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A teacher hoped to connect with students with disabilities. She found a way through music.

Annandale High School teacher Annie Ray works with Kevin Juramillo, on right, as Max Fay, on left, watches. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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It was the big day: the day the real instruments would arrive.

Max Fay, 22, who has Down syndrome and autism, had spent months — along with his special education classmates at Annandale High School in Fairfax County Public Schools — prepping for this moment. The students, all of whom have learning disabilities that earn them Category B or “severely disabled” status, had first learned the basics of rhythm under the tutelage of music teacher Annie Ray.

Then she taught them how to read musical symbols. And in recent weeks, she had given them faux instruments made of cardboard. They had practiced taking out the instruments at the start of each class and putting them away at the end, proving they could handle violins and cellos made of wood.

Now, Fay’s cello, donated by Jenna Day, the owner of a local violin shop who wanted to support the class, was finally here. Fay stared as it emerged from its glittering black plastic case. He slowly raised the real bow to rest across real strings. He sucked in a breath. His eyes widened.

Ray found herself holding her breath, too. The moment was the culmination of more than a year of dreaming for the 27-year-old, who teaches a class on leadership and directs the orchestra at Annandale High.

She first had the idea of an orchestra class for students with disabilities in late 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

She helped struggling students. Now they helped her buy a house.

At the time, the vast majority of Fairfax County Public Schools’ 180,000 students were learning virtually, except for a handful of Category B, or Cat-B, students for whom online education was deemed impossible. Ray was back in the building, too, because the school had asked teachers to return and teach remotely from their empty classrooms.

Ray was seven months pregnant and feeling like a human watermelon. She began taking walks during her planning period to ease the swelling and pain in her legs, which is when she stumbled across the Cat-B classes.

As she did a lap around the school, peering into the classrooms where specially trained personnel guided the Cat-B students through their daily lessons and therapy, she had a thought.

“Music is very inherently human. You don’t have to be able to speak,” she said. “What if I could make some music with them?”

It was a good idea.

The discipline of music therapy was founded in the years after World War II. Soon, educators began trying it in special education settings, “using music as a symbol of emotional and personal growth rather than a cognitive skill-set to be learned and practiced,” wrote music therapists and researchers Daphne Rickson and Katrina McFerran in a 2007 paper, “Music Therapy in Special Education,” published in Kairaranga, a peer-reviewed New Zealand journal of education practice.

The popularity of the technique expanded steadily over the ensuing decades, fueling “a great deal” of research into how musical therapy affects students with disabilities throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, according to Rickson and McFerran. Study after study showed clear benefits.

“It was shown to improve functional hand use, early written communication skills, social skills and comprehension,” Rickson and McFerran wrote, as well as “head posturing, in-seat behavior” and to “increase interactions and imitative behavior.”

Ray was unaware of the scientific research. All she knew was music.

She grew up in Texas, encircled by a “complete music family.” Her mother was a music teacher. Her aunt was an orchestra director and her uncle was a band director. All her siblings and cousins are musicians and so is her husband, whom she met when they got called as substitute performers to the same musical gig.

Ray started playing the harp at age 5, and still plays professionally today. Sometimes she performs duets with her husband, who plays the euphonium, or for the uninitiated, “a brass instrument that looks a lot like a small tuba,” Ray said.

Eventually Ray got into musical teaching like her mother. From the start of her career, she felt a calling to “expand music education beyond what it is right now,” she said. She wanted more students of all kinds to know the joy she felt plucking the harp.

In early 2021, she approached her principal at Annandale High, Shawn DeRose, to ask permission for a trial run of her vision. He was on board, and she began holding lessons during her planning period for a handful of Cat-B students.

They loved it. She loved it, too. In the fall, with DeRose’s encouragement and funding, she expanded the lessons to a full class. This academic year, she is teaching nine Cat-B students for 80 minutes every other day, helped by two school staffers trained to work with special education children.

Over the past year, through trial and error and by relying on online resources, Ray has learned a new teaching style. She starts with what she calls “music scarves,” instructing the students how to wave their scarves in a way that mimics creating a music composition.

Then she progresses to egg shakers, teaching the students to shake their eggs — then stop shaking them, which can be a difficult ask — in time to basic musical beats. Next come rhythm sticks, after them poodle noodles and finally cardboard instruments, provided at a discount by a company known as String Rise, whose mission is closing racial and socioeconomic gaps in music education.

Ray has also readjusted her expectations. For the Cat-B students, success can look different. For one student, “I work on collecting the bow, putting it down then picking it up, and that’s big for him,” Ray said. “I meet them where they are.”

Sharon Fay, the mother of Max, said that what she appreciates most about Ray is how the teacher tailors her lessons to meet each student’s needs, but without underestimating them.

“She is assuming competence, and the students are rising to expectations,” Fay said. “If they assume little, Max is going to give them little. If they assume more, he’s going to give them more.”

Max is in his last year at Annandale High, attending through a program that allows some students with disabilities to continue their education until age 22. Sharon Fay said the orchestra class is a perfect fit for Max, who has always loved music of every kind.

With his father, Max has attended music concerts throughout the D.C. area. The Flaming Lips at the Anthem. Monophonics at Black Cat. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at the Anthem again. Every night, Max and his father hold a private dance party to clubby tunes before bed. Even though Max is mostly nonverbal in everyday life, he can recite the full sets of lyrics to favorite songs, his mother said.

But Sharon Fay had never thought of teaching Max how to play an instrument. She wouldn’t have known where to look for a teacher willing to do it.

“I’m so grateful to Miss Ray for this opportunity,” Fay said. “She was able to see that he was capable of more than was immediately obvious.”

The only thing missing, Ray decided, was real instruments.

At a recent conference of the Virginia Music Educators Association, she stopped by the table of Day, the owner of Day Violins, to outline her dilemma. The two knew each other through the shop owner’s work providing instruments to Virginia educators.

Ray wanted to give instruments to her Cat-B students, she said, but there was a real possibility the students would damage or even smash the instruments, which made finding a willing donor difficult and paying for expensive instruments impractical.

Day had a solution. In her spare time, Day helps run a charity program called Instruments in the Attic, through which people donate well-used stringed instruments and Day and her husband repair them either at-cost or for free. But sometimes people donate instruments that are so cheap or so damaged they are not worth repairing, and those, Day proposed, could have second lives in Ray’s classroom.

Ray, thrilled, agreed immediately. And on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the two women hauled seven violins and two cellos into Ray’s classroom.

Then they knelt before Max, watching his every movement.

He slid the bow ever so gently across the strings. A deep, sonorous note thrummed through the classroom. It hung for a moment.

After waiting a respectful few seconds, the women asked how he was feeling. Fay raised his hand to his iPad and pressed a button.

A mechanized voice spoke for him, although not as well as the cello had just done. “Happy,” it said, and Fay drew the bow back across the strings.