Neurodiverse Empowerment Through Music, with Joseph S. Lento | EDB 136

In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman continues his conversation with musician and educator Joseph S. Lento.

Joseph is a Conservatory trained professional Musician. He is licensed by NYS as a Teacher of Orchestral Music and School District Administration and began his career in 1984. In 1999 he was named NYC Bronx County High School Teacher of the Year. In 2014 President Barack Obama named him a National Teacher of Arts and Humanities. Joseph is called on frequently by local Radio Hosts, NY Cable TV and local T.V. News stations as an expert on Music, Special Needs students and curriculum development. He discusses the best way for someone to choose an instrument to learn, and how music can empower people with intellectual and developmental differences. (12 minutes)

To find out more about Joseph Lento, visit him at or

You can also check out the clog he has written for us here:


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Picking the right instrument

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains, and we’re lucky to have returning to us today Joseph Lento, the maestro, the professional musician, but most of all, the teacher who really gets that all of our brains are different. Joseph, welcome back to Different Brains.

JOSEPH S. LENTO (JL): Dr. Reitman, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here again. Thank you so very, very much.

HR: Well, thank you. If there’s a parent out there or a kid or an adult like myself, who’s thinking of going into, learning music, how do you suggest picking out the instrument?

JL: Well, the one thing is, and that’s a great question you asked, Dr. Reitman, great question, how do you go about it. And I say first go by one you want to play. That may not be the best answer, but at least the student will have had the opportunity to pursue the instrument which interests them the most. I know my job, when I have a class of 30 or 40 students, times that by 5 times a day, I really have to make strategic decisions, and my training allows me to automatically size up, for lack of a better term, an instrument to the actually “physiotomy” of a person’s face, which actually has a lot to do with brass and woodwind instruments. But it’s not going to be the end all answer. I can think one thing that with all my experience, I could be wrong. So to this day, I still let the student play whatever instrument they want in my classroom, even if I think it’s not the right fit for them.

HR: Well, you have your experience when you were young and you got turned down.

JL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have students sometimes who want to play the clarinet and their fingers are very, very thin, and in order to negotiate the clarinet, you have to cover the holes, and I’ll never stop a student from doing that. I’m gonna give out a trade secret right now, if there are any music teachers listening. If you have students that have slim fingers and they want to play the clarinet, but can’t cover the holes, have them put those little finger covers on that they sell at CVS. They’re like little surgical gloves that go over the fingers. You put that on a student’s fingers, and automatically those holes are covered, and you got that. So there are ways to help students negotiate their physical deficits when it comes to negotiating an instrument.

HR: Well, you just solved it with finger cots. That’s great.

JL: Oh, that’s what you call them. There you go.

Future goals

HR: Now, do you have any further career goals? You’ve had such a great career and are doing so many great things and love teaching and music.

JL: Thank you for asking. It would be, one of my goals is to, while I love my students where I am, I’ve been in the New York City and New York State system a long time, and I would like to, at some point, like to branch out and maybe go in and assist music teachers with their approach to music and for them to realize that it’s not about preparing for a concert. It’s about preparing minds to open up, and when you open up a person’s mind through music, you open up the entire person. You open up their negotiating skills; you open up their heart, their soul, and they become better people for it. I would like to see where music teachers are teaching more from that perspective as opposed to it being another academic course with a lot of rigor, which it should be, but in my mind, it’s not. It’s more about using the inherent qualities of music to open up the individual. So I’d like to try to do a lot more of that if I can, and really go into the special needs community much more than I’m able to do right now.

HR: Now, I know you’re modest, and I know you’ve just started this, but I want to use this interview to encourage you to really do it. Tell us about your plans to write a children’s book

JL: What I’ve realized is, and it wouldn’t necessarily just be a children’s book, I happen to be the kind of guy that I remember when I was in school, when we were learning long division, I didn’t do it the way the teacher did it, but I got the answers. I always found myself doing things in terms of how my brain related to what was going on, and fortunately the teachers were so terrific that they said, “It’s ok, Joseph. You don’t have to do it that way, as long as you keep getting the answers.” You don’t have that so much in the world today anymore. I want to be able to continue to be a person who says, “I don’t care how you get the answer. Just as long as you’re getting it and you’re enjoying it.” To that end, I’ve also realized that people perceive information differently. I’m the kind of person that loves a picture and a story. Show me a picture and show me the paragraph and how they connect, and for many years, I’ve been developing these series of photos that go along with a phrase or you know, a paragraph, and I think there are lessons in that for both the people who learn visually and those who don’t really have the patience to sit down, which can be wonderful, on something that gets to them in a short amount of words. So the book I’ve been quietly writing has to do about that. There are hundreds of photos and phrases that have everything from academics to spiritual kinds of things, leadership qualities, and I think that especially people in our special needs community might really resonate with them. They might say, “Oh, I like that picture. It reminds me of this,” and they’ll read what’s there, because often people buy with their eyes, and they don’t buy the words first. They buy the picture first. Any car they ever bought, I like the way it looks before I ask, “How many horsepower does it have?” That’s how I think. I teach the way I think.

HR: Well, it’s good that you recognize it, that each of our brains has a different way of inputting information, and you go with the flow, like you’re a visual kind of guy, right? Somebody else might be different. It’s just the same thing as we don’t teach a blind student with the same techniques that we would teach a deaf student. It’s kind of silly to scream at a deaf student. It’s kind of silly to write on the blackboard for a blind student. We have all these different modifications of how our brains are. Certainly, I think all of our brains are rewiring with modern social media to have a shorter attention span, be more visual, videos and photographs, the videos are getting shorter and shorter. More and more and the words are getting less and less. That goes along with what you’re saying. But the samples I saw that you sent are just great, and I really want to encourage you to just do that project. That’ll be great.

JL: Coming from you, that’s a big compliment. Thank you very, very much.

Empowering different brains

HR: I saw a TV piece that featured you and Cuong Do. And, you want to talk a little bit about some of the these special people you’ve met who also get that all of our brains are different?

JL: Yeah you mentioned a panel there that was absolutely wonderful, and thanks to Angela and Peter Hart who run “Spotlight on Biz” on Manhattan cable be very involved in bringing the attention to special needs people, and how all of our brains work differently. And the young man, Eli, that was on that show was a wonderful example of a young man who at one point just had no ability to even control his own body movements, and he had all the, you know, signs of someone with, you know, severe autism. And that young man is about one of the most articulate and and brilliant young people I’ve ever spoken to and he’s, not alone. There are thousands of young people who need guidance and need the help that music can do and bring to people to help them evolve it’s the best person they can be. He’s a singer… he’s just an incredible young man. Through my career I’ve met students who have absolutely no affect sometimes and they become the most effective person in my school band. Beyond a doubt. That affect outside of the music room and the effect that they have when that instrument is in their hand is unbelievable they are — It just fascinates me. I know I get goosebumps when I talk about it because I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happens. Of course I can talk about it technically and all, but how that actually happens is still amazing to me to this day. And, I’m very fortunate to have been given the chance to fail, and persist, and follow my love of music, and to finally be given a chance by educators who believed in me. And all I’m doing is sharing all that they taught me.

HR: Joseph, it’s been a pleasure having you back here again, here at Exploring Different Brains. Joseph Lento, thank you so much.

JL: Dr. Reitman, the pleasure, once again, is all mine, and my hat’s off to you and your wonderful organization. Continued success, thank you.