UpClose: United Sound

Mike Lawson • • March 7, 2016

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Making Musicians of Special Needs Learners, and Mentors of Their Musical Peers

As the father of a daughter with autism, who got back her ability to speak because of music during her early intervention twenty years ago, who went on to perform as a vocalist in her four years of high school, even winning talent shows, I took to heart United Sound’s mission to tell students they can play music, play an instrument, be part of the band or orchestra, and perform with the “other kids” in school performances.

I could rewrite what United Sound is all about, but their “About Us” section of their website says it best. From the UnitedSound. org website: “United Sound is a school-based instrumental music club for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their typical peers. Dedicated to promoting social involvement through shared ensemble performance experience, United Sound joins students with and without disabilities to learn and perform in the band or orchestra together. The program is run by an individual school band or orchestra director and a school special education teacher with support from United Sound in the form of specialized training, support, curriculum, and organizational resources. With assistance from student volunteers (peer mentors), new musicians learn to play the instrument of their choice at a personally modified level.”

This isn’t just some feel-good story; this is a powerful program that works. Visit their website, watch the videos, see the curriculum, the testimonials. Maybe have a box of Kleenex nearby, because the work United Sound is doing is moving, especially if you have any kind of personal connection to the special needs community.

Founder: Julie DutyI recently sat down with United Sound founder and executive director, Julie Duty, to learn more about this amazing program and how it is transforming the lives of general education and special education students alike, through the power of playing a musical instrument.

How did you come up for the idea with United Sound?

I was a high school and middle school band director and was always very passionate about this population of people. I was a peer mentor in my own high school, although not in a music setting, and I also volunteered for the Special Olympics. But this idea isn’t new. The sports people of the world have capitalized on the peer mentoring relationship for a long time. In instrumental music, we have this barrier of the instrument, and as a teacher, I knew that this was something that everyone could do if each person received the amount of help that they actually need.

Describe the level of special needs that United Sound is able to serve, and how you match them with peers and choose instruments.

The United Sound program works with special learners of all physical, developmental, and intellectual ability levels; it really doesn’t matter. We have students that are in inclusion classes all day long who require a very small amount of service, but they need an entry point, they need a safe place to learn, and they enjoy the friends.

We have some students who don’t have the ability to move their own body at all, and their peer mentors help to motivate them. Obviously some students with physical disabilities might not be able to play something that requires air, like saxophone, but he or she can play the cello, or play a number of percussion instruments, or even the violin, things that peers can help them to do.

We actually have a growing number of students who are in a music class that meets during the school day, and also go to United Sound Club after school once a week because it’s such a different experience. I’m thinking of one student in particular; he’s in high school and he’s played percussion since elementary school. He started playing euphonium in United Sound this year and loves it. But learning to play euphonium in the typical band setting would have been much more difficult. He needed more help to be able to succeed in that way and his three peer mentors are able to give him exactly what he needs.

How many active United Sound programs are there right now?

We have eighteen active programs in eleven states right now. Two middle schools, fourteen high schools, and two universities.

You’ve written a curriculum wherein the peers play a line of music that’s a little more complicated, and then the special needs students having a supporting part underneath it that’s on their ability level.

Without curriculum, we are just hanging around with instruments. As teacher, I knew I wanted to include more kids, but I needed somebody to have the time to create the process to make it happen. As a band director with an interest in serving special learners, I absolutely wanted these students in my classes, but I didn’t have the support, the curriculum, the help, or the direction. That’s what we’re hoping to give teachers: better tools.

Tell me about writing this curriculum.

I taught beginning band for 10 years and beginner lessons for 20 years. I have a lot of experience with teaching someone to do something that they’ve never done before. I also have great people that are close to me and willing to help. I write a draft of something that I think will work based on what I know as a music educator, and everything that I have read, and then I submit it to two other music teachers, a special education teacher, and a researcher in the field. They all send it back with criticism and I rewrite, add another little bit, and send it back to the four of them. Between the five of us, it is a constant back and forth of, “There’s too much on this page,” or “You’ve gone too fast,” or “This is too repetitive and unnecessary,” or “This makes no sense.” There’s so much to learn, but we have created a really great end product that works for the new musicians and their peer mentors.

How do you teach abstract notions of notation to special needs students?

We’ve tried to take those tried and true methods that come from the special education research that says, “Use these strategies to make abstract concepts concrete,” and transfer them over to music.

I saw donuts used as musical notes, is this is where the idea for donuts came from in Book 1?

We use foods to teach rhythm and colors to teach pitch, and in the early stages, we really ignore everything else other than pitch and rhythm. Nothing else matters but, “Can you learn to identify these rhythms on any note, or any sound that you can get to come out of that instrument?”

Why food? I consider some of the new United Sound musicians to be my friends. One good friend, her name is Julianna, asks me about food every time I see her. I saw her recently, she asked me if I like milk, and I said, “Well, of course I do. Do you like milk, Julianna?” and she said, “Yes, of course.” She was an influencing factor for using food. Julianna’s not representative of everyone, of course, but she’s such a sweet spirit and such a happy person that she guided that early decision

The students eventually learn proper notation, right?

Some do, some don’t. We’re to the point of the year now where a lot of our new musicians are graduating from Book 1 and moving onto Book 2. At the end of Book 2, students can read traditional notation, and we move well beyond food and other symbols. These students could go to the music store and buy a violin book to play with. Not everybody gets to Book 2, not everybody needs to, it’s absolutely irrelevant.

As special needs parents, when we find out that our child is born with some kind of disability, some hopes and dreams go out the window. You don’t dare believe that your child’s going to be able to play a saxophone or trumpet when you find out they have Down’s, or autism, or other developmental, physical, or sensory issues. To give parents that hope for their child is pretty spectacular. They must be the best band parents ever.

My interaction with the parents is pretty minimal because I’m a facilitator of the club programs, but I’m not actually teaching at a school. What I hear secondhand from the teachers is that initially, a lot of the parents and a lot of the special education teachers are reluctant. They start with, “Well, my child can’t do that.” And we almost have to say, “No, look at the videos. One of these children in one of these hundreds of videos might be like your child.”

It requires a small amount of advocacy that I truly wasn’t expecting. I don’t have a child with a disability, so I speak from the perspective of a band director. It’s been amazing to me that the music teachers hear about it and say, “Yes, let’s.” Often, the special education teachers and some of the parents say, “Hmm. We can’t.” And then we teach them or show them what’s possible.

Putting curriculum in a music teacher’s hand, that first step is really critical, when they are holding a book and show it to the special education teachers who say, “We can’t.” And then they show them, “Well, this is how we’re going to do it.” And they look at it and they say, “Oh, that will work.”

As a special needs parent, our first reaction might be they can’t, because we don’t dare get our hopes up. We want it more than you can imagine, but it’s scary.

The thing that you don’t want is something that looks great but doesn’t pan out. What these parents might not know are band and orchestra students. These are students who show up, and keep showing up week after week after week. I have a special education teacher in our teacher video who says, “I’ve been a special education teacher for 23 years, and this is the first thing that the typical kids have continued showing up for.”

The special needs students are not only getting the opportunity to learn a real instrument, they’re getting socialization with the general education population.

To me, United Sound is an “and” not an “or.” United Sound is reverse inclusion, where we’ve created something specifically for a student with a disability, and we are including the general education student in the class, this is not a general education class where we’re including a special education student. That’s the difference between inclusion and reverse inclusion.

Because this is a club, part of our training process is that in your 45-minute rehearsal, we expect you to plan for 15 minutes of non-music learning. Meaning, go get a drink and hang out in the hallway and chat about your day, and talk about boys, and clothes, and music, and whatever else is on your mind. Because that’s part of the high school experience. Part of finding your niche is having time to have friends.

Celebration is one of our biggest training touch points. High-fives, and you-did-it, and, “Hey, everybody stop what you’re doing and turn and look at this group and what they’re doing,” are all really critical to this process. But that’s not something that happens in the typical high school orchestra or band class. We don’t send you out to the hallway in the middle of orchestra to hang out. So the club format offers this different experience that’s not ever meant to replace band, but simply add more value to it. If you’re already reaching and serving this population, this is a way to reach and serve more.

It’s awkward when you throw people together that don’t know each other, regardless of their ability level on any scale. If you take students that don’t know each other and say, “Hey, you be friends,” that’s an uncomfortable situation.

When we take these four students and get them together with an instrument between them, they have a bridge. They have something to talk about and they have something to do. “I have a saxophone and I really want to share it with you,” coupled with, “I really want to learn to play the saxophone,” is a situation that’s structured for success.

And that’s the beginning of a relationship, that’s this bridge between us. In two weeks, we’re genuine friends, and we have lots of things to talk about, but we never had to have that awkward I-don’t-know-what-to-talk-to-you-about time because we had this instrument bridge between us.

We really are 50 percent focused on the social aspect of fitting in, belonging, and finding your place in high school, middle school, or college.

We have two universities, and three more in the pipeline. At Western Carolina University, United Sound musicians played with the 500 member marching band at homecoming. Can you imagine what this is going to look like if we continue collecting college students who are running this program with other young adults in their communities? They’re reaching out to groups of young adults with disabilities, forging friendships, and having a wonderful time making music together, but it’s still on that peer-to-peer level.

We’re creating, within the profession, an entire community of people who know and believe that music education is for everybody. I have been so impressed by the goodness of so many people who say, “Yep. I’m in!” and join us wholeheartedly.

We are not talking about an under- worked group of people. The special education teachers and the music teachers on any campus are by far the busiest people. They’re giving the most, and they both say, “Yes! We want that, we’ll do one more thing. Help us.”

One of our parents spoke with me about her daughter’s growth pattern. With her other children, it was a steady incline, but with her daughter, it was a really slow growth process, and then at the end, suddenly her learning accelerated.

If her daughter had been ready to start playing the cello when she was 10, and had used the entry point that everyone else did, which was beginning orchestra, then she would have progressed, and she would have been one of those students that has an IEP included in the music program. We know that so many secondary music teachers are already embracing those students.

But her daughter’s growth was different than that, so at the entry point time, she wasn’t ready. She was still dealing with buckets of other issues. Now, she’s 16 years old, and it’s exactly the right time for her to start playing an instrument, but there’s no entry point.

Right, the middle schools are the feeder…

Yeah. The children who are able to start in elementary or middle school with everyone else get to the high school level and they’re welcome to stay. Music teachers often make accommodations; do their best for them. We have a lot of teachers who do a lot of amazing things for those students, but it’s a tiny fraction of the number that are dismissed and left out because they weren’t ready to start when they were 10. Now they’re 14, 15, 16, or 17, and it’s the perfect time for them personally, but it’s too late academically.

There’s no entry point for a 16-yearold to start playing the trumpet at high school. I don’t think it’s that the music teachers are saying, “No, you’re not welcome here.” But that by the time you’re to the high school level, everybody’s been playing for six, or seven, or eight years, and they’ve all moved on and there’s no entry point. United Sound gives these students an entry point at their own time, at their own ability, and makes them a real part of the ensemble.

What are the general education level music students who mentor gaining from United Sound?

This is really a 50/50 process. It is as much about the general education student mentors and their growth as it is about the special education students. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for really genuine service in the typical teenager’s life. United Sound is a very student-centered, student-run program. Once the club gets started, the music teacher is often standing with their hands in their pockets, just watching the magic happen. This is an opportunity to spend 45 authentic minutes with somebody where you don’t even remember you have a cellphone in your pocket. You’re engaging.

We do a summative assessment with our mentors at the end of every year, and what we hear from so many of them is, “It turns out we’re really very similar. I had no idea.” I think this is an opportunity to place the general education students together with somebody that they think is very, very different from them, and leads a different life than them, and let them see we’re really the same. Right? We all have a need to belong. We all need to have friends, we all want to have fun, and we all want to ft in.

The band room, the orchestra room is the perfect place for that, where every body’s welcome and everybody fits in. It’s safe, it’s wonderful, it’s fun, and we perform. The thrill of performance, of knowing that you contributed to something beautiful, and the experience of a room full of people, sometimes thousands of people, on their feet and cheering for you… that’s something that we musicians know. That’s an experience that everyone should get to feel. United Sound is all of the good things that a human being needs, but it’s about belonging most of all.

How does a teacher start a United Sound club in their school?

To start a club requires a special education teacher and a music teacher. They decide what the size of their club is going to be and then choose students in a three-to-one ratio. (Three peer mentors for each one new musician.)

Then we provide materials for the special education teacher to train the mentors because the teachers are going to switch jobs with each other. The special education teacher’s job is to pay attention to the mentors, and teach them to be great teachers. The music teacher’s job is to pay attention to the students with special needs, and to facilitate that musical learning.

The students are broken up into their groups of four and spread around the room to work individually, while the teachers monitor and facilitate during the rehearsal. They’re not saying, “I’m the teacher and I’m in charge, and let’s do this.” Until you get closer to concert time and start practicing as an ensemble, the majority of the learning and the teaching is completely student-led.

I imagine a lot of our readers are going to contact you.

We actually have a waiting list right now. Hopefully we’ll be able to find more funding so that we can open more programs. We’ll reach 20 programs by the end of this year, and we have made space for five more schools that will start in August of 2017. I’ve got a waiting list that’s growing, and that’s a wonderful/terrible thing. I love that the teachers are so readily committed, but right now, we only have the capacity as an organization to support a specific number of schools.

I would like to say though, please still reach out if you are interested. Fill out the teacher registration page on the website. I have great faith in this program, the music industry to financially support it, and the public. I know that the support will come, so please don’t hesitate to get on the list!

How will increased funding for United Sound shorten the waiting list?

We are expecting wonderful things to start happening because there are so many wonderful teachers that want to be involved. It takes funds to operate the organization, cover travel and training, and create support materials and curriculum. We have received great support from Yamaha Corporation, Conn-Selmer, Inc., Eastman Music Co., Music for All, and the D’Addario Foundation, but with increased funding we will expand our locations faster, train more teachers and students, and have a huge impact on the special needs and music education communities.

I love this. This must be so rewarding on a deeply personal level.

For me, it’s amazing to watch a parent watch their child on a stage, not being “special.” They are just part of the group, wearing the same tuxedo that everyone is wearing, performing, and playing their part. Their child is going to play his or her part, and the other students are going to play their parts, and we’re all going to do this together. To watch these parents take that in, it’s so amazing and it’s so special in part because this is an opportunity to be “not special.” You belong here.

Anyone who has ever been a part of our world knows that there’s nothing like the band and orchestra experience. The time these musicians spend together changes their lives forever. United Sound is an extra, certainly, but it’s not something different. It’s a tool to bring the beauty and power of what these amazing teachers are already doing to a few more people. It’s an opportunity to do something together that makes belonging matter.

Learn more about how to get involved, donate, and contact Julie by visiting unitedsound.org, or find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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