Music bounces off the gym walls for the monthly Mobile Arc concerts at the Fred Delchamps Center. Dancers crowd crowd the wood with their arms in the air, holding hands and swaying together side to side, or giving high-fives to the band and each other.
Mobile Arc is an advocacy and training program that provides services for adults with developmental disabilities. Particpants in Mobile Arc programs live at home or in a residential program with few opportunities to hear live music so local musicians volunteer to bring music to them.
“The purpose of these concerts is to give people an experience they wouldn’t get otherwise,” says Julie Pittman, a program manager at Mobile Arc. “One concert was really loud and I asked my boss if we should turn it down. She said ‘No, you go to a concert and expect to have your eardrums blown out. If it is too loud, go to the back of the room.’ Her point was this is real. We are giving people a real concert experience. Our concerts also give social interaction between people of different programs. It is a chance for them to talk and dance with someone they have never seen before or sit still and listen.”
Mobile Arc has presented almost 30 concerts in three years with musicians such as Ryan Balthrop, Mithril, Kyle & Karl, Big John and the Fender Benders, Perry Wall, Bruce Jones, and the Bay City Brass Band. “Music is naturally inside of all of us,” says Brian Fulmer, music therapist at Mobile Arc. “It can make us sad, happy, or relaxed. It can change our moods and activate changes in the brain. There is a physical side of music, and people who are deaf feel the vibrations and our concerts are loud enough for them to feel it. All music is vibration, we just hear it differently.”
Anthony Crawford of Sugarcane Jane
For the musicians, playing at Mobile Arc is unlike any other gig. “There is absolutely nothing between this crowd and their response and enjoyment of the music,” says singer Lisa Mills. “Communication is one of the reasons musicians play music and that communication is incomplete unless you have someone to give it back. The audience at Mobile Arc gives back all of it. They throw the ball back and they encourage you. It is a rich experience where everything is stripped away. That is when you realize the true joy of what you do and how important it is. “
The concert series was started in 2010, by photographer Keith Necaise. He discovered Mobile Arc when he heard there was a man in the program with his last name. “I never met that person, but I learned more about people with Down Syndrome and their love of music,” says Necaise. “I shoot concert and band photography, so these concerts were a natural connection. The first concerts were Jon Miller, Hank Becker, Lisa Mills, and Eric Erdman. I still constantly think about the concerts and who we can get to play. Some of the people at Mobile Arc have captured my heart, like the man who always brings his harmonica and gets on stage to play with the bands.”
“The concerts are unpredictable,” says Savana Crawford of Sugarcane Jane. “There is so much life in that room and they feel the music more than the average person. That is what music is about, allowing people to feel. There are no rules, and it is just about having fun. It transforms you back to when you were a child and just the enjoying the moment and dancing like no one is watching.”
Dewey O’Neal is an 87-year old deaf man, but his eyes shine as he signs about the concerts and musicians. He describes the music as bum, bum, bum. Bum, bum, bum. He can’t hear the notes, but his heart feels the beat and he sees the rhythm of the crowd.
“All people have a need for music whether they can hear or not,” says Julane Greenlee, Dewey’s niece. “Dewey loves music and the drums. He doesn’t think this is not for him because he can’t hear. Music is one reason that Mobile Arc makes everyone here so happy. Before Dewey came to Mobile Arc in 1977, he was sad with no high point and no joy. People pushed him to the side and didn’t include him. He felt like he was of no value. He was very frustrated and angry inside. He had no outlet. Mobile Arc has allowed him to develop. It lets him experience music and life to the fullest.”
Interpreter Lori Pituk volunteers at the concerts to sign the message of the songs. She has different positions, for rock, classical, and country, and the tempo of the songs shows in her face. “I interpret the message and meaning of the song, instead of just the meaning of the words,” says Pituk. “The challenge is to make it conceptually accurate and get the concepts right and the correct meaning. We want them to have the same experience as anyone else would have and seeing people understand the music makes it worthwhile. In a song about twisting and shoutin, Dewey started twisting in his wheelchair. Just to see his joy is more than I could ever ask for. There is an overflow of love and thanks. They are so appreciative you are there.”
Giving back to the community and the appreciation keeps volunteers and musicians coming back. “All musicians say this is a wonderful experience and they can’t wait to do it again,” says Pittman. “This is how most of them make a living but they are so generous and they donate their time to be here in the middle of the day, which is not the time they normally play. They drag all of their equipment over here and do a free concert for us. When they come off the stage, everyone wants to hug them, shake their hand, or get an autograph.”
Necaise and Pittman are planning to raise money to purchase sound equipment for the center so that everything will be ready to go for each show and musicians will not have to bring their own gear.
“Julie and her staff are grounded and warm and they make musicians feel welcome,” says Mills. “Working with them is easy and it reassures me that people like this are providing a program of refuge and good in the world.”
Approximately 300 people attend each concert, including staff members and participants in other centers (Moorer Learning Center, Mobile Arc Enterprises Central and Southern Divisions) and people who are music fans. “We all feed our soul with music,” says Amy Odom, Public Relations and Development Director for Mobile Arc. “Music releases tension and anxiety. It invigorates the spirit and makes us feel that all is right with the world.”
Julie Pittman (Keith Necaise photo)
We were all hooting and hollering together. It is a different setting that gets you back to the basics of music. All musicians should play these concerts.
There is something visceral about Celtic music that mesmerizes any audience. It feels good to have that connection. Shows like this hit home when you realize that music can be a powerful thing.
Tom Morley of Mithril
Photos by Keith Necaise