street, where people were hurrying in from the wind and cold. Designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, the building has an open feel that seems to draw people in and up, with purpose. Here a person who is visually impaired can receive eye care, vision rehabilitation, academic and practical training. At first glance, the only clue that patrons here might have special needs are the elevator buttons, which are large and colorful. Mignon and I rode up to the fourth floor music school. There we were welcomed by Executive Director Dr. Leslie Jones; Dr. Lisa Johnson, the director of administration, and Daniel’s longtime piano teacher and Director of Musical Studies, Dr. Dalia Sakas.

For the next hour or so, I had a chance to absorb a world of music within this small space, where every square inch is needed; besides desks for staff and Leslie’s office, there are teaching studios for individual music instruction, and a library that houses an extensive collection of large-print and Braille music scores. Because the school accommodates many types of vision loss, it makes available many types of scores. Dalia showed me a music score in which a single measure of very large noteheads took up an entire 8.5 X 11 page. “That’s for an 80-year-old woman with macular degeneration who wanted to play the piano again.”

When a student needs a piece of music that doesn’t exist in the library, there are a few options: a request to the Library of Congress, a commission to Dancing Dots, a company in Pennyslvania that specializes in creating scores for the visually impaired. Or, as Dalia told me, “I make it.”

If needed, Dalia can generate print-on-demand large-print or Braille music scores with computer software on-site. (Keep in mind that Braille music must be learned at a relatively young age, when the fingertips are sensitive enough to feel the tiny raised dots that comprise the system of notation.) Now Lighthouse students are creating their own scores. One room of the school is devoted to music technology, with a MIDI keyboard/computer lab, and the capacity to teach MIDI sequencing, recording, as well as notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, Lime Light (to produce large-print scores) and Goodfeel (to produce Braille scores).

Specialization for vision loss aside, what the Music School at the Lighthouse Guild offers its students, who range in age from pre-school to ninety, is a multi-faceted music education. They can study theory, ear-training, and solfege, receive private instrumental lessons, and participate in vocal ensemble, jazz improv, pop/rock ensemble, choir (directed by Dalia) and dance. Students perform in recitals, performathons, and in an annual concert co-produced with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collaboration that has successfully run for eighteen years. Not long ago, in an extraordinary effort, the school put on a professionally staged version of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” which received high praise from Anthony Tomassini in the New York Times, who only lamented that there hadn’t been enough funding for a longer run.

The staff and teachers at the Lighthouse Guild Music School work with the kind of devotion and creativity that can’t be measured in hours or dollars. They’ve built a model that is both unique and dynamic, and believe the community music school is where the future of music will thrive. To get the message out, they’ve invited music education majors from local universities to serve as interns at the school. They also give talks to share their vision. Anyone who meets Dalia and Leslie will realize that the future of music is bright. Their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit reflect their joy in music-making, and their determination to give their students a rich, undimmed future.

An inspiring day with extraordinary women Leslie Jones (left) and Dalia Sakas (right)

There are 11 responses to “Where Music Shines Bright”

  1. What a wonderful article about Daniel Gillen and the Music School!! Thank you so much!!! Beautifully written.

    I am so happy to sign up for your excellent blog!

  2. This is a wonderful posting about Daniel and our music school. Daniel is one of my favorite students and I am especially proud of everything he has accomplished. He is so fortunate to be at Haverford now and working with you in pursuing his musical goals. Thank you for this excellent presentation of our school and our work. It was terrific to meet you.

  3. What a comprehensive understanding of The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of Lighthouse Guild! We are so very proud of what Daniel has accomplished–both while he was a student with us and now as he blossoms as a Haverford College student. Thank you, Debra for your beautiful article and insights.

  4. Debra, what a beautifully written blog! You’ve definitely captured all the aspects of our music school. Daniel was one of our treasures.

    Thank you so much!


  5. Hi Debra–I am an intern at the music school, and I thank you for writing such a beautiful and informative article. I think you really captured the community essence I feel whenever I am assisting at Lighthouse, and I am excited to share your overview of the school’s activities with my family and friends so they can get a better sense of the school. Thank you again, and best of luck in your teaching endeavors!


  6. It’s been such a privilege to get to know your school through Daniel and his remarkable family. I hope to help spread the word about your amazing work, so that other families, teachers and students around the world can be inspired.

  7. Thank you to Leslie, Dalia, and Debra for the great teachers and role models you have been to Daniel and so many other students. You inspire me as an artist, an educator, and a human being!

  8. I have worked with Mignon Gillen, Daniel’s mom, for many years as a fellow dancer and choreographer. Mignon works very hard to advocate for Daniel, and it is a joy to see his (and her) accomplishments so far acknowledged. Daniel is a great guy with a brilliant mind, and I’ve seen him dancing with his dad off at the side of rehearsals from when he was a small child. THANK YOU for telling a story and for sharing music.

  9. I am deeply moved by this story of Daniel and his accomplished, spirit-filled teachers. I’m searching for what is so inspiring – it’s the flowing of love, and dedication to the precious gifts of these students. What I read is truly amazing, and will take awhile to absorb. Blessings to all, Mignon, Daniel, teachers and all who administer these programs. Carla

  10. Once again you’ve opened a window into yet another magical experience of music, Deb! You’ve presented such a lovely and vivid tour of the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School of Lighthouse Guild. I’m left with a clear impression of the school’s physical aspects and its emotional environment–especially through its devoted staff. I really enjoyed this piece on so many levels. Many thanks, Deb!

  11. I have spent the last week taking in your beautifully written account of the Music School. Thank you! The comments have been beyond wonderful! So grateful to you, Debra, for letting people know about this place that’s like no other. It has been “home” and our “village” since Daniel was 5 years old. I can’t begin to image our journey without the Music School and the extraordinary people who make it all shine bright!