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The NYC District 75 Modern Band Festival Brought Students with Special Needs together to Shine

If you are outside of the New York City area, a term like District 75 might be completely foreign to you. However, District 75 is the largest Special Education district in the world. It is a subsection of the NYC Department of Education and provides education to students on the Autism Spectrum, students with significant cognitive delays, multiple disabilities and students who are emotionally challenged. The program ensures students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environment for their day to day learning.

That last part is the key. New York City promotes a single educational system, whenever possible, dedicated to ensuring that all students are empowered to become competent and contributing citizens in an integrated, changing and diverse society. District 75 teachers Adam Goldberg, Katherine Stock, and Martin Urbach, who teach modern band as Amp UP NYC educators, began planning a concert as an opportunity for their students to meet, perform for, and support each other. “Our special education students don’t usually get the chance to shine,” shared Martin, “I thought it would be great for my kids to see Kat’s and Adam’s students and engage with them.”

“Modern Band says a lot about what we are all about today. It shows alternative ways of teaching that focus on the value of the music,” said Adam. As they approached the stage, some students whispered to themselves, ‘I can do this,’ready to kickoff the show. Their band, an ensemble of iPads and midi keyboards, immediately had the crowd clapping along with their performances of Stand in the Light by Jordan Smith and I Woke Up This Morning, a traditional freedom song. Half of Adam’s band were brand new to the program and it was their first time performing. It was not only an opportunity for the musicians to shine, but also to show off their teamwork, empathy, and dedication to music making.

Next, Katherine’s students launched into a rousing rendition of Bastille’s Pompeii that echoed throughout the auditorium as music emanated from nearly every student in the room. The band owned the stage in true rockstar form with guitarists smiling throughout and vocalists drawing the audience in with their choreography. As they effortlessly transitioned from La Bamba to Twist and Shout the audience cheered with praise.

“The most rewarding thing I have seen is when my students have that feeling of success. That empowerment. I am so lucky because I get to see it all the time,” said Katherine. “So many of my students have such incredible ears for music I am astounded by it daily. Also, a little jealous.”

The performance concluded with Martin’s group—composed of middle and high school students. The band walked to the stage cool and collected, determined to share their voice and message. Nowhere was their message more evident than in their reading of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise with music from Kanye West’s Through the Wire. The combination could have been created specifically with them in mind as they performed it with the seriousness and determination of the artists they are.

“The highlight of the event for me was just getting to see and hear the students from the other two schools perform. I got to experience that ‘magic’ that everyone always talks about when they hear my band,” shared Katherine. “I got chills when I heard Adam Goldberg’s students singing in harmony. I was so excited and proud when I heard Martin’s student advocate for himself and say that he needed to move his guitar because he wasn’t comfortable in the space he was in. I was blown away by the spoken word performance of Through the Wire/Still I Rise. I thought the message was beautiful and important and you could see how the students felt ownership of it.”

“My students that partook still feel the high from the performance,” said Martin. “(They are) still talking about how great it felt to be like a rockstar and go on the road. The classes that did not perform will be performing next month and are being mentored by those who did perform at this event.”

Adam summed up the event perfectly, “There were many highlights. It was really a great show. More than anything else, I think it was just incredible to see students take the stage with confidence, joy, and enthusiasm and perform their wonderful music in this way. The supportive environment provided by each of the teachers involved provided the springboard that allowed each of the performers to find their comfort zone as musically expressive young people. The power of music to bring out the best in us was on full display and continually evident in the eyes of every single performer. I think it was really the incredible art of music and its ability to transform and bring complete harmony that was the real highlight.” 

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