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What does it look like to step into the unknown and try something new

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Guest blog from Adam Sahli and Suzanne Rhee, Audiences Unlimited, Inc. (Fort Wayne)

What does it look like to step into the unknown and try something new? What does it mean to change someone’s view of themselves, to help them realize they are an artist?

For 46 years Audiences Unlimited, Inc. (AUI), has brought professional musicians into long-term health care facilities across five Northeast Indiana counties. Our goal has always been to bring joy and enrich quality of life, but our programs only reached people who faced age-related illnesses.

A few years back, we decided to change that. Equipped with a mission to provide access to the arts, we started searching for a new audience so we could serve more of our community. And we found L.I.F.E. Adult Day Academy (L.A.D.A.). They serve adults in the Fort Wayne community with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities by providing daytime classes that help them build skills and empowers them to use their unique abilities. In October of 2017, we started sending musicians to L.A.D.A. for a brand new program: Music Enrichment.

L.A.D.A. hadn’t been able to provide music classes for several years and knew their students would benefit from regular musical experiences. Working with L.A.D.A. and board-certified music therapist Heather Palmer, we trained a select group of our musicians to best communicate and engage these students. From here, L.A.D.A. set up time slots to offer interactive experiences with these students during their social hour. During this time, students can participate by singing along with the musician, waving a streamer, hitting a drum, or even tapping a finger—however they are able. The joyful energy in the room is palpable, and it’s hard not to smile.

L.A.D.A. felt the results of bringing music and a new means of creative self-expression almost immediately. Lloyd Jones, L.A.D.A. Executive Director, expressed it this way: “Music fosters creativity which can unleash out-of-the-box thinking that cuts across multiple subject areas. The Music Enrichment program has made such a positive impact on so many at the school. Students who participate tend to have better attendance, increased socialization, improved behavior, and increased Spatial-Temporal skills.”

Group of people sitting in doors interacting with streamers

Jeanette Iglesias-Hille told me about a woman who has found her voice through the music enrichment program. “It says a lot that those students who do not communicate verbally have made the most positive changes. A student who is known as ‘nonverbal,’ who may communicate in a non-traditional way, is suddenly making sounds and attempting to sing along or even develop some sort of beat or rhythm to the music. We have one such student who communicates with simple words and is very shy. With L.A.D.A.'s encouragement and the Audiences Unlimited program this student has been able to sing along with most songs that she hears. When she becomes the loudest in the room we know that she enjoys this song. This student has completely come out of her shell and every day the instructors are able to recognize more and more words that she says verbally. She was even in the Christmas play and knew the words to a few songs.”

At the culmination of the first year, a free public performance in downtown Fort Wayne featured 16 of these students singing in a choral concert. We presented it at the Parkview Physicians Group ArtsLab at the Auer Center, one of the region’s premier performance venues. For these students this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Many had never stepped foot onstage before, let alone felt the warm glow of the stage-lights while they performed for family, friends, and peers. At the end of the concert the mother of student who had chosen not to participate told us, “Chloe has already told me she wants to do this next year!” Not only were the students performing in the chorus impacted, but their peers were inspired. Chloe’s confidence rose as she saw students who represented her on the stage.

Often in arts organizations, we strive to develop equity within our performance areas. This month, I hope you join us at AUI and L.A.D.A., along with the Indiana Arts Commission, in celebrating Indiana Disability Awareness Month. Look inside your organization and art form to see how you can target new audiences and participants, even if it seems challenging at first. Partner with other organizations or social service agencies that are looking for programming; that match might just change lives.

If you’re reading this, you probably already work to change people’s minds and lives. We know that art matters, we know that equity matters. This month, let’s work to ensure representation, support and access for those in our communities with disabilities. This month, celebrate what makes us different.

Audiences Unlimited Inc., received an FY19 Arts Organization Support grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.