From a quiet, shy boy listening to boy bands like One Direction and Big Time Rush to a social, interactive adult appreciating concert music and recitals, Michael Bowne has learned new musical and social skills through Ball State’s chapter of United Sound. 

“We see a much more engaged Michael,” said Andy Bowne, Michael’s father. “He engages with the activities and ice-breakers every week, and he has gained a bunch of new friends. It is hard because in the world of adults with developmental disabilities, their friends are usually staff members who are ‘paid’ to be their friends. This group is the closest friends he’s had.”

Michael joined United Sound after his music therapist from Hillcroft Services, Anna Wamhoff, suggested it would be a beneficial opportunity. 

The Ball State chapter began in 2016 when Caroline Hand, assistant professor of music performance, reached out to Hillcroft wanting to form a partnership that would help make music accessible and accommodating to a larger group of people.  

Joining United Sound meant Michael would be paired with peers close to his age and have the opportunity to choose his own instrument, like beginning band students do in middle school. 

“This program is great because it gives those with disabilities the chance to follow their dreams,” said LeAnne Cole, vice president of therapy services for Hillcroft. “Most aren’t ready to tackle an instrument in middle school like their fellow peers, but in adulthood, they have the skills that are needed to understand and explore this new world. It really helps them build their own self-esteem.”

At the first meeting, Michael was shy and reserved, but as he grew comfortable with his three Ball State tutors and his instrument, the euphonium, Bowne opened up and was able to form relationships. 

“Michael saw one of the members in the Indy mall a few weeks ago, and he called Michael out by name,” said Andy. “Just Michael’s reaction was priceless as he lit up by the realization that someone remembered him.”

Today, Michael said he gets excited to go to rehearsals, and his father added that his musical horizons have expanded farther than they ever would have been had he not gotten involved with the program. 

“Michael has been really exciting to watch because his personality has grown through music,” said Maggie Haley, president of Ball State’s United Sound chapter. “He was so shy, and he didn’t want to be in a crowd, but now he goes to Hillcroft and talks to staff that he has never seen before.”

Michael is just one example of the impact the organization has had. On a national level, there are nine middle school chapters, 37 high school chapters and five university chapters in United Sound

“This group shows that everyone has the potential to do anything no matter what,” Hand said. “I think for some of the tutors it has been eye opening to see how talented the new musicians are after they first pick up an instrument. I think music is instilled in everyone no matter what their personal situation or skill level.”

For John Baierwalter, music has always been present in his life, but his tutors have helped him explore his skill level.

From banging on his piano, plucking his guitar strings and shaking his cow bell to learning four successful notes on the trombone, Baierwalter has gotten to further explore his love for music and show his talent to the community. 

“One of the best things to watch as a parent is the way that John interacts with his tutors,” said Lenny Baierwalter, John’s father. “When they give him a suggestion or a correction, you can see his concentration on his face.”

Lenny said being part of this group has added new levels of understanding to John’s musical knowledge. Within the last two years, he has gotten to understand the workings behind the pep band and the marching band and interact with their members. 

John has successfully learned to play a B, D, A, and B-flat, and next semester he will continue working on the next few notes from the adapted book created by Julie Duty, the original founder of United Sound. 

“Sometimes, John wishes that there were more rehearsals during the week because he enjoys it so much. He will definitely be returning next year because he would be so disappointed if we didn’t enroll him again,” Lenny said. 

During this semester, both John and Michael participated in the marching band’s performance during halftime of a Ball State football game Nov. 22.  

“Michael is really into sports, and he has friends on the football team that he was really excited to play for,” said Haley. “We’ve been working really hard on not playing during the rests, and the whole time he concentrated on not playing during the rests. He did great playing in front of the whole football stadium. He has come such a long way.”

John also enjoyed the game and was included in the trombone section in the stands before halftime.  

“I think the most valuable pieces our individuals take away from participating is being treated like adults and having the opportunity to be on campus with peers their own age and participate in a ‘typical’ experience in a ‘typical’ setting,” Wamhoff said. “The ultimate goal of the United Sound program as a whole is to foster lasting friendships and engage in performance opportunities. 

“Since participating in the program, individuals have shown personal growth in socials skills and it allows them to continue in an educational program after graduating high school.”

The group had their final rehearsal for the fall semester Tuesday evening, but will return to rehearsals after break on Jan. 16. 

“I think because of the way that those with disabilities are segregated in our society, this program is very rewarding for Ball State students on a personal level because they feel helpful,” Hand said. “My hope is that this becomes such a normal thing that there is no longer that ‘do-gooder’ feeling attached to it. It is just something that everyone does. They include each other in everything.”

Contact Tier Morrow with comments at