It’s Not Only Rock `N’ Roll: A Model Of Inclusive Programming – Special Music by Special People program

Emery J. Yost

We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by Lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams.

— Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Welcome to the Show

Come with me to experience something totally different, as the world of music and therapeutic recreation combine into an alluring symphony. The venue is a music hall, which last night hosted John Entwistle (former bassist of the Who.) A few days earlier, the stage was graced by pop music sensations the Wallflowers. Tonight, however, the hall hosts something truly unique, a musical act that exhibits diversity in synchronicity, a high-performance team that calls itself the Special Music by Special People All Star Band.

The group is backstage. Guitarists are tuning up, drummers are clutching sticks, horn players are tweaking reeds and warming up mouthpieces. As costumes are being adjusted, performers of all ages and backgrounds are preparing. The sound and light technicians take their places; stagehands scramble to make their final adjustments. A well-known local radio station personality takes the stage to commence the evening’s events. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. How is everyone doing out there? My, we have a treat in store for you tonight! In just a few moments, the Special Musicians will be taking this very stage. First, I want to tell you about their CD entitled What’s For Lunch! It has 12 original songs, which feature the Welles Park Special Musicians. Tonight we are going to celebrate the release of their new album.”

The crowd roars with applause; anticipation is in the air. “Are you ready for the Special Musicians?” asks the emcee. At that very moment, the band kicks into a rock ‘n’ roll groove, and Ryan Tarvin and his fellow musicians take over the stage.

The crowd is roaring and singing along with the lyrics of the song, which were designed to help Ryan improve his diction and voice projection, allowing him to reach his potential to communicate to the world around him.

“I say `ice cream,’ you scream. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Yeah? At this point in each verse of the song, the band and the entire house become completely silent for one beat of music, allowing Ryan’s talent to shine through. He belts out a Ray Charles-esque “Uh-huh.”

Upon completion of the song, the entire band and audience erupt with screams and applause. His fellow musicians shout, “Yeah, Ryan!” exhibiting support and true team spirit. Ryan fires off a thumbs-up.

Looking out from the stage, one can catch a glimpse of Sandy, Ryan’s mother, who is choking on tears. The emotion appears to be contagious. It becomes obvious that this is no ordinary rock band; this is the Special Music by Special People All Star Band.

Shooting Stars

Throughout his life, Ryan has faced verbal and linguistic challenges. His mom, his friends, his teachers never imagined he would someday be singing with a rock band, or that his voice would be highlighted on compact discs. This is why the tears of joy flow.

“I never imagined my son John would be famous,” exclaims Gloria, the mother of a 28-year-old young man with mental retardation. “But John is more famous than anyone in his family. John has no problem entertaining hundreds, even thousands of people with his singing and his original melodies.

“He’s on TV, in newspapers, and on the radio, and he’s appearing on some of the biggest and best stages in Chicago. His whole life is music! Every time you see him, he will be singing, humming, or rapping; this is his life. He has to be told to do other simple daily tasks like getting dressed or taking a shower. These and many other things he won’t do on his own. But for music, as he empowers himself, his life takes on a new meaning. On performance days, he’s excited, and he wants to be there.

“Two weeks ago, he awoke at five in the morning for a news-broadcast taping. If it were any other day, John would not have been getting his wardrobe together, jumping in the shower, and preparing himself for a shave — especially not at five in the morning!

“When my son was born, I feared he would never walk, talk, read, or write. Every accomplishment John succeeds in yields a payoff tenfold that of a child who doesn’t have a developmental disability. To see him integrate into society, interact, and communicate at the level he is today by being involved and engaged in this program is a miracle to me.”

The Mission and Goals

Special Music by Special People gives musicians with developmental disabilities the opportunity to perform, compose, and record music. Based in Welles Park, the nonprofit organization was founded nine years ago by Joe Yost, music instructor for the Chicago Park District. The Welles Park Special Musicians is a group of children, teens, and adults, most of whom are afflicted with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or emotional or behavioral disorders.

Through the processes of recording, performing, and singing music, other skills are developed and enriched. Special Music by Special People strives to reach people who have not been previously exposed to music and arts programming but who could benefit from these types of activities.

The group’s use of the universal language of music to break barriers between people with and without disabilities is a prime example of inclusive recreational programming. The Special Musicians gather twice a week to practice, write, record, and perform. As they become more engaged in the music, they begin to experience and use the power of the song’s transformation.

Soon they become empowered as recording and performing artists, taking their art form out of the classroom and into the community. Through concerts and studio recordings, they begin transcending the politically incorrect labels, cultural differences, and societal stigmas that have plagued them.

In the Beginning

The program started with a rock singer performing for children and adults at a therapeutic recreation day camp. All that’s needed to begin a special-music class is one musician to accompany vocalists. Drums, guitar, piano, flute — any instrument will do. The approach toward teaching a special-music class is based primarily upon the concept of a sing-a-long or the campfire-song concept. Simple melodies go a long way, and in time the class begins to in vent its own songs.

Because of various ages and disabilities, diversity is prevalent. The program also brims over with cultural ethnicity. Musical activities naturally facilitate interaction between various types of musicians.

The common denominator is music activities. First an identity is established by and for the group. From there, scheduled concerts, rehearsals, and recording sessions bring the diverse group together. The music and the group’s participants are the conduit and the motivation for volunteers, many of whom are professional musicians.


The positive outcomes of the program are many: enhanced social, verbal, and linguistic skills; improved memory and self-esteem; increased self-awareness; appreciation of music and the arts; creative expression; recording-studio experience; problem-solving; and physical benefits from expression like movement and dancing. Other outcomes of the program include the creation of a catalog of songs; two CDs; and 10 years of concerts and appearances on local and national television shows, radio programs, the Internet, and at educational and recreational venues.

This approach to programming and group effort can be transferred to activities like art, dance, and sports. Perfect examples are the Special Olympics and Very Special Arts: two programs designed for people with disabilities. These programs simultaneously raise awareness in the general public about people with disabilities and provide recreational and educational opportunities. Participation and observation of these programs educate those who have had little or no experience within special communities.

The Process

The song leader should be an experienced musician. Selection can begin with the demonstration of a piece of music. From there, he or she must continue to integrate various members of the class into the song. Either the class or the instructor can invent songs, as the need and experience inspire. By incorporating a sound system, which consists of a microphone, mixing console, and speakers, the musicians can now interact with a live band or prerecorded music beds. This is similar to the concept of a karaoke machine. If a small sound system is not within your budget, an inexpensive CD or cassette karaoke machine will allow you to begin implementing a special-music program.

The group may now entertain itself. Each member leads the group in song, stepping up to the microphone to begin learning and practicing parts of the songs. The recording process allows the musician to hear back performances, assess them, make corrections, and monitor progress. Soon they can begin writing and recording their own material.

The Welles Park group matured as musicians through years of participation, writing more than 40 songs. Many of the songs are featured on two CDs, the debut What’s for Lunch, and the recently released follow-up We’re All Stars! (and that includes YOU!). A tour made stops at music festivals, music stores, and other concert venues.

The CDs serve multiple purposes. They are fund-raising pieces that also serve as calling cards for the group. Thousands of fans around the world have purchased the recordings.

Inclusion and the Musical Experience

By incorporating a band of professional musicians–guitarists, bassists, keyboard players, and drummers–you have begun one of many inclusionary aspects of the program. The professional and the special musicians are now all into the music.

The latest special-music CD and performances have incorporated children without disabilities. This aspect of the program gives all parties involved an opportunity to learn about and experience each other through the musical activities. Volunteers and guest musicians walk away with a sense of helping others in the community and find joy interacting with a special-music group. Members, volunteers, and staff become engaged in recording CDs and performing.

Recently the teaching techniques and songs of the Special Music program were introduced to Little City’s recreation center in Palatine, Ill. Little City is a complex that houses and cares for children and adults with disabilities. Assessments on each individual’s progress of this intervention at Little City document the little steps of learning along the way that lead up to the “bomb” of inclusionary music programming.

For instance, Erinn, a student, could instantly sing on pitch with proper rhythm and had a great stage presence. However, the lyrics of the blues song Sweet Home Chicago posed a problem for him.

One and one is two, two and two is four, Four and four is eight, and ain’t Little City great?

Week after week, Erinn cheerfully struggled with this problem. If he made a mistake, he would work to overcome it. He was coached and encouraged to conquer his adversity to mathematics. Within a few weeks he was able to get the song right. By the eighth week he could do it, but not with 100 percent accuracy and consistency. His entire class saw him succeed, then try again and fail. “C’mon, Erinn, you can do this,” a classmate encouraged.

At the dress rehearsal one week before the show, Erinn was not 100 percent accurate. But at the final performance, he was transformed. As he took the stage, something happened. Erinn focused as he never had before. He shined and hit every lyric, every number. Every math problem added up perfectly. What happened? Why did this young man have difficulty before the performance? In the words of Angela Allyn, director of the multidisciplinary art center at Little City, “Erinn rose to the occasion because of this performance, and he excelled.”

Erinn’s example demonstrates how rehearsals and performances actually become part of what some call performance therapy. Music students actually overcome speech, memory, or motor deficiencies as they use a bed of music or other teachers and performers to improve various skills. By utilizing audio and video recording technology, the participants and facilitators of Special Music programs are able to monitor and assess development of numerous skills.

The Special Music program continues to be a successful recreation program because it fulfills the need for activity — for those both with and without disabilities — and because of society’s desire to help others. A positive attitude embedded in the teaching style, which focuses on and reinforces the ability of the participant, not the disability, is the key ingredient of its success.

To order CDs, call Teresa at (312) 747-1490, or send a check ($12.00) payable to Park Ways to:

Chicago Park District Marketing Attn: Teresa 425 E. McFetridge Dr. Chicago, IL 60605

Sales directly benefit the Special Music program.

“My attitude,” says Emery J. Yost, “when I accepted the position as teacher for the therapeutic recreation classes at Welles Park on the north side of Chicago, was that I just wanted to make music and have fun.” That was nine years ago. Today, driven and inspired by guitarist Yost, the Special Musicians, a group of highly motivated music students with developmental disabilities, have released two CDs of original recordings, played numerous live gigs in front of screaming throngs of fans, and exposed themselves to a whole new world of music and arts programming (p. 60).

COPYRIGHT 1999 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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