Throughout his career, Cristobal Rojas Basso has taught music to students facing different challenges, from mobility difficulties to Down Syndrome. Each experience taught him how transformative and inclusive music can be. It is something he learnt in his personal life, too, having witnessed his grandmother frequently playing the keyboard, unimpeded by her blindness. In 2015, Cristobal took on his greatest challenge yet: leading the Sounds of Light Orchestra, a group made up of blind and visually impaired students at the Colegio Santa Lucía.
During their first orchestral rehearsal, Cristobal’s students told him they wanted people to applaud them for their skill, rather than out of pity. That day, Cristobal made it his goal not just to increase his pupils’ musical abilities, but also to help them to realise how talented they were. At first, he lacked the tools necessary to adapt his teaching to his students’ abilities, so he researched new techniques. This was a practically unexplored educational field in Chile, so Cristobal had no choice but to innovate. Leading an orchestra is traditionally a very visual gesture – conductors use their hands to guide their musicians. Cristobal transformed this practice by using a standing tambourine and an electric bass. The tambourine, as an instrument that is camouflaged in musical performance, serves as a reference point for the pulse, and as a metronome in the process of assembling the repertoire. The electric bass is fundamental in the arrangement and harmony of the songs. In addition, Cristobal learned Braille and adapted keyboards, equipment and cables, encouraging his students to be more autonomous.
Over the last six years, Cristobal’s students have grown in confidence, self-esteem, and resilience. They have performed on prestigious stages across Chile, including at the Museum of Memory, Edi cio Moneda Bicentenario, and Santiago Library. In 2019, the orchestra recorded its first album, Música para tus ojos, the first phonographic Chilean jazz record performed by blind or visually impaired musicians. The group’s clarinettist, Bernabé Catalán, became the first blind musician to enter the Conservatory of the University of Chile. The students even filmed a video discussing their work with Stevie Wonder, and caught the eye of Paul McCartney, who invited them to attend his concert.
These opportunities have allowed Cristobal and his students to highlight the power of music to transform societies, and open wider conversations about inclusivity. In 2020, the Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts of the city of Puerto Varas, in southern Chile, requested Cristobal’s help to form their own group for blind musicians. The orchestra was invited to join Chile’s National Disability Service, and organises an annual seminar with SOFOFA, the business union association, to discuss issues pertaining to people with visual impairments.
Overall, Cristobal says his greatest achievement has been seeing his students grow in confidence. If he wins the Global Teacher Prize, he plans to use the funds to spread the orchestra’s message of inclusivity worldwide.