The Ukulele & Special Education: Q&A w/ Domenic Bianco
Sharing Kala Brand’s hometown of Petaluma, CA, musician Domenic Bianco first connected with our team years ago, stopping by our HQ for some acoustic performances. But in addition to performing as the primary songwriter and front man of his band, The SoulShake, Domenic serves our community as a teaching assistant and music instructor for a special education program here in Sonoma County. We wanted to shed some light on the positive and unique approach Domenic has taken to distanced learning for his students, equipped with his Kala ukulele:
Tell us a bit about your background in music:
I always longed to play the piano. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I picked up my first instrument: the guitar! My friend taught me two songs after class one day during my sophomore year in high school: “Sanatarium”by Metalica and “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin. From that initial moment in my buddy’s garage, I was hooked. Shortly after my fascination with guitar had been learned by my family, my amazing Aunt Clarice gifted me an acoustic guitar from the 70’s. She could see my passion and knew it would keep me out of trouble! The two following summers I would spend most of my waking hours practicing on a little practice amp with a Dean that my parents bought me for my bday, which was my first electric guitar.
Tell us also about your background as an educator, particularly special education, and how you got started with that:
As for teaching, I got into the field of special education almost 8 years ago. I worked in a play care department for a local gym with a dear friend of mine 10 years ago. When we quit, she moved on to work where we both work currently: Cypress School. I had many jobs and careers prior to this, but special education captivated my heart from the first day. Before teaching in special ed, I was also a dance instructor for 5 years and worked as a firefighter, both volunteer and as a full time apprentice. I mention this because all these roads helped build my fascination and desire to help others. A couple years after leaving play care, my friend got me a job at Cypress knowing I was great with kids. This would be the moment that changed my path as I eventually would solely concentrate on becoming a teacher and a working musician.
What is your role at Cypress Secondary School? What would you say is the school's approach and mission?
I’m currently working as a teaching assistant as I work towards my special ed credential. I also am the music instructor for our school. Our schools' approach is to envision and help build a future where people with disabilities live with dignity, participate meaningfully and experience success. In addition to teaching academics at everyone’s specific pace, we also teach social and meaningful living skills so that one can grow towards becoming an independent member of society.
What were the biggest effects that COVID and quarantine had on the special education community from Cypress?
The effects of COVID on our school were indeed great. From the very first week, however, we collectively worked hard to get distance learning up and running and were one of the first schools in the bay area to be fully integrated with our academics and distance learning going full steam within 2 weeks. Special ed can be very hands on and is a very personal profession, so moving to all online was hard, but the hard working teachers at Cypress built a wonderful schedule to help students, parents and caregivers. This is when my online music class started and took flight. I was and still am on schedule for 3 music classes each week. We go live with the kiddos every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:00-11:45 am PST.
What gave you the idea to bring your music sessions online and how do you go about creating lesson plans/setlists for the kids?
This idea for the online music classes stemmed from our weekly music classes in school. We wanted to offer the students and families a little more relief in the midst of the pandemic. We started our online music sessions at 3 times a week and the participation quickly grew. We soon had families, teachers and students from other schools asking to join for the music classes. That’s when I thought about setting up my Instagram for livestreams so I could reach more families outside of our school system. During these music classes we play some of the children classics, some SoulShake originals, as well as some original kids songs that I have written like my song “Zones”.
Tell us a bit about your "Zones"song and the idea of emotion through color:
The Zones of Regulation is a framework we use in school to help children identify their feelings and emotions. Some individuals can’t, or have a hard time, describing how they are feeling or where they are emotionally. The Zones of Regulation helps kids with this by assigning a color to a feeling.
Blue= sad or tired, Yellow= excited or anxious, Red= angry or mad, and green= happy!
Based off of this, I wrote a song that we sing every week! During the first weeks of quarantine I wanted to make sure families had access to this, so I recorded it along with another kids song and released it on my Spotify. I also made a music video for “Zones” so kids could have access visually in the home and the video is just under 90,000 views! You can watch it here.
Can you tell us a bit about The SoulShake and your latest release?
Along with teaching I perform in my band The SoulShake. We have been together for about 3 years and just released our second album, “VIBES,” at the tail end of 2020. I write, sing and play ukulele and guitar for the trio. Filled with positive lyrics and a whole lot of groove that crosses over many genres, we preach positivity and unity between each other.
At the beginning of quarantine we linked up with our brother and producer of the album, Jake Stillman to do a weekly live stream on our Facebook page. We ran this series for 12 weeks and got thousands of views on our videos and tripled our fan base following. We did a few fundraisers, one for the ACLU where we donated $800 dollars and our last one, our Christmas special which we raised $625 dollars for the Toy Drive in Pine Ridge out of South Dakota. Now for 2021 we will have our new series of live streams starting up in February, as well as getting in the studio for a few singles to be recorded and released this year.
Do you see a crossover between your strengths and experience as the frontman of a rock band and your role in special education? If so, why is that crossover important to you?
When it comes to teaching and or performing, confidence and grabbing attention is everything. I love the limelight and making people smile, be it connecting with my kiddos or the audience. I think it’s important with my students to have fun—honestly important for most students across the board. I enjoy being goofy and helping my kiddos and I think this only strengthens my abilities on the stage.
In my eyes, to achieve something great is to help others achieve something great. I think that’s why I’m so drawn towards special education because you really have to mold yourself to fit the needs of the students. It’s like a revolving door of helping others, with those others helping others still.
Was there anything that 2020 taught you about yourself, the role of music, and about your students? And what would you like others not in the special education community to know and consider moving forward?
2020 only further cemented my calling on this earth. To bring a positive message through my music to help others achieve whatever they want and to just help spread the good vibes. I love writing for the SoulShake and I love writing kids songs and performing for all audiences. 2020 was rough but I am very grateful that I was in the position to help so many people with something that I am truly so passionate about: music!
If there’s one last thing I could say to people who are not in the special needs community, it’s to remember that they are just like us: human. We all want love, connection and the ability to live a life with dignity and to contribute and function as an independent member of society to the best of our abilities. To learn, to love, and to build connections with others. I feel blessed to be in the position I’m in where I can share this positive message with my music.