Enabling The Disabled To Play Sweet Music

Sharon Adams, 40, plays a bell tree during a recent rehearsal of the interPLAY orchestra

Sharon Adams, 40, plays a bell tree during a recent rehearsal of the interPLAY orchestra, which is made up of 60 adults with and without disabilities. Adams struggles with a learning disability and can read "a little." She has been a member of interPLAY for 15 years. Becky Lettenberger/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Becky Lettenberger/NPR

The interPLAY company band is rehearsing on a recent Monday night in the elegant Music Center at Strathmore on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

* On a gourd shaker, Kristen Uleck, 38, who came into the world with spina bifida and epilepsy, and sits in a wheelchair.

* On a bell tree, Sharon Adams, 40, who has struggled with learning disabilities all her life, can read "a little" and spent her younger years in one special education school after another.

* On tambourine, Jared Raskin, 23, in a T-shirt and boarder shorts. When asked to speak of his disability, he says, "I just have a very good life."

* And using his voice like a jungle bird, J.P. Illarramendi, 36. "I was born with Down syndrome," Illarramendi says. "I'm just like everybody else with the same disability. Over the years I have been put on the cymbals and drums. Today I get to use my vocal cords as the instrument."

The four musicians — along with a roomful of other adults, with and without cognitive disabilities — are practicing an extremely complex Brazilian jazz piece for a 2011 concert. The rehearsal, a combination of hard work and goofiness, lasts 90 minutes. Three times a year the orchestra performs publicly.

Kristen Uleck, who often stands up with the help of braces to play in concerts, says she learned about interPLAY more than a dozen years ago through someone in her group home. "I got interested in wanting to play music. I can't read music," she says, grinning. "I'd never thought of becoming a professional musician."

The Music Gene

Paula Moore, the godmother — and primary conductor — of interPLAY, is sitting on the hallway floor before the rehearsal. She is wearing blue jeans, a white collarless sweater-shirt, sneakers and a scarf around her neck. Sunglasses are perched on her head. For a mother who raised three adult sons, she still has a lot of energy.

 J.P. Illarramendi

J.P. Illarramendi, 36, was born with Down syndrome. Illarramendi vocalizes like a jungle bird at the beginning of a Brazilian jazz piece that interPLAY will perform publicly in January. Becky Lettenberger/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Becky Lettenberger/NPR

Brain research tells us, Moore says, that when "we all come on to this earth, we are born with a gene for making music. Some of us make music when we have keys in our hands and we are tapping with the keys. Or we are standing at the stove and we've got a wooden spoon. ... Or we're humming in the shower. That all comes from somewhere."

And, she says, "my job is to find out where that music is in this population and get it out."

I'm With The Band

Hear a clip of correspondent Linton Weeks' conversation with members of the interPLAY band. Speaking in order: Kristen Uleck, Sharon Adams, Jared Raskin and J.P. Illarramendi in a rehearsal hall at the Music Center at Strathmore.

The way Moore does it is through interPLAY. The core group of about 45 cognitively disabled adults  — ranging in age from 23 to 62, all living independently and working in the community — meets once a week to rehearse. With assistance from volunteers, known as bandaides, the musicians play along with recorded music to learn what they will be playing live in concerts. As a public performance approaches, Moore brings in 20 or so professional musicians— who play the more difficult strings, woodwinds, horns and percussion — to rehearse with the entire band.

Together the pros and the core performers — playing tambourines, castanets, drums and other percussion instruments — stage a concert, with Moore as conductor. For the finale, ushers hand out instruments — to every member of the audience. At the next public concert, on Jan. 31, a professional jazz quartet will play with the interPLAY regulars.

"We pay the professional musicians who work with us a stipend — mostly for gas and for a thank you," she says. The pros take home $75 for two rehearsals and the concert. "We are a nonprofit struggling like every other nonprofit on earth right now. And that's how we do it."

The interPLAY band has a board of directors and an illustrious advisory committee that includes jazz pianist and composer Dr. Billy Taylor, Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, Choral Arts Society Director Norman Scribner and former National Symphony Orchestra timpanist Fred Begun. The annual budget is $112,500, Moore says, and each of the disabled musicians pays a nominal fee — usually less than $1,000 a year — to belong.

"Remember they come to us with absolutely no musical education whatsoever," Moore says. Members of the orchestra are learning to be musicians. "This is not therapy and must not ever be construed as such."

Music therapy, she points out, "is quite expensive for about 50 minutes of time." The interPLAY musicians, on the other hand, receive about two hours of time each week, plus concerts, opportunities for personal performances and other "instruction disciplines," she says. Scholarships are available. Moore says that she is paid a "paltry" salary.

The InterPLAY Effect

Asked about interPLAY's effect on disabled musicians, Glennie — who is deaf — says that a band for people with cognitive disabilities means "inclusion rather than exclusion."

Jared Raskin

Orchestra member Jared Raskin, 23. When asked about his disability, he says, "I just have a very good life." Becky Lettenberger/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Becky Lettenberger/NPR

"Society cannot continue to disable themselves through their need to categorize people or make assumptions as to another individual's abilities," Glennie says. "The human body and mind are tremendous forces that are continually amazing scientists and society. Therefore, we have no choice but to keep an open mind as to what the human being can achieve."

Roberta B. Hochberg, an interPLAY board member, says, "You cannot help but be profoundly affected by watching the joy on the faces of the band members when they play and then receive positive feedback from the audience."

She adds, "I have been able to see growth in a number of the players. I have seen members learn to concentrate and follow instructions."

There are similar ventures throughout the country. Special Orchestra, a nonprofit group in New Mexico, helps musicians play three-chord songs. Special Music By Special People in Chicago showcases performances by musicians with Down syndrome. The Coalition for Disabled Musicians brings performers together. And there are organizations for specific types of disabled musicians, such as the Disabled Drummers Association.

Certain symphony orchestras also offer programs for disabled members of the community.

But "what makes us a rarity," Moore says about interPLAY, "is that the band has the opportunity to 'live' in a $160 million concert building."

The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda is a majestic glass-and-stone building with many rehearsal spaces and an auditorium that holds about 2,000. With tall windows and top-notch acoustics, the hall is impressive and somewhat imposing. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays there. So does the National Philharmonic. And a parade of musical giants, including smooth clarinetist Kenny G; unpredictable pianist Ben Folds; shred guitarist Joe Satriani; virtuoso vocalist Patti LaBelle.

And the enthusiastic musicians of interPLAY company.

Bombastic Music

On this night, the interPLAY orchestra is gathered in a vast rehearsal hall with high ceilings, bright lights and a mirrored wall. The members sit in plastic stackable chairs or wheelchairs facing Paula Moore. Some sit by themselves, some have bandaides reminding them when to play the tambourines, click-clack the castanets or tilt the rainsticks.

Paula Moore, interPLAY founder and conductor i i

Paula Moore conducts the interPLAY orchestra. She founded the group 20 years ago after seeing how music inspired her third son, Michael, who was born with Down syndrome. Becky Lettenberger/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Becky Lettenberger/NPR
Paula Moore, interPLAY founder and conductor

Paula Moore conducts the interPLAY orchestra. She founded the group 20 years ago after seeing how music inspired her third son, Michael, who was born with Down syndrome.

Becky Lettenberger/NPR

There are some rules.

"Because we are working as a team," Moore says, "there are certain basics that have to be accomplished in order for us to be an orchestra."

The art of orchestration "is very complicated," she says. "Very often one person is playing one instrument and the two people on the other side of him or her are playing different instruments. And so there has to be some level of understanding of how this can work."

Performers, she says, "have to be able to watch the conductors, whoever they are. And they also have to be pretty mature socially. Because it is a huge group of people."

Also, Moore says, "and this is an odd one: They have to be OK with loud music. We play very bombastic music sometimes. Whether it be marches, whether it be Mahler, whatever it is. And there are a number of people with disabilities who can't handle this kind of music."

Moore and others pore over confidential medical information when a musician is being considered for the band.

"We look at these things very carefully," she says, "because we want to make sure that everyone that comes in is a good meld for everybody else."

Raising Hackles

Paula Moore is a piece of music herself — playful and light, then stern and demanding. She is a serious conductor, and she expects her orchestra to follow her baton.

The interPLAY company, originally called the Mighty Special Music Makers, was founded by Moore 20 years ago. She got the idea from watching her third son, Michael, who was born with Down syndrome. He loved to make music.

"Our house has always been full of music," Moore says. "For my other two boys, I had a vast array of all different kinds of music. Somehow I had Peter and the Wolf.  One day I put Peter and the Wolf on, and the next thing I knew, this under-2-year-old little Mikey was singing to it. He wasn't singing the way you and I would. He didn't have words. He was singing the instrumentation. And it blew my mind."

Michael knew all the different parts, Moore says, "and I would play it over and over and over again, and he got better and better and better. It was just very clear that this was one of the gifts he had, in place of what he didn't have."

Today Michael still plays music. He lives in a group home in Pennsylvania. He is taking cello lessons, and he plays two pitched handbells in a 90-piece orchestra.  The orchestra has performed in Carnegie Hall and at Lincoln Center in New York.

"It's a very exciting thing to be sitting in Carnegie Hall and watching your Down syndrome son playing Bartok," Moore says.

She describes the experience in the same energetic, enthusiastic manner that she describes every Monday night at interPLAY rehearsals:

"It's just an extraordinary feeling. All the hackles, wherever hackles are on your body, I've never known where they are — but they are up."

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