Sophomore composition major Justin Schwartz has seen firsthand that “music is the universal language.” While attending Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, Schwartz was part of one of the first 20 pilot schools to launch a United Sound program, a national nonprofit organization that provides free music lessons to young adults with special needs. Observing how impactful the program was at his high school, Schwartz knew he wanted to start a United Sound chapter at whatever college he ended up attending.
Arriving at Belmont last year as a freshman and realizing the University’s focus on serving others and the community, along with its highly-regarded music programs, he knew it would be the perfect fit.
“The big thing about United Sound is that its whole goal is inclusion. A lot of times, adults with special needs are kind of forgotten about in the music community. United Sound is part of a larger organization called Music for All that allows music to be for everyone. Through music, everyone is able to be reached,” explained Schwartz. “That’s the beauty of this organization—everybody gets to be included, and the labels that get put on from society don’t matter. When we are at a United Sound meeting, we are going to try different things until we can get it.”
United Sound started as a high school program, typically involving students enrolled in special education programs, but it has recently started to expand to the higher education level at places like the Berkeley School of Music and Auburn University. However, there were no higher education United Sound programs in Tennessee. Schwartz approached Associate Professor of Music Dr. Barry Kraus and Director of the School of Music Dr. Jeremy Lane last year with the idea, and both agreed the organization would be successful at Belmont.
Schwartz recruited sophomore music therapy major Sofia Valle to be his co-president, and the two brought senior music education major Alex Domeier on board for guidance as the special education club president, tasked with providing a lesson plan for each meeting. “Alex has been instrumental in helping structure our new organization due to his prior experience as a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia and the National Association for Music Education,” said Schwartz.
After months of planning and recruiting its 13 current mentors, Belmont’s United Sound organization finally began meeting in October with young adults with special needs from the local community over the age of 18. Most, if not all, of the Belmont student mentors are music majors, with a mixture of some music education, some music therapy and some commercial music.
Co-President Valle said, “United Sound has been a blessing to be a part of as it reminds me why I am pursuing a music therapy degree. We may be teaching the students how to play an instrument, but they are teaching us valuable life skills and they have so much to offer the world.”
Belmont’s United Sound organization is currently working with four young adults who are assigned two to three mentors each. One student is learning rhythmic percussion (like the snare drum); one is learning mallet percussion (like the glockenspiel); one is learning the flute and the other is learning saxophone. In each group, at least one Belmont student mentor is familiar with the instrument they are teaching.
“One of the benefits of working with Belmont students is the fact that we have music education majors who have already taken the instrumental methods class, so that allows us to have no limits on which of the band instruments we choose,” said Schwartz. “Instead of telling the student which instrument they’ll be able to play, we ask them what they’d like to play.”
United Sound provides training for all of the mentors, instrumental method books for the groups to work from, and suggested songs that have been performed successfully in the past. The students picked a piece from that list and will be performing the first-ever United Sound concert in April in conjunction with Belmont’s concert band and wind ensemble.
Dr. Kraus said he is delighted to host a chapter of United Sound on campus. “Belmont seeks to provide opportunities for students to engage and transform the world, and inclusion is a driving force in modern music education. With these ideas in mind, United Sound introduces our instrumental music majors to real world challenges—bringing music education to adults with special needs. Our students have been remarkably vigilant in structuring and staffing this organization on campus, and I’m very proud of their work,” he said. “The United Sound participants will perform with the Belmont Concert Band on April 14, and I look forward to this very special opportunity for them to play in McAfee Hall with a full ensemble.”
Looking ahead, Schwartz would like to see the organization grow with more United Sound students through developing partnerships with local organizations that work with young adults with special needs. As more Belmont students have found out about the club, a lot of students want to join but would not have a young adult to work with. Schwartz also wants to develop more formal partnerships in the community so the organization can continue to thrive after he and the other founding members graduate.
“Belmont puts an enormous emphasis on serving the community and serving others, and I think this club really does serve an otherwise underserved group in the music community,” said Schwartz. “I think we definitely have potential to grow in size because this club really embodies what Belmont is about.”