Of all Desert Vista High School’s band programs, an especially fulfilling and impactful one for student musicians is United Sound.
The United Sound organization was founded in 2014, in Arizona with the mission of providing musical performance experiences for students with special needs through peer mentorship.
Both Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe high schools offer it and it’s based on specialized curriculum from United Sound, enabling schools to run the programs.
At club meetings, student mentors pair up with new musicians. Those mentors teach them to play an instrument of their choice at a personally modified level, culminating in performances together, side-by-side.
“There are few things during my week that fill my heart quite like the time I get to spend with these remarkable students,” said Desert Vista Band Director Josh Thye.
“The smiles are genuine, the high-fives are enthusiastic and the energy they put into learning music is infectious,” he said. “In short, these students with various disabilities and special needs are teaching me. They remind me every week what the joy of music looks like.”
In 2014, United Sound had 155 special needs students participating among five different schools. This participation grew over the last six years to 3,240 students among 135 schools across the country.
They include 35 middle schools, 93 high schools and nine universities. By 2023, United Sound hopes to have 10,000 students involved in 400 schools.
“This program is unique and has never been available to students of special needs,” said Jenni Thye, an Ahwatukee resident and treasurer on the United Sounds’ board of directors.
“The effort and education it takes to spread the program is time-consuming and cumbersome,” she said “As we get more and more states on board and more and more districts to buy into the ideology that is United Sound, we hope the information snowball will continue to grow to surrounding schools and states.
“This will give all students with special needs, in the entire country, the chance to experience what we have seen already in the programs who have adopted United Sound the past few years.”
Desert Vista’s United Sound program includes 15 New Musicians and 33 student mentors.
“I am thankful to have so many mentors sign-up to volunteer and willingly give their time to be in this club. I truly believe this unique opportunity allows for relationships between the mentors and new musicians not normally possible,” said Josh Thye.
United Sound is not only beneficial to the New Musicians, but also to their mentors.
“I believe this musical mentoring connection is hugely beneficial to my mentor students. They get to experience first-hand the gift of music and celebrating small successes along the way with a New Musician,” said Josh Thye.
Many student mentors continue to come back year after year to experience the joy of helping their New Musician peers.
Desert Vista junior Will Richmond said his favorite moments during United Sounds meetings “is making my Thunder Buddy Jamie laugh.”
“Working with Jamie is awesome,” said Richmond, a United Sound mentor for the last two years. “Since I started working with her, she has improved a lot. She’s really good. She seems more excited about it now than at the beginning, which is also really cool to see.”
The mentors enjoy seeing the New Musicians’ progress as the year goes on.
They say they find it encouraging and inspiring.
“My New Musician has not only improved in his musical skills, but I’ve also noticed a more impressive change in his social skills and confidence to talk and laugh with us over the past two years,” said Martin Fuller, another junior in his second year in United Sound.
Martin hopes to continue to work with students with special needs in the future beyond his high school experience with United Sound.
“It’s fascinating to see these kids use music as an outlet to outwardly express themselves and maybe even vent a little sometimes on their respective instruments,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to researching more on the effects of music on kids with disabilities in the future.”
New Musicians’ self-confidence visibly develops over time through playing together.
“United Sound creates a sense of belonging,” Jenni Thye said, noting the practices build “a place where there is commonality and camaraderie.
She said the club “allows students to connect on a level they are not accustomed to in this day and age, through music, through performance.
“It expands the mentor student’s ability to relay information effectively and compassionately. And it allows United Sound students to experience something they never had the chance to experience before,” she said.
Josh Thye added the program “is so important because it provides students on our campus the opportunity to be part of an ensemble musical experience, playing on stage side-by-side with the Desert Vista Band and feeling the inclusion music can offer.”
Desert Vista’s United Sound Club meets once a week while new and experienced musicians prepare for a concert at the end of the school year.
“Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of working with United Sound is watching the concerts unfold,” said Jenni Thye.
“This is the moment you realize whatever hurdles you jumped, whatever trials you faced, or hiccups you had along the path to bringing music to these kids with special needs, the journey was worth it,” she added.
While the Desert Vista United Sound band only plays once a year, many of the New Musicians have continued in the program for multiple years and have shown much improvement. The band will play this year on May 7.
“The way they improve from concert to concert is astounding,” Jenni Thye said.
“Some kids can barely even play a note at the first concert, and by the time they finish the program are quite literally the stars of the show. This is a real triumph for the program. Plus, when you look around the audience and see tears running down parent’s faces, it makes it all worth it.”
“Music is full of empathy and beauty,” she continued. “And what better way to connect kids of differing ages, abilities, and lifestyles, than through something that asks for nothing in return besides the effort to perform something meaningful to those who listen.”
For more information or to sponsor a New Musician: UnitedSound.org.