Editor’s Note: American Blues Scene first introduced readers to the United by Music North America program in 2012. In case you missed it or need a refresher, the article can be found here.
“It keeps being revealed to me how much this program impacts everybody who come into contact with it,” exclaims Barbara Gresham Hammerman, co-founder with her daughter Amanda Gresham of United by Music in North America (UBMNA). “Artists who are chosen for the company, of course, but then the mentors and volunteers who get involved. The audience members are often moved to tears – not because it’s sad – these people are not just good for the condition they may have, they are simply good.”
The United by Music program matches musically-talented adults with developmental disabilities up with professional musicians and provides the combined group with performance opportunities. United by Music originated in The Netherlands and migrated to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 once Barbara and Amanda discovered a city that would provide the strongest mentors, venues, and volunteer support.
Portland proved to be a natural choice, and the annual Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival has become a focal point and occasion to celebrate the success of the program. During Waterfront next month, UBMNA takes a more prominent role when 17-year-old company member Marlana VanHoose opens the July 4th festival day on the Miller Stage with her rendition of the National Anthem. Marlana, who was born with cerebral palsy and cytomegalovirus which caused her blindness, is a gifted singer who has become popular in her hometown of Denver, Kentucky, through her performances at sporting events.
Amanda became aware of Marlana’s talent and thought she would be a great fit for UBMNA. First-time mentor Stephanie Anne Johnson, fresh off a successful run on The Voice, was assigned to work with Marlana. Through video chats, the two have logged hours of rehearsal time to prepare Marlana for singing with a band, an opportunity she has not previously had. Providing the opportunity to learn a new skill in a new environment is at the core of UBMNA’s raison d’etre.
“That goes to the mission of the organization – taking people who are musically talented who have not had a chance to operate within a band, a company framework with professional musicians on stage for the general public,” explains Barbara. “All of those are important elements in our mission. If any one of them is missed, it’s not the full program.”
Now UBMNA is moving into three more cities: Seattle, Tacoma, and Eugene. “The geography,” as Barbara says, ” is daunting, and the logistics are intricate, challenging, and rewarding.”
What does mentoring look like? Barbara describes examples, “A person like Lady ‘A’ or Joanne Broh, who are vocalists, pair up with instrumentalists to have mentoring sessions. They’re more practice sessions. They are not teaching someone how to sing or play the piano, although there’s a certain amount instruction on delivery and inflection. Our company members come into the program being musicians. Amanda is in charge of working with mentors and artists in finding rehearsal time, then pairing with bigger groups, then the whole band.”
Longtime UBMNA supporter Karen Lovely says, “Being a United by Music mentor has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve known. This program empowers, uplifts, inspires, and changes lives.”
Each year, the professional artists comprise the core back-up band for the UBMNA company members. In 2013, Lisa Mann and Her Really Good Band served that role at Waterfront. Guitarist Jeff Knudson reflects on his participation last year: “A lot of the people that are involved with this seem to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. I would argue that quality musicians, or creative types who can’t turn off the music in our heads, are also somewhere on the autism spectrum. So there is really not much of a separation, because we are communicating first through music. They are the same as any of us learning our instruments and imagining we are playing in front of people with others. United by Music just makes it happen for them.”
All of which goes to Amanda’s point that, “We are more alike than we are different.” For those readers fortunate enough to attend the Waterfront festival this year, you can catch the UBMNA All-Star Review on July 4th with The Joanne Broh Band serving as the supporting band at the Oregonian stage at 3 p.m. Also look for UBMNA performances at the Bite of Oregon in Portland on August 10th and the Emerald City Music Festival in Seattle on August 30th.