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South Jordan Journal

Two South Jordan middle school students join in Rose Parade inclusive marching band

Feb 07, 2022 02:42PM ● By Julie Slama

Mountain Creek Middle School student Jaymi Bonner plays the violin with the Honor Bands of America in the Rose Parade. (Photo courtesy of Jeana Bonner)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Two Mountain Creek Middle School student-musicians had their shining moment Jan. 1, marching in the Rose Parade.

Violinist Jaymi Bonner and trumpet player Emma Figueroa were selected to join other teens playing in the Honor Band of America, with the premiere student-musicians in the country.  Alongside the two students with disabilities were student-musician mentors, who did everything from pushing wheelchairs to helping them with their music, so these two, and 15 others, could perform.

“I thought it was going to be ‘here and there, ‘ just practicing and stuff, but it was cool,” Emma said.

The two girls’ involvement came as Mountain Creek started the first chapter in Utah to incorporate United Sound into the school curriculum. The United Sound program partners special needs students with peer tutors who assist and support them playing in their school bands. 

“United Sound invited our chapter to apply to have student musicians and these two were the first ones to apply and be selected,” said their special education teacher, Karlee English. 

United Sound partners with the Honor Band every four years so more students with disabilities can be included in mainstream opportunities. Since the parade was canceled last year, the offer was extended to Utah’s first chapter to participate this year. The two girls were selected in spring 2021. 

English remembered their reactions: “Jaymi used her happy cry; she was so excited,” and Emma “couldn’t even sleep, she was so excited. She immediately called and texted all her family and told them about it. She was just over the moon.”

Joining the Utah girls was mentor Chris Seale, a junior at Herriman High. He and another peer mentor from Maryland were alongside Emma in the parades. Two mentors helped Jaymi as well.

It was a trip of firsts for both of the girls: first airplane ride, first time remembering going to Disneyland, first time being in a parade.

Before being in the parades, Emma said they were up at 6 a.m. daily to rehearse. 

“They didn’t actually get the music until they got to California,” English said. “When they got there, they had to start practicing and everything was adapted to what they could do.”

The student musicians learned three songs that they would play during the parades. Their favorite was “For Good” from “Wicked.”

“They would play that the most and at the very end of the song, the line, ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good,’ it was really touching,” said Emma’s mom, Roxy Figueroa.

They also tried on uniforms – a red one for the Rose Parade and a blue one for Disneyland – and while they rehearsed, the uniforms were tailored to fit them. While they didn’t get to keep those, they did receive United Sound T-shirts and then were surprised when their bus driver gave each of them a trophy.

The group first paraded at Disneyland. They returned two days later to explore the park with family members who came along to support them. 

It was Emma’s first time visiting since she was 5 and she loved going on the teacup ride.

Jaymi, who has been to Disneyland twice before, was excited they got to see “Mickey Mouse and Minnie,” cruise through Radiator Springs in Cars Land and see the fireworks at the end of the day.

After marching at Disneyland, they got up at 4 a.m. the next morning and boarded a bus that took them to the staging area for the Rose Parade.  The band was the fifth entry to perform.

With the other musicians, their route took them seven miles from where the bus dropped them off through the parade route to where they finished.  Parents weren’t allowed to join them, so Figueroa said she didn’t see her daughter in the parade until the last half block before boarding the bus back to the hotel while enjoying an In-N-Out hamburger that was given to each band participant.

While the girls saw some people lined up on the sides of the street, they didn’t get to see much of the parade themselves.  They had hoped to preview the Rose Parade floats, but that didn’t happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think they were having so much fun, they didn’t care what anyone else was doing,” Figueroa said. “I saw Jaymi and Emma and they both had the biggest smiles on their faces. They were loving it. It was awesome.”

Throughout the week, the girls bonded with their mentors. On a day when it rained so hard the group wasn't able to perform at the band fest, they went to see the new Spider Man movie together instead, which both girls said they enjoyed.

English and band director Cameron Elliott watched the two in the Rose Parade on television, as well as kept in touch with their parents, saw photos on Instagram and checked in with other band directors and friends who were there.

“It was such an awesome experience for them,” English said, adding appreciation to the physical therapists at Shriners Hospitals for Children, who donated to Emma a wheelchair with a mount for her trumpet so she could participate.

Jaymi and Emma, and 11 other students with disabilities, became involved in the music program at their middle school when their special education teacher met with Elliott.

“We were doing schedules and I said, ‘I want some of my kids to take band.’ I literally knocked him down; I am really big about inclusion. I want my students in every aspect of the school. They should have the same opportunities as everyone else,” English said, adding that Jaymi is a studentbody officer and Emma is part of Choose Kind club. “I really want them in band because typically kids with more severe disabilities don’t necessarily take that. So, I said to him, ‘Hey, what do you think about my kids taking your class?’ and he’s like, ‘Let’s do that.’”

Elliott had heard about United Sound, so he researched the organization designed to incorporate more inclusive practices.

“Looking into the logistics of how (United Sound) worked, we’re like, we could totally do this,” he said, and they proceeded to introduce it last year with the support of the school administration.

Elliott opened up the class to English’s students, presented the instruments and said, “pick the one you want to play,” rather than “you guys play these few instruments because they’re the most adaptable.”

Jaymi picked the violin, following the example of her older cousin. Emma, who has very little use of her right side, chose the trumpet, an instrument her grandfather plays.

Then, Elliott went to his students, told them about the organization and said he needed mentors for each student wanting to learn an instrument. The mentors learned how to teach music and attended training provided by United Sound.

Elliott said that to teach English’s students music, they first use recognizable images.

“For longer notes, we used the word ‘soup’ and on the note head was a bowl of soup. For quarter notes, it’s ‘cake,’ and there’s a cake on the note head and then for eighth notes, we use the word ‘donuts.’  So that’s how they learn rhythm,” he said. “Once they learn the rhythm, they kind of change in their regular notation; it’s color-coded to pitch so a certain color would be a certain pitch, depending on the instrument.”

When learning songs, mentors take their sheet music and write a modified part for their peers. Elliott then types it into music notation software and prints it out “so it looks like a real formal piece of sheet music. They’ll learn the part and we add them into the ensemble. When the whole ensemble performs together, they’re actually playing and a part of the band.”

The ultimate goal is for these students to perform with their peers in the spring concert, just as they did last spring. 

The group starts up again in February, practicing 45 minutes once per week after school.

The role of the mentors has extended beyond learning music. Last year, Jaymi’s mentor practiced with her, even coming over to her house. Every session opens with an icebreaker activity that mentors plan. Recently, they even held a holiday party and brought gifts for their mentees, Elliott said.

While the program’s aim is to help students perform in an ensemble, and help mentors to learn more about inclusion, English said it’s about relationships.

“It’s really building friendships. It’s about music, but it’s really building that gap,” she said. “As an educator, I’m a champion and an advocate for my kids. So much has changed since when I first started teaching and had to fight for things for my students. Now, we’re finding more ways for them to achieve. I don’t think I could have ever envisioned this opportunity of playing in the Rose Parade for my students. It’s just been awesome.”