Band was big in Bassett, Va., where Beth McAlexander and her husband, David, grew up. Both played in their middle and high school bands and loved being part of the musical community. It was a special experience they wanted for their son, Ben, a student in the Exceptional Children program at Hough High.
“Band was our big thing,” Beth McAlexander said. “It never crossed our minds that he’d get to experience this like we did.”
Ben’s band experience came about through United Sound. The program provides musical-performance experiences through peer mentorship for special-needs students. The program, in its third year at Hough, calls the students “new musicians” and allows them to play in the band, including concerts.
Hough was one of the first two high schools to institute the program in North Carolina and is the only school with a chapter in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The state currently has four high school programs and one at Western Carolina University.
Band director Robert Carrington heard about the program when a United Sound representative spoke at a convention in Winston-Salem. About 200 to 300 music teachers were told that band and orchestra are some of the last places that discriminate against students with special needs.
“That got our attention,” Carrington said, “like a bull in a china shop.”
Carrington took the idea for a United Sound chapter back to Hough, where there was immediate support from the principal, Dr. Laura Rosenbach, and parents. He launched the program with the help of EC teachers Lorri Poerio and Denise Clark – “They are the secret behind making it work,” he said.
Hough had nine new musicians join the first year and is now at capacity with 12. Each student chooses the instrument they want to play and has a team of three peer mentors. To participate, they must have support and commitment from their parents, the interest for being in band and/or orchestra and, typically, they need to be able to count to 10.
The band meets once a week during Husky Time, a period set aside for enrichment and club activities. Band members work with a whimsical curriculum provided by United Sound, where musical notes are represented by food, such as cakes, soup and doughnuts, and colors indicate tones.
“The goal is to teach them to read notations,” Carrington said. “Our mentors have a tag-team approach, working with the music and demonstrating the instrument. Mentors are also analyzing music and writing parts adapted for our new musicians.
“The process cross-pollinates,” he said. “I was thrilled because it makes so much sense.”
Senior Marshall Graham has been a program mentor since the beginning. He said he originally participated because he was just trying to be involved in something, but it didn’t take long to decide he would stick with it.
“Nothing else can give you this type of experience,” Marshall said. “It combines two of my greatest joys – helping others and music. It’s a great experience, and I don’t take it for granted.”
Ben was in the first class of new musicians to join the band and said it is his favorite class. He has an affinity for mallet percussion instruments and is very good, according to his mentors. His mother said she watched videos of his initial classes and was amazed by his progress.
“I couldn’t believe he was so focused,” McAlexander said, “and he was so motivated by it. He even wears the tux for the performance – but no tie.”
The band has a concert each spring. This year, a winter performance has been added and will be held Dec. 17. Carrington said they acclimate the students to the sensory and space changes of playing on a stage versus in the classroom, and they get the same experience – and the same joy – as any other bandmember.
“They are in the band,” Carrington said. “It’s not just learning, it’s belonging, developing relationships and feeling that you are part of the school. This is probably the proudest I am of anything I’ve started at any school. You can see how this is impacting our traditional students, as well as our new musicians. We all gain from this activity.”