As he and his Southwest High School classmates worked through the line, “Yeah, we got it!” from a 1981 Go-Go’s megahit, a teen in a vintage Pepsi T-shirt named Lucas asked a serious question that turned into a fun rallying cry.
“We got what?!”
The other musicians answered loudly in unison: “The beat!”
For students in Ruth LeMay’s class/band 3 Strings Guitars — all of whom live and learn with cognitive and physical disabilities — finding the beat and playing music requires a new approach. LeMay believes she found the way in the form of adapted instruments and color coding.
Her students learn songs on acoustic guitars rewired with only three strings. The strings are set to an open tuning with a rainbow pattern of colored tape pressed onto the frets to denote the notes.
“Ruth adapted music education to something these kids understand: color patterns,” explained Artisha Knight-Milon, a Southwest special education assistant who has helped LeMay develop the program.
“Some of these kids struggle even with speaking, but they can master a song now.”
With help from a recently launched GoFundMe campaign, LeMay and the 3 Strings crew — who return to their daily 8:50 a.m. class schedule when school starts Tuesday — hope to head to the National Association for Music Education National Convention in Orlando, Fla., in November.
They are among the few out of hundreds of school ensembles to win a performance slot at the national convention. But they’re also going there to help crank up LeMay’s 3 Strings idea as a possible new teaching methodology for music educators everywhere.
Although she has an autistic son now in college and her wife is a special education teacher, LeMay is quick to point out she’s strictly a music teacher. Her title is director of guitar education at Southwest, where her classroom is lined with guitars ranging from classical to heavy-metal style.
As a music educator, though, “I see it as my duty to teach students music — all students,” she said. “Seeing special-needs students missing out on music education everywhere, to me, is an ethical issue. If anything, these kids should be exposed to it twice as much.”
While she’s quick to point out that “music education benefits all kids cognitively, not just these kids,” LeMay believes the musicians in 3 Strings uniquely benefit from the strong sense of community and teaching of other social skills. And not to mention: It’s a lot of fun playing in a rock ’n’ roll band.
Southwest’s recently retired principal, Bill Smith, and other administrators agreed and approved the program three years ago. Since then, the class has turned into a full-on band, with keyboardists, a bassist and electric guitarist (all also color-coded), plus a drummer and lead singer who didn’t seem to need much coaching in how to be a rock star.
As her band started up “We Got the Beat” during summer rehearsals earlier this month, singer Shukri coolly grabbed her mic stand on cue and launched into the verses without looking at the lyrics.
“See the kids just getting out of school / They can’t wait to hang out and be cool.”
When they switched over to rehearsing Katrina & the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” LeMay had to adjust the electric guitarist Antonio’s amplifier to a more distorted sound. Antonio’s bandmate, Lucas, held up the devil-horns hand sign and shouted an approving, “Oh yeah!”
After watching her son, Usupha, keep the groove on the bass guitar, Toni Darboe beamed like she was walking on sunshine.
“It’s like a party of emotions every time I see these kids play,” she said. “I’m not just proud of my son. I’m proud of all of them as a band. They’re doing this together.”
While several of the musicians talked excitedly about their Florida trip still three months away, LeMay reminded them about a gig they had the following week: performing for a meeting of administrators as the school year was about to start.
“Come on, we gotta wake up a bunch of school principals next week!” she shouted.
If all goes well, the 3 Strings crew should be making plenty of noise among school administrators in the coming months.