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Originally published Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 8:04 PM

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In Arlington, people with disabilities take the stage and 'the joy just comes out'

Some may not be actually playing their musical instruments, just strumming them. But in the world created by the Voices of the Village band of Arlington, the members, some with severe disabilities, take the stage for the first time in their lives.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ARLINGTON, Snohomish County — He has the moves of his hero, Johnny Cash. The sweeping turn with his right arm. A little smile as he points at the audience.

Some who've watched Corey Anderson, 26, could easily believe he is playing that guitar.

He isn't.

As Anderson strums, the actual music comes from Jon Dalgarn, a professional musician who has his gear — electric guitar, drum machine, a small P.A. system — set up in the back of the Arlington United Church social hall.

Every Friday afternoon here, some two dozen men and women, each with a disability, some using wheelchairs, some in their 40s with the intellectual functioning of a small child, gather for a session of Voices of the Village.

The music takes over, and they're performing it, even if many are not actually playing it.

"The joy just comes out," said Dalgarn, explaining that people such as Anderson get used to being relegated to the sidelines. But here, "They're actually part of the bus, instead of just watching it go by. Their self-esteem just skyrockets."

The use of music as therapy is well documented. Just type in "Power of Music" on the search engine Google Scholar, and 1.85 million results pop up with titles such as, "The Mozart effect: Tapping the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind, and unlock the creative spirit."

While Anderson, who has autism, does his Johnny Cash moves, nearby another man pounds drumsticks on a make-believe drum. Some bang on conga drums or shake cymbals. Some take turns singing, even if it's not the most tuneful rendition.

The group, which has gotten a bit of a local following from performances at fairs and community events, evolved from impromptu music sessions that Dalgarn started a decade ago, when he was managing a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities. They'd do contract work, such as stuffing envelopes.

Dalgarn began bringing his guitar and holding jam sessions two or three times a week. That was OK, he said, but when he brought along a microphone "the energy level went up."

All these people with disabilities, Dalgarn said, "in their own mind, who were considered nonverbal, had this power and could express themselves. Everybody has music inside of them. It was a fantasy come true for them, doing moves and stuff."

The group then played some gigs, such as at a local bookstore, and, slowly, caught on.

"At first people were a little tentative, having to deal with a lot of people in wheelchairs," said Dalgarn. "Then people got used to seeing people with disabilities, and you realize you don't have anything to be freaked out about. The bridge was the music. You hear 'Brown Eyed Girl' or some song you know, and you let these people in."

Marilyn Baker, of nearby Marysville, brings her daughter to the practices.

Ginger Baker, 36, has dyskinetic cerebral palsy, which means she has trouble controlling the movements of her hands, arms, feet and legs. She lives with her parents and volunteers at an after-school program, helping to pass out snacks and toys.

"When she was 6 or 7 months old, we noticed she wasn't hitting all the milestones," her mother said. "Her fine-motor skills were lagging, and her vision was really bad. You'd try handing her a toy and she'd miss it. She began walking late, at age 2."

In the band, Baker plays tambourine and sometimes sings. Marilyn Baker has noticed a change in her daughter. "Oh, goodness, it's given her so much more self-confidence. It just increases her social awareness."

That confidence shows up in Ginger's enthusiasm in talking about the band.

She says, "Performing is fun."

She says, "Everybody in the group is your friend."

She says, "I like music. Rock 'n' roll."

One example of that social awareness is how the band members have no problem in telling somebody who's acting up — as people with these types of disabilities sometimes do — to "stop it!"

It is the parents who six years ago pushed hard for the program, which costs all of $26,000 a year, mostly to pay for Dalgarn's time and renting the church hall. The money comes from grants and fundraisers, and each participant also pays $40 a month.

The parents see the effects firsthand.

"We don't find a lot of great things for our handicapped kids to do," said Vicki Adams, one of the moms who keeps the band running.

She and her husband, Tim Adams, live in nearby Bryant with two of their sons. Jimmy, 47, has Down syndrome; and Sean, 44, has cerebral palsy. The couple adopted them when they were children.

"Jimmy is mentally at around 2 ½ and has no speech. Sean is mentally at around 3 ½," Vicki Adams said. "They have made us better people. They bring unconditional love to us."

With the group, Sean hits the tambourine. Jimmy bangs on a keyboard and moves chairs around.

Adams said her biological children, a nurse and a deputy sheriff, have promised to make sure their brothers are taken care of when their parents can't.

One of the band members here who really does play an instrument is Brandon King, 31, diagnosed with Williams syndrome. It is a genetic disorder that results in a number of developmental delays. But it also manifests itself with a strong interest in music and the ability to learn by hearing.

King plays keyboard, and Dalgarn tells how King can listen just one time to a melody, and immediately pick it up.

One time, said Dalgarn, the group was playing at a bookstore, and King was "playing a really great solo," all the time while perusing a book he had picked up from a shelf.

Besides the Arlington music program, Dalgarn holds similar ones in Bellingham and Burlington under the name OutOfTheAshes.us, and has made a modest business out of it.

Inevitably, said Dalgarn, he'll get this reaction from people hearing the band for the first time, and seeing the unmasked joy of the performers.

He said, "I don't know how many people told me, 'I was having a crappy day and then I watched these guys and my whole day has been completely turned around.' "

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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