School of rock

Joy Stern

Photo By Larry Dalton

Joy Stern, a local musician who plays guitar in a band called Freeport, gets to play music every day. Even better, she gets paid to do it. As a music instructor at the Southside Art Center, Stern teaches and mentors musicians with disabilities, overseeing the center’s resident band, the Southside Music Ensemble. The group—which consists of Jemel Williams, Deanna Johnson, Paul Swinton III, Michael LoBuglio, Tige Muro, Marilyn Warmsley and Patricia Cobb—blends “marching-band-style percussion, electro-ambient grooves and edgy hip-hop flavor.” Stern isn’t a member of the group; she merely acts as an adviser, answering questions, providing chords and making sure their voices (and their music) are heard. Log onto the group’s MySpace page, at, and be prepared to be blown away.

What do you do at Southside Art Center?

Southside has an art program that offers classes like ceramics, painting, production art, life-skills development and music. As the music instructor, I teach an applied music-skills class for anyone with an interest in music. If they want to learn to play the piano or guitar or whatever, I’ll work with them and do my best to teach them those things—all different levels are in that class. I also oversee the Southside Music Ensemble, which is for people who already have a handle on their instrument and have the desire to perform. The band’s goal is to play out in the community, and not just at events that are for people with disabilities, but just out in the community. I really want to take the outsider out of outsider music because I think it’s a very real genre, and I want respect for these guys.

What kind of developmental disabilities do the musicians have?

The great thing about Southside is that we don’t talk about their disabilities very much. They’re people first and disabilities second. We look at what their abilities are, not what their limitations are. I don’t look at the people I work with as disabled. They’re very able people. It doesn’t even register.

Describe the band’s musical style.

We’ve got marching-band-style percussion and R&B, hip-hop and rock flavor in the mix, too. We’ve got a guy who’s really into rock, and there’s another guy who really likes E-40. They bring their flavor to whatever they’re doing, and I encourage that. We do a lot of cover songs—we cover everything, including Gwen Stefani, Michael Jackson, Rick James, Bruce Springsteen, Daft Punk—you name it, we play it. We also do originals.

With such a diverse group of musical influences, is it difficult to agree on a musical direction?

The cool thing about this project is that it’s not a dictatorship. It’s completely democratic—majority rules. At the same time, I may suggest a compromise down the road. When you’re in a band this large, people have to learn to let stuff go. The main thing is that it’s about the song. It’s about sounding as good as they can. If there is a disagreement about something, they’ll play it a couple of different ways while I tape them. We’ll talk about what is working.

What’s the music-making process like?

We think of different concepts of what type of song we want to make. It’s a completely democratic system—I act more as a coordinator. We sit together and brainstorm. I’ll write up on the white board, and we’ll figure it out, but it’s a democratic society; they vote, and they decide. I’m just there to help them with any instrumentation needs. I don’t perform with them. It’s very important to me that it’s their band. They don’t need a staff person in there. I really want it to be their band, and they’re more than capable. I mean, some of those guys are better than musicians that I’ve played with. They just need to be given the opportunity to shine.

Has the band performed for an audience?

Yeah, we just played at the People First Conference, a statewide conference for people who have disabilities, led by people who have disabilities. It’s very much about self-advocacy. There are classes during the day, and at night it’s a big party. We got to play in front of more than 1,000 people, and the ensemble brought the rock!

Does the group have any upcoming shows?

They’ll be performing at Fairytale Town for the Very Special Arts festival on July 15.

What do you get out of leading these students?

I think that the biggest reward for me has been being able to watch them onstage owning it. Watching them promote their own band. Watching them tell me how they want their MySpace page to look. Watching how serious they have become about their music, their sound and what they want to do.