United Sound: The Sound of Joy

Mike Lawson • Features • August 29, 2019

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SBO has featured a wide variety of groups that work with music and music education not simply as an art form to be enjoyed or practiced/performed, but as a tool, a weapon, and a form of life itself to make social and community change and take down barriers.

Our youth, before life’s challenges harden them, see music as a common denominator that allows all of us to be one together.

While many of these subject groups take down the barriers of difference in language, religion, race, country of origin, age, gender, and economics, United Sound provides a structure, tools, and method that addresses the special needs students.

Special needs education frequently may take their subjects out of the mainstream of student life and experiences. United Sound utilizes student peer-to-peer mentoring to restore and include special needs students into an exciting and fulfilling part of school life, the music programs.

Friendship, acceptance, and joy come from the inclusive activities of the United Sound chapters that function primarily in the public-school systems they serve. The special needs students gain skills and capabilities that might have previously seemed unlikely at best. All parents’ joy comes from seeing their children succeed.

Now beginning its sixth year of operations, United Sound celebrated with a spectacular series of summer events. Their most recent U.S. online newsletter (unitedsound.org) screamed excitement in reporting joint performances with their new strategic partners Drum Corps International (DCI), the current DCI world champion Blue Devils Drum & Bugle Corps, Carolina Crown Drum and Bugle Corps, Music for All’s Summer Symposium, as well as DCI’s INpact band at DCI finals.

These events included performing onfield at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with the world champion Blue Devils and attending Blue Devil exhibitions at San Bernardino, California and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Summer band camp found United Sound students blending in and enjoying all the camper’s usual experiences and activities at the Music for All Summer Symposium. They also got the opportunity to work with the Carolina Crown Drum and Bugle Corps. Carolina Crown has placed in the top ten of DCI’s competition since 2003.

There is always a feeling of excitement and accomplishment when a well-organized, top notch marching band takes the field, or an orchestra takes the stage. That experience takes on an added dimension when it includes special needs youth along with their peer mentors. Music knows no barriers and includes everyone in both its audience and its performance. All performances are crowning events. In music, it is the ultimate expression of community.

There are no bit parts or bit players. The DCI announcement of this new partnership summed it up with, “This summer DCI has the unique opportunity to collaborate with United Sound whose mission is ‘to provide musical performance experiences for students with special needs through peer mentorship’.”

How did this life changing relationship for DCI and United Sound come about? In the world of music education there are threads of connectivity. In 2017, composer and arranger John Meehan had arranged two compositions for United Sound. These pieces were performed at a Boston Symphony benefit for United Sound.

In December of 2018, Julie Duty, the executive director of United Sound, actually met Meehan for the first time at the Midwest Clinic. Meehan is also on the staff with the Blue Devils and introduced Julie to Shaun Gallant, the Blue Devils new executive director. In short order, the Blue Devils invited United Sound to perform with them at two of their 2019 summer tour exhibition events. This invitation and partnership then inspired Meehan to compose “Unfiltered” for these joint performances by the United Sound’s students with the Blue Devils. It should be noted that Meehan’s wife, a special needs teacher at an elementary school, suggested the title from her work with her students!

SBO recently spoke with a variety of United Sound participants about these recent experiences with their new partners. Christopher Field, an autistic baritone/euphonium player in the Campo Verde High School Band in Arizona traveled over three hundred miles with his mother Anne to the San Bernardino, California Blue Devils exhibition. Jake Harker, a graduate of the Campo Verde “Yotes” marching band is now a member of the Blue Devils and was reunited with Christopher on field. Jake had been one of Christopher’s first peer mentors in Christopher’s sophomore year. High fives and smiles told the story. Hugs all around were the exclamation point.

Christopher’s story is one example of what is possible. Even though both of his parents have played instruments and sing, they never considered a wind instrument for Christopher because of some oral motor skill limitations. As the Campo Verde chapter came together, Chris was asked what instrument he would like to try. “Tuba!” was his enthusiastic answer. Chris stands under five feet in height, so a more sizable, much smaller, baritone became the instrument of choice. The embouchure requirements of his baritone coupled with his speech therapist’s assistance have begun to improve Christopher’s ability to communicate verbally and he sometimes supplements his speech generating device (SGD) with his own voice.

Christopher’s special education teacher at Campo Verde, Dejah Hatfield, reflected on the joy that her United Sound chapter brings to her. Even though the first year of the program at her school struggled, she, the school, and the special needs parents are now enjoying the magic. Their children are in the band and the orchestra and part of that music family.

Mark Santos, director of the Godinez High School band in California, also attended the San Bernardino event along with his entire school band including its United Sound members. For another perspective, SBO spoke with Kelley Burroughs, band director at Ocoee Middle School in Tennessee, and her daughter Hannah who had been a United Sound peer mentor while in high school. Hannah was the link in this instance where her “best friend” from kindergarten – and ever since – is a Downs Syndrome child.

This underlines the essential dynamic that today’s students don’t come hampered with their perception of other students that may have special needs. Now in college, Hannah was asked about her future career thoughts. Nurse anesthetist or band director top her list. Burroughs brought her middle school band and its United Sound members to the Murfreesboro Tennessee Blue Devils exhibition.

United Sound may well be the epitome of collaboration! It joins together a variety of currently available educational components to address a frequently ignored, or even avoided, group of students…those with special needs. So how does all this work? Partner schools have Chapters, after-school groups, of special needs students with three peer mentors for each that bond, learn methods and become a team. These chapters are under the guidance of special needs and music program teachers.

These teachers are provided training materials, ongoing video chats and other support by United Sound. Further information is readily available on the United Sound website. What might United Sound mean at your school or in your community?

First of all, would be an assessment of your local need. Are there programs in place that address your special needs community? Many United Sounds local chapters can trace their roots to Special Olympics groups. Those Olympics groups frequently can provide the basis of need including identifying the students and their families and also what programs currently exist in your area. What are your individual school and school district resources? Both a music department and special needs teacher are required. Financial support for materials, training and other expenses is an important consideration.

To the special needs families, watching and seeing their child performing with their fellow schoolmates in band or orchestra and sharing the field with the world’s best marching units is the sweet sound that they have hoped for. So, who wins when a United Sound chapter is established at your school? Is it the special needs student, their peer team, the music program, or overall student body, the band director or special needs teacher, the parents involved, or perhaps the school system or the overall community? The answer is —YES!

United Sound is generously supported by Sweetwater Sound, Yamaha Music USA, Music for All, REMO, Conn Selmer, D’Addario Foundation, Eastman Music Company, The Midwest Clinic, Alfred Music, City of Tempe, Bamaworks, Academy of Country Music, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Fred J Miller, Inc, and MakeMusic.

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