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Fostering education, access, and inclusion for people of all ages with vision loss

Yerko Difonis has always known that he wanted to pursue music professionally, and has dedicated his life to music ever since he was a child. However, obtaining proper music instruction and pursuing music professionally has not always been easy. Despite beginning to learn music as a young child in Chile, Yerko had only been able to learn by ear. Additionally, when it was time for Yerko to begin his schooling, his parents would come to find out that school teachers did not have the training to work with a blind student, and that specialized schools for the blind were very expensive. As a result his family made the decision to move abroad so that he could have access to better educational opportunities. They initially decided on moving to Canada, but eventually found their way to the United States and settled in New Jersey, where they connected with the state’s Commission for the Blind.

Given that Yerko has always imagined himself as a professional musician, once in the United States his parents sought to find him schools that were related to the arts in some way. Although he attended three different elementary schools and two different middle schools, he shares that most of these schools had a music focus. Furthermore, it was in elementary school when he began taking piano lessons at The Filomen M.  D’Agostino Greenberg Music School with Dalia Sakas. At this time he was still primarily learning to play piano by ear, and she was the first to suggest that he learn braille music. Following this suggestion he was introduced to John Sanfilippo and was able to begin taking braille music classes. In addition to piano and braille music, Yerko was exposed to, and taught, how to record music using SONAR under the instruction of Yo Kano.

A few years later, despite having to leave the United States, Yerko was able to stay in contact with Dalia and John. Dalia would even mail Yerko braille music as there are still no braille music catalogs in Chile. This enabled him to continue learning piano both in school and with a local musician. As the FMDG Music School has played such a crucial role in Yerko’s growth as a musician, it is unsurprising to hear him say that his entire music education is due to the Music School.  He states that it is “very important in my life” and “I really appreciate everything the Music School has done for me, even after I left”.

Yerko made it his goal to come back to the United States. Upon completing his undergraduate studies at Playa Ancha University where he received his BA in Education, and completing his piano studies at the Sergei Prokofiev National Music Conservatory, he began applying to various conservatories in the United States. It was paramount that he be accepted into a school abroad as he explains that in Chile, music is considered more of a social pass-time rather than a profession.  Although major universities have conservatories, Yerko explains that the teaching level is not very advanced and while there are good piano teachers, they are few. Thus in order to further his profession he would need to go abroad whether that be to the United States or elsewhere. Consequently, Yerko came to the U.S. to audition for various conservatories in the first few months of 2020, and he left right as the seriousness of the COVID19 pandemic was taking hold.

After auditioning, Yerko received offers from different conservatories including the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and Greatbatch School of Music at Houghton College, both with full tuition scholarships.  He has since made the decision to attend the School of the Arts at Rutgers University and is due to begin classes there in the fall. However, Yerko’s prospects of returning to the United States in the fall seemed to be in jeopardy when the Trump Administration made the decision to strip international college students of their visas if they were to take their entire fall semester classes online. A decision that Yerko’s university already made for many of his classes.

Yerko first heard of this decision when his parents informed him of what they had heard on the news. He was unsure if he should believe what was being reported as he feels the news does not always report on Trump in an accurate and objective manner.  A day later he received an email from Rutgers University regarding the Administrations’ decision stating that they were working on resolving the situation, and this confirmed what he had been told. Yerko decided to pray about the situation, and wait to see what would happen. The following week he received another email from his university detailing that the Trump Administration had since rescinded this policy, and he would be able to return to the United States. Yerko explains that he would have been disappointed if he had not been allowed into the country, but that he understands why the decision was made, and so was not angered by it. Yerko is glad to know that it was changed and that he will have the ability to return. Although it is likely Yerko will arrive late to the start of the new semester, as his visa appointment has been postponed, he is excited to return and grateful to have the chance to continue pursuing music professionally in the United States.

By Emely Recinos

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