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‘When words fail, music speaks’: How communication transforms identity through performance at the Berkshire Hills Music Academy

Lauren Benotti Mackenzie, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is conceptualized as a communication perspective on the verbal and non-verbal expression of identity among people with Williams Syndrome (WMS). The main site for the study was the Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA) learning community in South Hadley, MA. I argue that it is indeed how people with WMS communicate that helps to shape their identity as people with WMS. The primary intellectual questions which frame this dissertation are, first, how are people with WMS traditionally identified in published texts? Second, how do people with WMS communicate what it means to have WMS? Finally, how is WMS performed (musically and non-musically) in the BHMA classroom? The ethnography of communication serves as the theoretical framework for the study and the analysis is of three types. The first begins by reviewing how people with WMS have traditionally been identified in published literature. These are text-based, consist of identifiers provided by experts, and are analyzed using a kind of cluster analysis. The second set of analyses discusses how people with WMS define what it means to have WMS. These data come from ethnographic interviews with students as well as over two years of participant observation and are also analyzed using cluster analysis. Finally, I look at how the identity of WMS is performed in the BHMA classroom. Hymes' SPEAKING mnemonic is used to analyze speeches by students with WMS at the BHMA. My major findings are as follows: The majority of the published literature defining WMS identifies these people as intellectually disabled, physically abnormal, and excessively social. The students with WMS I lived with, taught and interviewed hold beliefs about who they are that stand in sharp contrast to these published definitions. They find themselves to be “normal” people, with a “positive” set of talents and abilities (both music and communication-based) with strong “feelings” about what others say about them. In performing WMS in the classroom, these students used expressive techniques such as spontaneous emergence into music, transformational testimonies, and other unique communicative means to set themselves apart as people with WMS.

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Recommended Citation

Mackenzie, Lauren Benotti, "‘When words fail, music speaks’: How communication transforms identity through performance at the Berkshire Hills Music Academy" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179897.