Ron Curry hesitates when he speaks, rocking a bit as he waits for the words to form. He walks gingerly, tapping a white cane ahead to find obstacles he cannot see.
But when he sits at the piano during music-therapy classes at Paoli's Royer-Greaves School for the Blind, his fingers move without hesitation, and his voice is strong. When he's not singing, he's smiling.
He's at home here, at this school, on this campus, where he has lived for more than 60 years - first as a student, then as an employee, and now as a volunteer.
"I call him the ambassador of Royer-Greaves," said Vicky Mayer, director of the nonprofit founded in 1921. "He makes special connections with our children and our adults because he's walked their path."
She noted that Curry has played at nursing homes and private club meetings. Community members crowd the school's free annual December holiday concert - this year at 2 p.m. Dec. 11 - possibly just to see Curry perform, she said.
Royer-Greaves serves children and adults who, in addition to having vision impairment, often have serious physical and mental disabilities. Curry, 70, was 8 when he came to live on campus. He had two memorable piano teachers who showed him that music could give him the clear and steady voice he lacked.
Ask Curry what his life would be without music, and he's surprised by the question, as though it's unfathomable.
"To me, music feels good," he said. "For me and all of us, I believe it is the international language."
He wanted to share that gift, which is why he joined the school as a music-therapy assistant after graduating at 21 and it's why he still works every day, although he retired two years ago.
"It's good for the school, and it's good for me," Curry said. "Everybody enjoys music. It's their favorite activity of the day."
Today, Royer-Greaves has an enrollment of 26, including eight students ages 5 to 21. The others take part in the two adult programs. When Curry came to campus, it was also a residential facility. The school now has four community homes in the area for adults.
Group music therapy is offered daily. Some people also have individual music therapy sessions. That's unusual, music therapist Suzanne Kane said, noting how some schools have cut out music and others offer it sparingly.
Here, it's built into the curriculum to meet nonmusic milestones like cognitive engagement and physical dexterity. The opening "Hello" song aids socialization, introducing each person in the room by name. The "Goodbye" song at the end of each session provides structure.
"We're meeting a significant number of goals in each session that we do," Kane said. "We are rocking out, but we're rocking out with a purpose."
Mayer described how Curry worked with nonverbal students.
"He'll say, 'Does it feel like this?' and he'll launch into a song to try to match what that person is feeling and experiencing," Mayer said.
Every class has a theme - on a recent weekday, it was gospel - and starts with a song list. Each participant chooses a song. The nonverbal students make their choices via a device that offers one choice under a right paddle and a second under the left. Some nonverbal students make their choices known by their body language.
"Throughout their day, they're basically told where they need to be and to do this and do that. In music, they have choices," Kane said. "They're at their best selves when they're in music."
Before a recent class with six students ages 9 to 14, Kane handed out instruments - including drums, Hawaiian puili sticks, and a cabasa. A teenager who needs to build strength had a bell bracelet placed on his wrist to encourage movement. Another was given space so he could smack a drum and grab other instruments from a nearby table. The faculty, too, joined in, singing and helping when a student dropped an instrument or needed a wheelchair adjustment. Kane believes singing gives them, too, a welcome break.
Although they can't give each other visual cues, Curry and Kane, who have worked together for 13 years, are a well-oiled singing machine: They manage to hold notes for the exact same time and know when to wrap up songs if they're losing their audience. Their voices and instruments - Kane sometimes strums a guitar - meld naturally. They try not to repeat a song within a two-week period, so they have a massive catalog and constantly learn new songs. Kane said she was the one who needed the extra practice.
"He usually has it right away," she said. "I am very lucky to work alongside him. This guy is an awesome piano player, and we get to hear him every day."
Curry's ears are also carefully attuned to the students and know their individual voices or rhythms. After class, he noted that Jala Winkey, a 10-year-old who doesn't speak, seemed off that day. Usually, he said, "she's got an upbeat rhythm. If you listen to [hip-hop], she knows all the songs. Our students are very talented."
Kane believes Jala will speak one day, possibly while banging one of the drums she often claims during music class.