Perrysburg students strive for inclusion of their peers with disabilities in orchestra


By Andrew Kish

Special to the Sentinel-Tribune

PERRYSBURG — A group of local high school students is bringing more inclusion to the school’s music program by pairing students with disabilities with members of the school’s orchestra.

United Sound, a chapter-based organization with a group at Perrysburg High School, teaches students with a disability, who are known in the group as “new musicians,” to play music using instruments that have been modified to make them easier to learn. Existing orchestra members, known as peer mentors, help the new musicians learn how to play the instrument of their choice.

The group, which was brought to Perrysburg High School at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, started with one teacher’s idea of including more students in the orchestra program.

“I was very interested in how to get people in special education classrooms involved in the music classroom,” said Abigail Miles, director of the Perrysburg chapter of United Sound. “I saw a United Sound chapter perform and got the idea from them and thought, ‘Why can’t we have one of those?’”

Abigail Miles, director of Perrysburg United Sound chapter. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Kish)

After Miles had the inspiration for the group, the process of bringing United Sound to the high school started by finding students who were willing to teach their peers with unique needs.

“When I first heard about United Sound, I immediately knew that I wanted to join,” said Lauren Manges, a peer mentor with PHS’ United Sound chapter. “I know oftentimes, individuals with special needs get left out of stuff, so I loved the idea of including them in the orchestra program.”

Other peer mentors said they hoped to focus not only on inclusion, but emotions and feelings as well.

“When I heard about United Sound, it really intrigued me, and I was very excited to become a part of the new musicians’ music career,” said Caylee Farley, another peer mentor with PHS’ United Sound chapter. “I know and understand how much music has helped me, and I wanted the new musicians to be able to enjoy music as well.”

While Perrysburg High School students who have a disability were able to participate in the school’s music programs before the implementation of United Sound, Miles said there was something special about bringing a group to the school whose whole focus is on inclusion.

“We’ve had quite a few students with disabilities go through not just the orchestra program, but also the band and choir programs as well,” Miles said. “Starting United Sound was a nice outlet to make [orchestra] specific to those with disabilities.”

Once United Sound and Miles developed a strong foundation of peer mentors, students were ready to begin training to work with their peers.

“Before we started the school year, we had a training program that we got from the United Sound organization,” Miles said. “They’re able to explain how to work with people with disabilities, but also explain why doing something like United Sound is so important, such as being able to make friends.”

After peer mentors signed up for the group, Miles and United Sound began recruiting new musicians to join the orchestra.

The group welcomed three new musicians: Lilly, Kendyl and Jo.

New musician and cellist Lilly Brandeberry. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Miles)

As to be expected with any new adventure, a feeling of nervousness set in for the new musicians, but their nerves quickly faded away.

“The first couple of times, they didn’t want to talk to the girls. They wanted to only be by me,” said Lyndsey Curson, an intervention specialist who works with the new musicians. “They’ve really opened up and come out of their shell, which is really cool to see.”

Each of the three new musicians said there’s a specific reason why they love being a part of United Sound.

“It’s fun,” said Lilly Brandeberry, a cellist and new musician.

United Sound has also helped the new musicians build relationships with other students, which keeps them coming back each week.

Kendyl Christy, a violinist and new musician, said “my orchestra friends,” when asked what she loves about United Sound.

New musician and violinist Kendyl Christy. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Miles)

United Sound has also helped orchestra students and their peers with a disability build relationships with other members of the school, too.

“All of the relationships that have been built, not only between the peer mentors and new musicians, but also the peer mentors and our intervention specialists who work here, and other orchestra musicians who are getting to perform alongside the United Sound chapter,” Miles said.

Members of the Perrysburg chapter of United Sound said they are grateful for the materials that have been created by the national organization that ensure effective teaching and methods can be used by local programs.

“We were given method books that each United Sound chapter is given that have methods made by music teachers and special education teachers, so they’re specially made for our new musicians,” Manges said.

Inside the method books are several ideas and ways to teach each musician how to play their respective instrument.

“Remembering the note names can be difficult for new musicians, so we use a color-based system,” Manges said. “They can look at the notes on their music page and the stickers that go on their instruments. Being able to match the colors helps a lot.”

Not only is a color-based system used to teach the notes on the instrument, but there is another creative way used to teach note values as well.

“Learning rhythms can be hard, so instead of using the traditional note names, we use food names,” Manges said. “Instead of quarter notes and eighth notes, we call them cakes and donuts.”

These creative ways of teaching students not only make learning easier and more effective, but also evokes a feeling of excitement for the new musicians.

“Excited” and “happy” are two words Brandeberry used to describe how United Sound makes her feel.

Another new musician, violinist Kendyl Christy, said meeting her orchestra friends Emily, Moana and Jessica was her favorite part of the group.

In addition to the friendships created in the group, members of the PHS community who may have never crossed paths before United Sound came to the school are also getting to know each other.

Brandeberry said Curson is one of her favorite people she has met by participating in United Sound.

The new musicians are not only being supported by their peer mentors, but by people across the whole district as well.

“A lot of the administrators and other teachers, such as those that teach the core classes and other music teachers amongst the whole school district, have been super supportive, and they think it’s a really neat, cool and inclusive thing to do for those with disabilities,” said Miles.

Since the group is in its first year of implementation at the high school, Miles hopes to attract more students to join United Sound, which currently includes three new musicians and a handful of peer mentors.

New musician and cellist Jo Johns. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Miles)

While the group’s membership may be small, each member is a critical part of the new musicians’ orchestra experience.

“Each of the new musicians has three peer mentors who work with them,” said Miles. “Usually, one of them is alongside playing the instrument with them, one will be pointing at the method book of where they’re at in the music, and depending on the ability of the student, sometimes the peer mentors will do hand-over-hand to help the student with the bow.”

At Perrysburg High School, 95 students are classified as having a disability, according to Dr. Andrea Glesser, director of special education for Perrysburg Schools.

Though the three new musicians who are currently part of the group make up a fraction of the total population at Perrysburg High School, members of United Sound, like Caylee Farley, say including students outside of United Sound is simple.

“Not making a huge deal about it or treating them particularly differently than you would another person,” Farley said. “Everyone has their own needs and how they want to be treated, so it’s important for people to understand and be willing to learn with them.”

Although the group was only established just a few months ago, United Sound is already inspiring fellow orchestra teachers across Ohio to bring their own United Sound chapter to their school district.

“We performed at the Ohio Music Education Conference in February, and after we performed, I had quite a few educators from all over Ohio, such as Cincinnati and Cleveland, all really thrilled with how that program looked. They had lots of questions for me, and all said they were really interested,” Miles said. “I do want to get United Sound expanded in this district as much as possible.”

Starting a United Sound chapter does come with a startup fee, as well as instrument fees. However, resources may be available to teachers that can lower the cost of starting a school chapter.

Miles said she is grateful for the support the Perrysburg chapter of United Sound has received throughout the process of starting the group.

“One thing about being in Perrysburg that we’re very fortunate to have is the Perrysburg Schools Foundation,” Miles said. “When Ms. Curson and I proposed this to the foundation, they were super thrilled to have the project to fund—they’ve been very gracious to pay for all the student fees that come with participating in the chapter.”

In addition to the startup fees being paid for by the foundation, student instruments were also paid for by Rettig Music.

“The head of that corporation was gracious enough to donate all of the instruments for the new musicians to use,” Miles said.

Educators said the program has been positive, successful and necessary.

“This group has been fantastic for them, as a lot of my students have never participated in a music program while they’re at the high school,” Curson said. “This program really focuses on their strengths since a lot of them don’t get a ton of peer interaction—it’s been really cool to see.”

If you would like to see United Sound perform, the group will perform alongside one of Miles’ orchestra groups at Perrysburg High School on May 16 at 7 p.m. Admission to the concert is free and open to the public.

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