ARLINGTON – Brandon Somers is a musical savant.
The Marysville man’s gift of perfect pitch is so sharp that when he was a child, he could tell that a washing machine was broken just by the slightest off-sound and rhythm of the agitator. There isn’t a musical instrument Brandon won’t play, but he prefers the xylophone from his high school band days, the drums and keyboards. Let him hear a song once, and he can work it out.
Brandon was born with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic condition found in one of every 7,500 newborns. It is nicknamed the “musical syndrome” because so many young with it are endowed with musical talents in spite of intellectual disability or learning problems.
You won’t hear Brandon complaining, though. Over the past 15 years, he and two dozen fellow musicians with disabilities who are performing members in Voices of the Village have hit upon a personal truth that means the world to them and their families.
“’I’m in the band;’ that’s what they come to realize,” Voices band director John Dalgarn said. “They connect with the idea that this is their band, and they have a part in it.”
The band’s practices – open to the public – are more than just a social activity to look forward to each Thursday downstairs in Arlington United Church, where they’ve rehearsed for years. For people like Brandon and his bandmates, performing is a self-esteem boosting, fulfilling and life-changing experience.
You might say Voices of the Village is the house band for Village Community Services in Arlington, a nonprofit organization that has provided residential and employment services and support for individuals with disabilities and their families for over 50 years.
VCS is encouraging the public to attend its super heroes-themed 11th Annual Friendship Walk and an added 5K Run on Sept. 22 at Legion Memorial Park in Arlington, starting at 9 a.m. Proceeds will benefit Voices of the Village and its members. The event also includes food for purchase, a car wash and not surprisingly, a performance by the super heroes of the hour, the Voices band.
Voices of the Village was founded nearly 15 years ago as an interactive music program primarily driven by, but not exclusive to, individuals who live with developmental disabilities.
The band plays about 40 performances year-round including events in Arlington, Stanwood, the Marysville Strawberry Festival and Mount Vernon Tulip Festival.
“It’s way more than music,” VCS board president Vicki Adams said. “It’s an opportunity to be in the community, and it’s an opportunity to be applauded and heard.”
Studies have indicated numerous benefits of music therapy for those living with diverse disabilities and special needs, such as enhanced speech and communication, fine motor skills and social-emotional skill development. Participating in music therapy programs also provides individuals with elevated self-esteem and a sense of fulfillment.
Many described seeing the value of music therapy. One client from Stanwood would come to band, sit and say nothing. Eventually, he gradually started to sing, play bongos and guitar. Now he’s on stage manager duty.
Another non-verbal, autistic man who at first couldn’t handle the noise and would enter and leave the church picked up a tambourine. Now he’s shaking it to the beat.
Adams, who has been connected with the program since its inception, appreciates the music for the joy in brings not just to the members, but to listeners like her who are still healing after the loss of loved ones, including her husband and two adopted sons, both of whom played in the Voices band.
Adams’ husband, Tim, her Arlington High School sweetheart, died last October after 47 years of marriage. Six months earlier, Jimmy who had Down syndrome, died at 51. Her other adopted son, John, 44, who was dealing with complications from Cystic Fibrosis, died in 2013.
Staying connected with the group has been hard at times, she said, but added: “There is such joy here, and they are so joyful when they see you. I need the kids here as much as they need me.”
VCS Executive Director Michelle Dietz hears that same joy.
“With every performance, we bear witness to something akin to magic,” she said. “That’s what it feels like to those of us in the audience.”
An accomplished musician, Dalgarn still recalls those early days managing the Sheltered Workshop in 2003.
At first, it was just him on guitar performing for the disabled and customers in a coffee shop bookstore owned by a local school teacher. Dalgard leveraged his time, saying he would play more if they did their school work.
To make the venue more inclusive, he brought in some percussion and rhythm instruments to share with the kids.
“As soon as I did that, that connection of being involved instead of played to started to happen,” Dalgarn said.
It didn’t stop there. Then, he introduced the microphone.
“That was the game changer,” Dalgarn said, “Especially for people who were considered non-verbal. They heard their voice, they saw that we would follow on our instruments, and something just seemed to be happening.”
Margaret McClure has kids in Voices of the Village. She too recalls those times fondly before the group moved to the church. Coincidentally, the church had just installed an elevator, which left them to joke that church leaders had been getting it ready for the workshop and band.
McClure’s son, Thomas, 37, has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the nervous system often characterized by delayed development, intellectual disability, severe speech impairment and hyperactivity, but a happy demeanor. Developmentally, he is about 2 years old.
Thomas wanted to be a rock star since the day he was born, and he’s amassed a stellar collection of guitars to look the part.
“The biggest disadvantage of being disabled is that you get stuck with your parent’s music,” McClure said jokingly. “So Thomas is stuck with classic rock and roll.”
That seems to be just what he is after.
“When Thomas is on stage, he is a rock star,” she said. “He doesn’t actually make music, but when he’s playing air guitar, he’ll stop his foot, he’s beyond into the music, and he loves the applause and attention that he gets. We all need to be applauded somehow.”
Brandon’s mom, Cindy, who lives in Lake Stevens, said after he left school as a young adult there was nothing for him. State social workers directed him into Dalgarn’s Sheltered Workshop.
That sealed his foray into musical performance with Voices of the Village.
“It has really been a godsend,” Cindy Somers said. “He has a place to go.”
Brandon had a heart attack last year, a complication of the syndrome, she said. He became depressed. He was afraid. “But being with his people means a lot to him, and now that he’s performing again, he is one hundred percent in.”
Dalgarn encouraged people to give Voices of the Village a listen.
“They would learn that there is value in this group of performers, and they love to share their music and love for music with the community,” he said.
Adams added, “For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve had a voice.”
For more information about the Friendship Walk & 5K Run, visit the event page on Facebook or contact VCS Executive Director Michelle Dietz at either firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-653-7752 ext. 14.
Pre-register online through RunSignUp with “early bird” pricing of $20 available through Sept. 15. Pricing increases to $25 the day after and up to day-of registration. Official times for all 5K participants will be provided. Children under 12 are free.