Not long ago, Arlington High senior Jason Graham couldn’t have envisioned himself wearing a tuxedo and playing a violin in the school’s symphony orchestra.
But that very thing happened Wednesday night at the orchestra’s Christmas concert, thanks to a new partnership program between the Arlington school district and an Arizona-based nonprofit called United Sound. Graham is one of five New Musicians, the term for special needs students at Arlington High chosen to participate in program, billed as the first of its kind in Texas.
“I had to think about it a little, but I was excited for it,” Graham said of the program. “I wanted to play an instrument but I didn’t want to have to take a lot of lessons.”
Practices are held on Wednesday afternoons after school. They include the five New Musicians and about 15 students from the school’s orchestras who have volunteered to serve as peer mentors. Each New Musician has three peer mentors: one to count and silently clap the beat to help keep the student on track, one to play alongside him and one to point out the music on the sheet. The strings of the instrument are color-coded to the music, also.
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Their selection for the Christmas concert? Beethoven’s revered Ode to Joy movement from his Ninth Symphony.
The dress rehearsal was the New Musicians’ first time onstage, said orchestra director Andrew Goins. “We usually practice in the orchestra room.”
United Sound’s program helps music teachers create their own peer-mentored special-needs ensembles through training and organizational resources. It began last year with six programs nationwide and expanded to 30 this year.
Brett Patterson, a special education teacher, teaches three of the five New Musicians and acknowledges that it’s a big step for some.
“For a lot of them, it is, facing a fear for them to be in front of a crowd,” he said. “But they’re really excited to do this.”
The selection process began with teachers questioning their special education students to determine their interest.
“Most were; it didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Patterson said. “I was very surprised.”
Then the students selected the instruments they wanted to play, from violins to violas to cellos.
When the orchestra program was suggested for New Musician Greg Cortez, 18, he decided to “give it a shot, and I’m glad I did.”
He tried the violin at first but found it a little too challenging. Cello was a better fit.
At the Christmas concert, he impressed perhaps the most important person in the audience: his mom, Peggy Cortez.
“I think he really enjoyed it,” she said the morning after the concert. “He was grinning.”
Peggy Cortez, a fourth-grade teacher at South Davis Elementary School, said she has noticed that her son, who is autistic, has become a little more socially comfortable since he became a New Musician.
Greg Cortez also plays basketball and participates in the Special Olympics.
“I really did enjoy seeing him up there, getting a little limelight,” Peggy Cortez said of her son. “It doesn’t always happen for kids like him.”
District fine arts director Jeremy Earnhart first heard of United Sound through another aligned nonprofit, Music for All, which is also dedicated to helping all students to have access to active music-making. Earnhart is on the board of directors of Music For All.
The New Musicians aren’t the only students benefiting from the program. One mentor has already applied to the University of North Texas to become a special education teacher, and another is planning on studying music therapy.
That student is junior Raven Gammage, 16, a violinist who serves as a mentor for Graham.
“Being his mentor, I’m not only teaching him, but I’m learning from this, too,” she said. “I’m learning leadership skills, and doing different jobs and working together to establish one goal.”
Graham said he has gained more from the experience than just playing a violin.
“I made good friends,” he said. “It’s been fun hanging out with them.”
The program is one of several factors that have boosted the school district’s’ 5,000-student orchestra program to a 16 percent enrollment increase this year. Another is that the instrument rental fee was eliminated two years ago.
The Arlington district also offers a new dual-credit music history class taught by a University of North Texas music teacher that will give incoming freshmen three hours of college credit. The district plans to open a new Fine Arts Center in 2019.
“I’m just planting seeds for the future,” said Earnhart. “We’ve been able to do some unique and special things with this.”