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Features | Fall 2016

Creating Safe Musical Spaces: Part II

Building Inclusive Communities Through the Arts

In the last issue of PIO! I wrote about neurodiversity and strategies to create safe, inclusive musical experiences for all kinds of students in classrooms, choirs, or performance settings. This column continues the conversation, highlighting the work of two of our members, Frank Hernandez and Andrea Green, who each in their own unique way strive very purposefully to build inclusive communities using music and the arts.

Open the Circle” by Frank Hernandez and Ted Warmbrand is a favorite CMN anthem that immediately instills the sense of inclusion and community. The song invites everyone into “the circle.” The opening verse is:

Open the circle, the time has come.
Open the circle to everyone.
It’s my circle, without a doubt.
We’ll keep it open ’til nobody’s left out.

As a child with a disability, blindness, I never felt included by the circle. The circle never went out of its way to include me. It was ONE person, a member of the circle, who grabbed my hand and led me into the circle.

—Frank Hernandez

As is common in CMN, a lively conversation regarding the third line of this verse took place on the member listserv. A few members questioned why the lyric in the third line says “It’s my circle” and not “It’s our circle.” Regarding the word choice, Frank answered using his own personal experience as an individual growing up blind and the perspective of someone who is actively including children of various abilities in daily music and art lessons. I include parts of Frank’s response here:

As a child with a disability, blindness, I never felt included by the circle. The circle never went out of its way to include me. It was ONE person, a member of the circle, who grabbed my hand and led me into the circle.

So we, Ted and I, strongly believe that the responsibility of exclusivity and INCLUSIVITY falls squarely upon the shoulders of each individual in the group or circle. We, those inside the circle, should work tirelessly to include others, and never stop looking around to see who is being marginalized. When the group believes that “we are open,” the group will STOP seeking to include those on the fringe. We cannot settle or rest until we have actually welcomed everyone into the circle.

He continues,

For the last 20 years, I have dedicated my life to assisting children with special needs, fighting for inclusion for myself and for the countless children we have served at Arts for All, Inc. I have heard their heart-breaking stories of feeling excluded. I have cried NOT because I have felt sorry for them, but because I myself have lived their stories. I have cried because even after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the ADA, we, people with disabilities, are still left out. You see, you can change laws, you can change my lyric to fit your need, even perhaps to pat yourself on the back, but that doesn’t change HEARTS. Feel free to sing “Open the Circle” whatever way is best for you, but don’t believe that the circle is really open. I will keep on championing full inclusion for the children in my program. This is MY responsibility and no one else’s to reach out and welcome someone to the circle.

Often, it is the well-intentioned person, perhaps someone who has white privilege, or someone who's never had to sit away from the circle, who feels that the circle is open. It’s easy to feel that the circle, the group, is open if you are already comfortably inside. As a child who came to the United States from Mexico, I was punished for speaking the only language I knew (Spanish), and I was not accepted into the circle. I had to fight to get into the circle. I had to make my way tentatively and find one other person who would not be afraid to reach out and welcome me into the circle. Though the group felt it was being welcoming, I didn’t feel welcomed.

The keynote that Stuart Stotts gave at the 2015 CMN International Conference in Zion, Illinois, resonated with me. Stuart said, “Words do matter! We should sing and write songs that make us feel warm and fuzzy, but we should also have the courage to make our audience think and reflect.” “Open the Circle” is a song with depth. On the surface, it’s fun, upbeat, and very singable. But there's a lot more to the song than the fun melody. “Open the Circle” is an anthem, a cry, dedicated to all of us who have felt left out and to those who still feel left out.

Frank, who is a past president of CMN, has worked as the Assistant Director of Arts for All, Inc. in Tucson, Arizona, since 1996. Founded in 1986, Arts for All, Inc. is an organization that works to provide accessible education, training, and experiences in the arts to children, particularly those with special needs.

Frank arrived in the United States as an immigrant from Mexico at the age of seven. After high school, he travelled with Up With People, an educational organization whose stated mission is to bridge cultural barriers and create global understanding through service and music. Frank initially came to Arts for All as a volunteer, then as a teacher, and eventually became the Assistant Director. He believes he has the perfect dream job, singing with kids and actively working to “open the circle.”

Because inclusion is being modeled at every level of the organization, the children themselves go beyond inclusion.

Frank walks his talk. As the Assistant Director, he works on intake for children coming to Arts for All, as well as teaching and serving as the music director and vocal coach for all of the center’s musical productions. Sixty percent of the children enrolled have special needs, while forty percent are neurotypical. Eighty-two percent come from low-income homes. The children can choose from after-school classes in music, dance, drama, art, and ceramics with their peers. Regardless of what disability a child has, the children all do lessons with their age group. Because inclusion is being modeled at every level of the organization, the children themselves go beyond inclusion.

As a result, there is a strong sense of community. Of course, there are times when lessons need to be adapted to encompass certain types of disabilities. The teachers have aides, and both the aides and the teachers are trained to keep expectations high, encourage independence, and not lose anyone.

At Arts for All, a child might be in a wheelchair, but kids in wheelchairs can get out of their chairs and sit on the floor with everyone. Or there may be a child who cannot sit still and needs to be allowed to pass things out or put things away. Or deaf kids might inspire hearing kids to learn sign language. In one story Frank told, a class was playing an instrument passing game, and one little girl had limited movement with her hands. The class was passing a vibraslap, and the girl’s aide was worried about what would happen when the instrument came her way—but the kids worked it out. One child gave the instrument to her, and another helped her pass it on to the next person in the circle. When the kids help each other, it’s magic. Instead of focusing on the negative, the focus at Arts for All—in general, and in Frank Hernandez’s heart in particular—is on the positive.

Andrea Green is another CMN member who has dedicated her life to creating musical experiences that intentionally build inclusive communities. She began by partnering children with disabilities and “typical” children. In 1982 she was working as a music therapist at West Philadelphia’s HMS School for Children With Cerebral Palsy. Nearby Germantown Friends School (GFS) teacher, Teresa Maebori, reached out to HMS when she realized that her GFS students did not understand that children with disabilities were essentially like themselves, even though they might be nonverbal and/or wheelchair bound.

Teresa and Andrea organized visits between the two schools, and while the visits were nice, they did not produce ongoing relationships. So Andrea got the idea of creating a Broadway-style musical show that would feature children from both schools sharing the stage equally. In order to produce a musical, the children needed to spend three to four months together in rehearsals followed by the run of the show. Andrea believed that spending this kind of time together would create a lasting impact on the children and give them the opportunity to develop ongoing friendships.

Since that initial idea took off, Andrea has written fourteen “metaphorical musicals,” all of which explore the themes of intolerance and prejudice changing into tolerance, acceptance, and friendship. Over the years, thousands of children have taken part in the productions, attesting to personal transformations that participation has provided them. In addition, many diverse groups have produced the musicals both nationally and internationally.

As the youngsters act out the story and sing songs with themes of acceptance and empathy, they take down fences and build deep, long-lasting friendships

The metaphorical musical story serves as the framework to mirror the process the children go through together. As the story unfolds, fear, conflict, and division are worked through and resolved, and the children learn how to help each other communicate and understand their differences. As the youngsters act out the story and sing songs with themes of acceptance and empathy, they take down fences and build deep, long-lasting friendships.

The music supports the underlying philosophy. Songs are written with strong melodic hooks that repeat themselves, so the chorus or the larger group of performers is always providing support to the individual actor. Because some children are nonverbal and/or use assistive devices, or simply need extra time to participate and contribute, the songs are structured so that Andrea is able to creatively improvise and follow the singers. She changes the original music as needed in order to allow everyone to participate fully and encourage vocal, instrumental, and movement expression.

Andrea’s musicals use a format that is flexible and can be adapted to the needs of the participating schools, theaters, and community centers, with the number of parts expanding or contracting as necessary. Cast size can range from very small to up to eighty children.

The cast is determined by partnering children for specific roles, based on their personalities and individual needs. In order to provide the kind of flexibility needed to accommodate everyone, these productions require a strong director who can balance all the musical and nonmusical aspects of the play.

Auditions are conducted in a fun, flexible way. First, to insure that everyone feels comfortable with the audition material, everyone sings together as a group. Then students are paired up to sing, and eventually are invited to sing alone. This process allows everyone to feel more relaxed. Auditions of children with special needs are more individualized, and sometimes the part is created or adapted for the child without a formal audition. Andrea always works closely with teachers and therapists to select the best role for a child, based on their personality and artistic, emotional, and physical ability. She believes that every child who is interested should be accepted into the show, and she creates a supportive framework to make that happen. 

Each production takes between three and four months of rehearsals, generally meeting twice a week. During this period, there is time for Andrea to work with the entire group or focus on each school separately. She collaborates with a movement specialist and an art specialist, along with all the teachers and therapists who are involved with the children. Final performances take place at both schools, so that the audience of each school has the opportunity to participate and experience both the process of the story itself, and the process of the story within the story—the process of change that the performers experienced as they put the play together.

While many of Andrea’s plays have won awards, the musical On the Other Side of the Fence has received an especially long list of accolades. The play tells the story of two groups of animals living on two different farms that are not allowed to be friends because the farmers, who are in charge, are involved in an ongoing feud. Unlike the farmers, the animals want to find a solution to the problem.

Henry Nevison, a Philadelphia filmmaker, produced a documentary of the play’s production, following Andrea and students from the HMS School and the Germantown Friends School. Nevison’s documentary won numerous awards, including the Gold Medal at the 2015 New York International Film Festival, the Mid-Atlantic Emmy, the Gold Medal for a Television Documentary on Social Issues from the New York Festivals International Television and Film Awards, the United Nations Department of Public Information Bronze Award for Extraordinary Public Service, and the Silver Telly in the 36th Annual Telly Awards.

Andrea, your music touched my life more than I even realized.
…I am so happy to see that the songs are living on!

—former student of Andrea Green

As Andrea says, although awards are nice, the real award, due to the level of publicity, is that a broader public is now aware of the work that she has done over the years to create integrated community experiences, and in the process, change the lives of countless children.

When she started creating and directing her musicals in 1982, she had a hunch that the work would be impactful in the long term, but hearing from students who had participated is rare. Recently, Andrea received this gift as well. On April 29, 2016, she found this message, sent from Såttra, Sweden, on her Facebook page:

I played the part of Hoot, the owl in On The Other Side Of The Fence when I was in 3rd grade, (at) Mission Park Elementary School, Salinas, Ca. That would have made the year 1986 or so.

Tonight I found myself humming "Good Friends" to myself as my now 10-year-old son comforted his best friend [whose] dad passed away from cancer this morning. Andrea, your music touched my life more than I even realized. I am so happy to have found you here on Facebook to share this! And I am so happy to see that the songs are living on!

Andrea continues to work as a music therapy consultant for children and senior citizens. She conducts seminars for college students on working with children with disabilities. She is currently working on a new documentary about how the country of Estonia used her musical The Return of Halley’s Comet as a vehicle for promoting peace and acceptance. She is also crowd-funding to produce a model program for her musical HOMEROOM, which she created with school psychologist Selma Tolins-Kaufman to address the issues of bullying, discrimination, and self-esteem.

Andrea is a remarkable example of how one person work’s has touched thousands of children over the years, creating not only warm, inclusive, and integrated communities, but simultaneously inviting the participants to experience the change that is needed so that they are able to carry on the lessons learned into their own lives and adulthood.

Personally, as a musician advocate for disability awareness and inclusive communities, I am so happy that there are people like Frank and Andrea who walk the talk in everything that they do. And I am so thrilled that CMN is a forum where we are able to expand our understanding of what is facing the children of our world now. CMN’s mission, to “celebrate the positive power of music in the lives of children by sharing songs, exchanging ideas, and creating community” remains relevant as we strive to bring light and warmth to children and their families, no matter how those children’s bodies look or how their brains are wired. We can all work together—we must all work together—to create a better world for all.