Imagine a world in which no prejudice exists based upon race, creed, color—or intellectual capacity. That is the world that we at United by Music North America, and our growing support base, envision. In our case, we have turned to the power of music to bring people together.
United by Music, a performance-based program for musically talented people with development and intellectual challenges and delays, was created in The Netherlands in 2006 by Joris van Wijngaarden, a Netherlands health care industry executive. Entertainer Candye Kane worked with van Wigngaarden to hone the concept behind United by Music in The Netherlands.
When van Wijngaarden wished to expand this unique program to North America, Kane suggested he speak with nonprofit industry expert and music supporter Barbara Hammerman. He did, and the result was a methodical process of testing the concept in the U.S. and Canada and the founding of United by Music North America by Hammerman and Amanda Gresham, music festival and event producer.
Hammerman and Gresham work with a team of professional musician mentors and supporters, find the musical talents for the program, work in weekly sessions to create performance shows and play at festivals and events. There is no fee to the artists to be a part of the program. Once selected, all mentor sessions and other activities are primarily paid through generous donations from the public. United by Music North America is a registered 501(c((3) charitable organization.
When United by Music founder Joris van Wijngaarden expressed a desire several years ago to plant the seed of United by Music in North America, his musical director, Candye Kane, knew just who to turn to. She referred him to Barbara Hammerman, President of Hammerman Philanthropic Partners, and Amanda Gresham, CEO of Delta Music Experience. He reached out to them, encouraging them to bring United by Music to the US and Canada with backing from the Netherlands organization. And of course they agreed to take on the launch of the North American program.
Amanda and Barbara worked with Joris’s team in The Netherlands and with Candye to discover the core of the program and to shape it so that it could be replicated in North America. They created a rough draft of a business plan and put together a focus group of Barbara and Amanda’s colleagues to review the plan and to share their thoughts with Joris’ team from The Netherlands.
Those individuals met for a three-day retreat. Arthur Steinhorn, a Portland musician employed by Special Olympics Oregon who had considerable music festival experience, was invited to join that group. From that gathering, the business plan was refined to reflect certain cultural differences between North America and Europe. The decision was made to create a way to demonstrate this program to live audiences in order to cultivate an awareness of United by Music’s mission. What emerged was the first Showcase Tour in 2010.
This two-week tour, with support from the European-based United by Music, took an ensemble composed of musicians with and without intellectual disabilities through nine cities in the U.S. and Canada. The tightly scripted 60-minute program of entertainment and information concluded with a Q&A session. The only “ask” was whether audience members felt this program would have value in their community. If they agreed that it would, they were asked to consider working with United by Music NA to develop a team in each of the nine Showcase cities.
As United by Music NA moved from the Showcase Tour phase through a methodical follow-up with the local teams, there was a natural evolution of communities that exhibited more initial strength than others for what was required to take United by Music NA to the next level.
Due in large part to the relationship that United by Music was able to develop with Portland through Amanda’s involvement with the city’s signature Waterfront Blues Festival and Arthur’s expertise and interest in the project, Portland was selected as the site for the first United by Music program development in North America. The other communities that participated in the initial Showcase Tour are still being cultivated. Each will come “on line” with a training and performance program as soon as they are strong enough to sustain such a program.
United by Music NA , by choosing Portland as the pilot program city, is building upon the established European program of selecting musically talented people with intellectual disabilities and engaging them in a program of education, rehearsals and performances right here in North American communities just as United by Music has been doing since 2006 in Europe. This program is, in fact, not new, but has been proven a success in Europe. With this foundation for success, United by Music NA is destined to fulfill its mission here of raising awareness about how connected we all are through music, community and our universal aspirations to lead inspiring and fulfilling lives.