When my husband Jan, a professional drummer, and I, a trained singer and pianist, arrived on the Special Education scene in the late seventies, the expectations for mentally challenged performing artists were incredibly low. If individuals could bang out a tune on an instrument or sing a song—any song—most parents and teachers were satisfied. Music was most often incorporated into special education programs for its therapeutic value.
Unaware of existing articles and textbook theories on the subject of teaching music to mentally challenged students, we simply volunteered to start a music class.
Our proposal was approved by the Association for Retarded Citizens whose activity director recruited the loudest and hammiest performers at camp. The students came because it was a chance to get out of their “board and care homes” for the evening and enjoy what they thought was a really cool “jam session.”
Within a few weeks, we made our second proposal stating: “We will continue as the teachers for this music class with the understanding that the participants will prepare a program and enter an upcoming performing arts competition.”
The students said, “Okay!” not realizing the challenging six months of hard work ahead of them, and the parents agreed to continue with their support.
During that hot Sacramento summer, in an available classroom with no air conditioning and a pathetic piano, we all pressed forward–putting together a half-hour program of pop, gospel, and patriotic songs. Besides musical training, we gave lessons in stage presence, social graces, and grooming. “Smile!” and “Let’s try again!” came out of my mouth hundreds of times. I labeled our teaching style “creative repetition.”
Our extraordinary adult students were Joe, who played my husband’s drum set, Nick, a self-taught guitarist, multi-talented Ross, who played violin and viola accompaniments on a synthesizer, and our on-pitch enthusiastic singers–Charla, Laura, Dennis, and Ken. My husband taught himself to play the bass guitar and my piano skills improved considerably.
The anticipated October day arrived, and it was our turn to perform before the audience and judges. Those long hours of rehearsal really paid off because our songs went like clockwork. Amazed with the quality of our presentation, there was a huge round of applause after each musical selection. Trying to gather our composure with all the excitement, we started our last song. Joe accidentally hit his knee on the bottom of the snare drum, which caused it to fly off its stand and roll down the center aisle through the audience. Dutifully, the rest of us followed our motto: “Keep going no matter what!” while Joe got up from his stool to chase the runaway drum. Catching it right in front of the judges, he quickly carried it back, re-positioned it on its stand, sat down, and grabbed a stick just in time to hit the last beat of the song. We won!
It was the beginning of seven of the most incredible years of our lives. The River City Good Time Band, born that day, grew into a model program for people with disabilities that would forever raise the standard of expectations for the mentally challenged.
Through our performances, we generated enough funds to purchase over two thousand pounds of musical equipment, choral risers, lights, and a trailer to haul everything in. With four terrific costume changes, makeup, and styled hair, the confidence level of the students zoomed upwards. Our expanded group of fourteen band members consistently maintained a repertoire of twenty songs that included solos with background vocals, ensemble singing using two-part harmony, and some show-stopping dance routines. According to the textbooks, this wasn’t supposed to be possible.
The River City Good Time Band performed on television and recorded two albums. My six scrapbooks full of photos and newspaper clippings document our hundreds of performances in California, Nevada, Utah, Washington, DC, Denmark, and Iceland.
Dignitaries on the steps of our nation’s capitol marveled at our performance there. A teacher from Sweden came to the stage after one of our concerts in Denmark saying, “You have fulfilled my fondest dream.”
In Iceland, we sang Amazing Grace in a small white church located on that country’s most hallowed ground–the place where Vikings converted to Christianity in 1000 AD. Following the midnight service, our Icelandic hosts rang the steeple bell ten times, a tribute reserved for honored guests.
Oblivion to existing educational practices was one type of bliss we experienced, and cognizance of the obvious presence and power of the Lord Jesus Christ was the other. Before every performance, students and parents held hands with us in a prayer circle, asking for God’s blessings. The band’s second album, titled, “Love of Music is No Handicap” reflected the heartfelt joy of every member of the group. Thankfully, those life-changing good times are still influencing others today.
This story was included in a book titled Kisses of Sunshine for Teachers by Carol Kent and Vicki Caruana – Copyright © 2005, Zondervan