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Hough High's United Sound Band Puts Inclusion To Music

Tuesday's holiday concert at William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius will showcase a program that unites some of the school’s best student musicians with classmates who have disabilities.

Listening to the students practice is enough to set your stomach rumbling, as the experienced musicians guide the newcomers with instructions like this: "Doughnut, doughnut, doughnut, rest. Souuuuup, cake, cake."

Hough United Sound students use modified sheet music that depicts notes as doughnuts, cake and soup.

Hough senior Marshall Graham, who’s brass captain in the marching band and president of the school’s United Sound club, explains: "So we have this book here and the notes have alternate names, like a quarter note will be cake, a half note will be soup, and eighth notes are donuts. So those help them become familiar with the notes and it just makes the learning curve a lot easier."

The idea of using food and colors to teach music to students with disabilities comes from United Sound, an Arizona-based group that has programs in 135 schools across the country. Five are in North Carolina, including Hickory High School, but Hough has the only United Sound band in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Robert Carrington, Hough’s band director, heard a presentation on United Sound in Winston-Salem and was hooked. He sold it to his principal and students, and the group debuted in 2016.

Ty Reppe, who plays drums and trombone, was one of the first students to sign up. He has two brothers with special needs, he says, "so it really hits home for me."  He’s a senior now, working with Marshall Graham to teach the snare drum to RayAn Hajmahmoud.

"She’s definitely the best snare-drummer we’ve ever had in this program," Reppe said. "She’s progressed very well, she's had a really good attitude, she's really fun to work with, and it makes me feel good about my teaching just because it’s successful."

Hough has 12 new musicians, and each one has at least three mentors who do whatever's needed, from helping hold the instrument to walking students through the sheet music.

Hough High band director Robert Carrington.

The early efforts can be a bit rough, but Carrington says it’s a mistake to think students with disabilities can’t be good musicians.

"The biggest thing is students with disabilities, the only thing that they need is more time," he says. "They can do the very same things that everyone else can do, and it actually will blow your mind to think about what they can accomplish when given the opportunity to do it." One of those students is Reid Russell, who’s learning to play flute. His mom, Laura McPherson,  says the program makes her feel like her son is getting the full high school experience – and the other students are being exposed to a person with autism. Even something like putting on a tuxedo for the band concert is meaningful, she says.

"Just seeing him light up -- and he knows he looks good -- just the simple things that make him, and also me, feel like he’s experiencing as much as other high schoolers are," McPherson says.

Janey Haney, Valeria Kaverina and Gabe Thompson practice with Hough United Sound.

The student mentors say they get just as much out of it. Sophomore Mitchell Dreffer is helping a classmate learn to play marimbas.

"It’s really rewarding," he says, "because it brings you back to like sixth grade when you first started your instrument, and you’re so excited to finally get to band and play your instrument."

The experienced student musicians created a special arrangement of "Heartland" for the Dec. 17 band concert. For instance, Heartland has no part for snare drums. But Hough has three new musicians who chose snares as their instrument – students like Jesse Frost, a junior who fell in love with the instrument after seeing the movie Drumline.

"I like playing drums," he says, "like in the movie."

So Jesse’s mentor, percussionist Isaac Dunn, wrote a part for snares.

As the concert neared, Frost talked about how proud he feels. Playing with the band makes him think of Drumline, he says and of his musical idol, Michael Jackson. He talks about playing for Michael Jackson, God and friendship.

And his band teacher couldn’t be prouder. Carrington says when he sees Frost, he doesn’t see a student with special needs. He sees a band kid.