The Music, Unity & Social Expansion (MUSE) Foundation is bringing music weekly to the Brookline Teen Center, pounding away on drums and rehearsing with two bands for their upcoming Winter Muse-Fest on December 18. The mission of MUSE, a Boston-based non-profit, is to foster social connections among young adults of all abilities through performing music.

In pursuing this mission, MUSE holds practices every week at the center – a weekly drum circle on Tuesday evenings and two band rehearsals on Thursday evenings. The drum circle serves as a precursor for students who would like to move onto performing in one of MUSE’s bands, “The Brookline Buds” and “The Next Big Thing.” The musical groups are currently rehearsing for their holiday concert. The MUSE community customizes their practices to accommodate students with disabilities although interested young musicians of all abilities are welcome to join.

MUSE is the brainchild of special education teacher Elaine Shields whose experience as a violin instructor to special needs students inspired her to create a wider opportunity for students of all abilities to practice and perform many varieties of music. The first performance took place in a living room, and Shields recalls thinking to herself, “This was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Shields and MUSE’s head administrator C. Miyabe realized that they should expand what they witnessed into something more students can access. Along with Shields and Miyabe, MUSE also includes Brett Lukaszek, the nonprofit’s director of public relations and community outreach, and Max Glick, a special education paraprofessional for Brookline public schools who serves as the director of events and stage technology manager.

All MUSE members possess not only a passion for music but also believe in connecting people of all levels and abilities together. During practice, students work with one-on-one support, facilitated communication, and an opportunity to engage socially with the greater community. The age demographics for the drum circle and bands are between 16 to 32 years old. Many community programs for people with disabilities are no longer available for those after they graduate high school, leaving these individuals without any social and cultural activities to enrich themselves and their lives. MUSE provides a valuable opportunity for those who want to continue the social and community engagement into early adulthood all while enhancing their discipline, communication abilities, collaborative skills, and, of course, musical abilities.

The MUSE staff feels strongly that people with disabilities possess potential that only the right approach and environment can bring out.

“Many individuals with disabilities possess an untapped artistic talent that is not fostered because they require a different approach,” Shields said. “They require an individualized approach, not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The staff members work hard to cater to the needs of all their students and spend hours individualizing music to suit specific needs. The most rewarding aspect for the MUSE staff is witnessing the participants evolve in ways they did not anticipate. Shields fondly explains that some of the young women from their group have gone on to form another band. One participant, the lead singer of this new band, started off shy and unsure of herself, and then grew into not only a confident performer but as a cheerleader for her peers as well.

“Playing music in a band requires trust, flexibility, cooperation, and teamwork,” Shields explained.

The natural social interaction that they can experience in MUSE rehearsals, including extracurricular activities the leadership organizes, and the creative and technical skills that performers develop can cultivate a newfound level of confidence in MUSE participants.

MUSE has become a rapidly growing organization and face challenges that come with any organization with such growth. They would like to expand in resources and accommodations so they can take in even more participants. Their upcoming concert schedule is a busy one as they are aiming to perform at least one mini-concert a month and a big one at the end of the 2017 season. Their next performance, Winter Muse-Fest, will be held in Cambridge on December 18. Shields views MUSE’s mission as more than just an opportunity for its performers, but also an opportunity for their audience. Many people still hold preconceived notions regarding people with disabilities, and the staff believes that MUSE performances can challenge these stereotypes and force people to think twice about individuals with disabilities and their capabilities.

“Students of all abilities are capable of being included in everyday activities and social events,” Shields said. “They may just need a facilitator to access their potential. The more events we hold, the more awareness there will be that all people are capable and musical.”

For those interested in becoming a MUSE participant, registration information can found here.

By Alicia Landsberg