A Joyful Noise

The Pride of the Mountains teams up with the University Participant Program to launch a national model for musical experiences for students with special needs.


Thanks to director of athletic bands David Starnes, Western Carolina University became the first university to form a chapter of the nonprofit organization United Sound, which provides musical performance experiences for students with special needs.

It was nearly two years ago that Starnes was approached by United Sound founder Julie Duty to help put together a board for her nonprofit organization. At the time, United Sound catered to only middle and high school-aged students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

After serving as chairman of the nonprofit’s board for about a year, Starnes came up with the idea of starting a university chapter for members of the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, incorporating it with WCU’s University Participant Program, a two-year, on-campus living and learning experience for college-aged students with intellectual disabilities. Last fall, that idea became a reality.

“As soon as I mentioned it to our special education department, they said, ‘This is exactly what we’ve been looking for,” Starnes said. “It’s changing some students’ mind from one branch of education to special ed who maybe have a musical background and they’ve merged the two of those together. It could be life changing for those people.”

Starnes saw that happen with chapter representatives Katelyn Johnson ’16 from Asheville and Sara Cope, a rising junior from Statesville. Both served as peer mentors for UP students.

Johnson, who received her bachelor’s degree in music performance and plans to pursue a master’s degree in music therapy, said she wants to continue working with those with special needs. The same goes for Cope, who recently changed her major to inclusive education.

“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I didn’t know that until (Starnes) roped me into this,” Johnson said. “This is something really fantastic that we’ve started. I’ve talked to a number of people who have gone through Western’s music program and then gone on to teach, and they told me they would have had no idea how to deal with having special needs students in their classroom from just the classes they took on campus.”

Not only was United Sound’s Duty excited that Starnes wanted to bring a university chapter to Cullowhee, but she said she was confident WCU was the right university to set the example of how it should be done.

“I have just an unbelievable amount of respect and admiration for the music educator that David is,” Duty said. “I knew that, in his hands, it would be the best possible first example of what it should look like and what it could be. There’s a huge part of the music education community that watches whatever David’s doing. And that’s exactly what has happened. We will be at five universities by this fall, and three of the four new ones only know about it from Western, having watched via social media what was going on there.”

Starnes said the program consists of two aspects. First, the peer mentors learn their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to teaching in adaptive education. Then, special needs students, or “new musicians” as they are called, not only learn to play an instrument but work toward a goal of performing in a live concert with their peer mentors.

The first concert was held in March in the recital hall of Coulter Building, where the new musicians teamed up with WCU’s Concert Band to perform “Risk Everything for a Dream,” a piece specifically dedicated to the United Sound national initiative. Last fall, the new musicians got a taste of performing in public as they played the fight song with WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band during the Homecoming football game.


During the program’s first year, 12 peer mentors worked with five new musicians. They met on Mondays from 7 to 7:45 p.m. The curriculum is based more on visual instruction rather than oral instruction, Starnes said.

Johnson said the first 15 minutes of each meeting were usually spent playing a game or getting acquainted, with the final 30 minutes devoted to working on the music, with UP students often asking to stay later. Johnson said her favorite part was seeing the new musicians’ reactions to some of the things she tells them.

“I tried a lot of out-of-the-box teaching things to get them to do what I wanted them to do,” Johnson said. “I told one of the students to pretend he was blowing a paint ball at me to get him to put enough air through the horn to make a noise, and he cracked up laughing and that immediately fixed everything. It was just great to see him love it and to see it work.”

“I like to see their faces when they finally get something that they’ve been working hard toward,” Cope said. “Like if there’s a note that they’ve been struggling with and all of a sudden it clicks and they get it, to see their faces light up, it’s just an amazing feeling. They give us a lot of inspiration as the directors of the program. When we see how they react to the new methods they’re learning, it gives us more courage to want to do better as well.”

With the success United Sound had at WCU, Starnes said he would like to see it spread throughout the country. Duty said Marshall University has started the process for hosting a chapter this fall.

“I’m just so proud of Sara and Katelyn, I can’t stand it,” Starnes said. “This was a dream that happened a year-and-a-half ago, and then we thought, ‘Let’s just pilot it at the university level and see if it’ll work.’ Now that we know it will, I’ll bet I’ve gotten a dozen emails from university directors saying, ‘We heard this is happening, tell us about it,’ which is awesome. That means we did it right and the pilot didn’t crash the plane.

“Julie and I gave a presentation at the state music convention this past fall, and we couldn’t get out of the room with the number of teachers who wanted this at their schools. Our goal is to make this an optional part of every musical education curriculum,” he said. “WCU could be a beacon for a lot of schools around here to get involved with this.”