Our TIMES

A Different Tune:
Teacher from Santa Monica helps students with disabilities make theirown brand of music.

Nedre Lindsey
Our TIMES


Widney High School students Cain Fonseca, left, and Shantel Brown belt out a song during their class with teacher Michael Monagan, with guitar,and other disabled students in their group. The Kids of Widney High have released two CDs, and have performed in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Sitting in a music class amidst computer monitors, tape deck, synthesizer and a mix board, teacher Michael Monagan, electric guitar in hand gets down to business. With two compact discs in the can and future performances on the horizon, he implored his group to belt out a song.

Without a hint of the embarrassment or nervousness that even the most seasoned performers get when asked to sing an impromptu verse in front of a stranger, his group readily belted out a twist on a familiar, tune.

Their version went like this: “What you want, baby, I got it. What you need, you know I got it. I’m not that different, and that’s no lie. Don’t ignore me if you walk by. Please don’t tease me You don’t know how much It hurts. You stop and stare, and that’s not cool I have feelings, just like you. All we’re asking for is a little respect.”

Simple message, indeed. And it’s one that the students at Widney High School in the Adams district have been able to spread, thanks to their teacher. For 13 years, the Santa Monica resident has taught music and special education classes at Widney High School, One of the Los Angeles Unified School Districts schools for kids with moderate to severe physical and developmental disabilities

Monagan’s students range from 13 to 19 years old. They use wheelchairs,are blind or autistic, have cerebral palsy or can communicate only with the help of an electronic devise that reads their movements. Nonetheless,everyone in this music class performs.

“A lot of kids don’t want you to treat them differently,” he said. “I treat them like any child at another school. They ‘don’t have to be herein this class if they don’t want to be.”

But there are distinctions, and Monagan knows this. His approach to teaching these teens calls for a little innovation and patience.

“It’s slow and everything takes longer,” he said of how they learn to sing and write songs. “Learning to perform takes longer. The kids are cognitively not at a place where they can retain complex things.”

They have to go over a song several times before learning it, for instance.And at a time when funding for music in schools is on the decline, Monagan’s classes at Widney are stocked with sound equipment, drums, tambourines and computer music programs.

Much of the class funding comes from grants Monagan has secured. Just a week ago, a phone call in the middle of class notified him of a $5,000grant the music program received from radio station Power 106,105.9-FM.

The students perform throughout the Los Angeles area. They’ve sung at the Viper Room, Palace, and House of Blues. And their lat-est CD “Let’sGet Busy,” recorded under the name The Kids of Widney High, came out in time for Christmas.

With the performances and CDs, it might be easy to think of the students as a freak show, being exploited.

“There’s no reason to think that,” Monagan said. “It’s really fun and not pathetic at all. Sometimes people say, “Oh, that’s nice.” But once they listen and watch the kids, even the tragically hip audiences havefun.

“Their music is honest and real. I know they break down barriers. No apologies are necessary with this.”

The students agree.

“I don’t care what people say,” said Matilde Carvajal, 19. “Some people,especially the girls, think we’re idiots. If they don’t like it, that’s fine. Anyone that wants to bother me, I just block out.”

But it’s the honesty of the more, mundane things – that wins over reticent audiences. That personal touch is shown in this class-written tune:

Please don’t hurt me Doctor, Doctor Shots, needles, drawing out my blood X-rays. My doctor is a dud I get scared and I get dizzy When the doctors hands get busy

Whatever people say about the kids and the performances, at the end of the day, it’s all about how they perceive themselves.

“When I sing, I feel like a star,” said Shantel Brown, 19.

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