Music News & Reviews

Local musicians with intellectual disabilities get the chance to shine, thanks to United by Music

Upstairs in Allstar Guitar near the Gig Harbor waterfront, two guitars play a blues riff. One, played by teacher Kregg Mattson, walks securely over the 12-bar pattern of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” as Mattson softly sings the melody. The other guitar belongs to 24-year-old David Hoefer, who improvises shyly at first, then more confidently.

It could be a typical music lesson — except that Hoefer is practicing to perform in Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival in March. As well as being musically gifted, Hoefer is intellectually disabled, and thanks to United by Music, he and others with similar talents and disabilities will have a chance to shine. That chance, for Puget Sound folks, starts with the first Tacoma talent search party and show on Feb. 28 at Jazzbones.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere else for people who happen to have disabilities,” says Barbara Hammerman, co-founder of United’s North America branch. “Often if they are good musicians, they’ll be playing on their own. But to do that as a group, to soar, is a really different experience.”

United by Music was founded in the Netherlands in 2005, when health network CEO Joris van Wijngaarden held a party and some intellectually disabled people in his company’s care got up to sing with the band. Van Wijngaarden realized how music crossed boundaries and took away the differences and prejudice caused by differing abilities. He launched United as a program that matched talented disabled musicians with professional artist mentors, taught them performance skills and eventually gave them performance opportunities at festivals. Focusing on blues music, he hired award-winning blues singer Candye Kane as musical director.

When van Wijngaarden wanted to expand United to North America, Kane connected him with a mother-daughter pair to manage and promote the program: nonprofit developer Barbara Hammerman of Gig Harbor and Amanda Gresham, a festival booker based in Portland. After an initial promotion tour in 2010 and a successful Portland program, the pair looked for a good place to base a Puget Sound segment — and decided on Tacoma. Collaborating with the Tacoma Area Coalition for Individuals with Disabilities (TACID), the branch will hold its first talent search party at Jazzbones.

But some local musicians, like the Olalla-based Hoefer, have been working with the program already, thanks to a partnership with Allstar Guitar. Hoefer auditioned at Gig Harbor’s Kelly’s Cafe last year. Like all United auditions, it was more of a casual conversation with Hammerman and Gresham. The pair strive to put potential artists at ease; parents are often present.

“With intellectual disability, pressure often leads to failure,” says Hoefer’s mom, Vickie, who also attends his lessons. “With United, there’s no failure. We talked for an hour in the restaurant before the audition. I’ve been through a lot of programs, but this is unique.”

And although United does look for outstanding talent, “everyone is appreciated who is there,” says Gresham, especially in more public auditions like the talent search at Jazzbones.

With United’s performers, disabilities vary from Asperger’s syndrome to blindness to Down syndrome; abilities vary from virtuoso guitar skills to singing talent to the capacity to reproduce complex piano works from a single hearing.

Those who are right for the program begin meeting with mentors every few weeks — professional artists like Tacoma blues singer Stephanie Anne Johnson or star guitarist Tommy Castro, who will be the featured guest at the Jazzbones auditions. For about a year, United members learn skills in music technique, stage presence, dress, even makeup. The program boosts their confidence with positive feedback until they are ready to take the stage alongside solo artists and bands at events like the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival and Seattle’s Emerald City Blues Festival. Some United members take an extended solo; others just play or clap along according to their comfort level.

“The basis is for everyone to have a good time, to feel empowered and be a success,” Gresham says.

It has worked for Hoefer. Mildly autistic with developmental delays, he often plays for hours in his room or outside for his many pets. As his mentor Mattson works through techniques like pull-offs, blue notes and scales, it’s clear that Hoefer’s natural ability blossoms under friendly, accepting encouragement. And what he loves most of all is meeting and playing with famous musicians, like his next gig at the Jazzbones party.

“I like (United) because I get to travel around Washington and perform,” Hoefer says. “I’m excited for the Portland festival. It makes me feel great.”

For Vickie, the group involvement is what makes United special.

“As parents, we get isolated,” she says. “Here, it’s accepting. It has boosted his confidence level 100 percent — at the audition, I couldn’t believe that was my son.”

But the biggest positive of United is that the differences between abled and disabled melt away.

“It’s not that people have disabilities on stage,” says Vickie Hoefer. “It’s that people have different abilities. You don’t see people’s disabilities — you see people playing.”

“When you play together, the lack of whatever is so minor, it’s almost nothing,” Mattson says. “Sometimes these musicians are above and beyond the average with the depth of the way they feel. That’s amazing. It’s a different gift.”

For Gresham, the unity benefits everyone.

“When I started, I saw the empowerment for the people in the program,” she says. “I didn’t realize how empowering it was for everyone else: the stage crews, the mentors, the audience. We all learn so much, and it becomes a family.”