United Sound: Improving Access to Music Education, One Program at a Time


Like many middle and high school band directors, Julie Duty found out the hard way that she was ill-equipped to serve students with disabilities.

After scouring for resources and assistance to help her better reach all her students, the Arizona woman realized they didn’t exist. So, she rounded up a group of prominent thought leaders in music pedagogy and education equity and created the resources herself.

In 2014, Duty founded United Sound, Inc. to help teachers everywhere cultivate meaningful participation and inclusivity in the instrumental music classroom—regardless of students’ abilities or backgrounds. To carry out this work, the nonprofit organization helps connect teachers with new and diverse music, increases student access to this music and opportunities to play it, and supports composers throughout all stages of the writing and distribution process.

“We know that the joy of learning and performing music is life-changing. We believe that all students should have access to meaningful and authentic music education and musical experiences,” says Dorean White, United Sound’s director of operations.

“Our goal is to use music as a vehicle for transformative change, and we provide training, support, organizational resources, and curriculum for students with disabilities to participate with authenticity in music.”

Nine years later, White says some 14,500 students in 31 states have participated in United Sound’s programs, logging more than 300,000 hours of making music together.

J.W. Pepper is proud to support this work as a sponsor of United Sound, which carries out its mission through three main programs and initiatives: Peer Mentoring, Play with US, and the Composer Project.

Peer Mentoring

Duty “created the Peer Mentoring program to provide meaningful and authentic music education and performance opportunities for all students, regardless of ability,” White says.

For this program, United Sound gives students and teachers the resources they need to form inclusive, empowering ensembles. This includes providing music, instruction, and materials for teachers as well as assistance with training band and orchestra students of similar age to become peer mentors.

New Musicians, or students with disabilities, meet weekly with three peer mentors during the school year to learn to play whichever instrument they choose. As they work together, peer mentors can modify the music and instruction to best align with each individual’s needs, White says.

Throughout the year, peer mentors also work with teachers and United Sound, reflecting on their New Musician’s progress and continually seeking to answer the question: “How can we remove the barriers that this individual faces when trying to engage with music?”

“The answers are as varied as the New Musicians themselves,” White says, adding that peer mentor strategies may range from creating environmental modifications, such as differentiated materials and physical help, to social modifications, including creating a safe environment that fosters independence and a willingness to try.

“The joint efforts of the New Musicians and mentors culminate in meaningful performances as part of the school’s band and/or orchestra twice a year as well as authentic, lasting relationships,” White says.

The advantages of the Peer Mentoring program benefit New Musicians and peer mentors alike, White notes. “Students with disabilities are rarely involved in instrumental music at the junior high and high school level without United Sound,” White says. “Authentic learning, music making, and performance opportunities allow these young people to find their niche,” make new friends, develop communication skills, and more.

“Peer mentors benefit as much or more from our programs as the New Musicians,” she says. “Service opportunities develop an increased sense of social responsibility, offer exposure to diversity, provide an opportunity to apply academic learning to real human needs, and build relationships and social connectedness.”

Play with US

When schools closed in March 2020 and traditional music programs shut down, United Sound remained focused on reaching students with disabilities and considered how it could keep these students engaged with music. That’s when Play with US was born.

“Our Play with US program was created to bring the music class directly into special education classrooms by partnering with teaching artists from Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education,” White says. “These teaching artists provided weekly interactive videoconference music classes, enabling special education teachers to participate with their students—in person or virtually—in an active, music-making class, utilizing existing United Sound curriculum and foundations. The program was so successful during the pandemic that it continues today.”

Currently, United Sound works with 50 special education classrooms through Play with US, allowing certified special education music-teaching artists to provide weekly virtual, interactive music classes.

Composer Project

Many musicians and music teachers have faced underrepresentation and a lack of diversity in music. United Sound seeks to address the root causes of this underrepresentation “by providing our youngest music makers [with] the tools and confidence to become our next generation of creators,” White says.

The goal of the Composer Project is to “create a system that puts a wider range of musical styles, written by more varied composers, in front of younger students,” White says. “Students, teachers, emerging composers, audiences, etc., will benefit from this.”

Real people, real impact

United Sound’s influence reaches far beyond the students and teachers participating in its programs, White says. For example, parents and family members of New Musicians also have the chance to see what’s possible when their child with a disability is included. Members of bands and orchestras benefit by playing and performing with New Musicians in a positive and rewarding experience for all. And audiences get to experience true and authentic music inclusion, White says.

For more information about United Sound, its importance, and teacher resources, visit

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