Dawson Schon has never played an instrument before.
Recently, the Horizon Middle School sixth-grader learned how to play the violin with the help of a new after-school program that pairs student mentors with students with disabilities to help them learn to play an instrument.
"When Dawson gets something, you can just see a huge smile come across his face," said Kristen Schwengler, a freshman at Century High School. Schwengler is a member of her school's orchestra, and she has been helping Dawson learn to play the violin since October.
Jeremy Overbeck, the orchestra director at Century High School and Horizon Middle School, said a colleague learned about the program United Sound at a national music conference and brought the idea back to Overbeck.
"After a couple years of thinking and planning, we decided to start it this year and it fit in really well (and) kids responded really well," Overbeck said.
Currently, the United Sound group has about 18 student mentors from the schools where Overbeck teaches and six student mentees, who are mostly sixth- and seventh- grade students at Horizon. The program is typically student-led; however, Overbeck will help with lesson planning.
Bismarck Public Schools offers other programs that allow for additional interaction between students with disabilities and general education students, such as Inclusive Sports and the peer-to-peer mentorship programs at the secondary schools. However, Overbeck said he hopes the United Sound program will serve as a bridge for students to join the regular orchestra class during the day.
"Music is such a universal language, and no matter the ability level, it can be understood and everybody's doing the same thing," said Overbeck, whose daughter, Emma, who suffered from a traumatic brain injury, is also in the group.
Overbeck wrote a grant this school year to help supply instruments for the students. Students play either the violin, viola or cello.
The group meets every Tuesday after school for 45 minutes. Last week, the students met with Overbeck and their practice was filled with high-fives and words of encouragement.
"I really like to see when (my mentee) gets something ... she just looks so happy and just watching her grow and seeing their personalities come through the music," said Rhenna Martin, an eighth-grade student at Horizon and mentor in United Sound.
Overbeck said the biggest change he's noticed among his students is the leadership skills the mentors gain through building relationships with their mentees and helping them learn the basics of playing the instruments.
"I think it brings them back to when they started (learning) and realize it is hard work and playing an instrument can be very difficult; yet, it is rewarding," he said.
Overbeck said they will continue the United Sound program as long as there is interest, and next school year the group will have a new orchestra room as part of the Horizon Middle School expansion.
United Sound musicians will be performing at Horizon's Spring Orchestra Concert on May 15. The concert starts at 7:30 and is free and open to the public.