School of Music senior Madie Willard stands in front of the Koger Center wearing a gray jacket and pink top

Student organizes event to share joy of music with Deaf community

Field day will offer an interactive, multisensory experience

Madie Willard says she’s always loved music. And she’s not kidding: “My mom tells me I was singing from birth.”

Now the senior music major is organizing an event to share that joy with students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The project grew out of a phrase she heard in class that stuck with her.

“We were talking about community music, and one of my professors said, ‘Music is the universal language,' ” Willard says. “I kind of sat there and thought, ‘Well, that’s not 100 percent true, especially when our understanding of music is often based on a hearing-centric experience.’ I began this journey of trying to figure out how music is interpreted and how it is very personalized to each person and individual.”

During her sophomore year, the vocal performance major had a conversation with her advisor, Serena Hill LaRoche, and music professor Alexandria Carrico who encouraged Willard to apply for the Creativity in Music Awards, which support students who pursue inventive projects. Willard was a finalist, but then COVID hit.

Spring forward two years, and her idea for an interactive, multisensory Music Field Day has become a reality. The event, designed to offer children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families an opportunity to experience music through the senses, will take place 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday (April 23), at the new outdoor Koger Center Plaza Stage. Headlining the event will be DEAFinitely Dope, an internationally recognized deaf hip hop (dip hop) artist based in the Atlanta area.

“Our first goal for the event is for the students who are participating to find joy in music,” Willard says. “I don't know where they'll find that joy because it's different for everyone. By seeing successful deaf musicians, I also hope they walk away believing ‘I can do that’ and knowing they have a unique opportunity to add something special to the music culture.”

Jennifer Faulkner, program coordinator for Beginnings SC, has been impressed with Willard’s passion for making music inclusive and accessible to all people. The nonprofit, which offers resources and support for families, has helped recruit participants.

“The Music Field Day is an excellent idea to give students who are deaf and hard of hearing a chance to experience music in different ways,” Faulkner says. “It may be the first time they experience music in that way or experience it at all. … For them to see a successful deaf artist like DEAFinitely Dope will be a really cool opportunity. It's important for children who are deaf or hard of hearing to see that they can do anything and their potential has no limits.”

In addition to music from DEAFinitely Dope, the field day will include four multisensory stations to experience music and will end with a group song.

“The idea is to express music however the participants feel they would like to express music, whether that is signing with the music, singing, dancing or playing an instrument they created at the arts and crafts station,” Willard says. “We're using all of the other senses to experience music.”

While designed for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, the event is open to the public.  Willard says she hopes it will create awareness and build bridges with the hearing community.

In addition to the School of Music, the event involves student and faculty volunteers recruited by Willard from across the university, including the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, the university's American Sign Language Club and the Honors College Teaching Fellows Program. She partnered with Deaf organizations such as Beginnings SC and SC Hands and Voices to recruit participants for the event. To support the project, she won a UofSC Diversity Equity and Inclusion grant, a SPARK Mini Grant and a Carolina Engage Grant and launched a crowd-funding campaign.

“This project has required extensive planning and collaboration, and Madie has spearheaded every facet. She is organized, driven and passionate,” says Carrico, who along with LaRoche, is advising Willard on organizing the event. “Her commitment to social justice through this community outreach and education project has the potential to create lasting change for the university.”

Willard’s motivation and hard work to keep the project moving despite COVID setbacks will make it a memorable experience, says Jamy Claire Archer, who has collaborated on the event as a member of the Cochlear Implant Team at the Montgomery Speech Language & Hearing Center in the Arnold School of Public Health.

“This multisensory approach to experiencing music will be a really innovative way for the children to interact with music,” Archer says. “As an inherently auditory artform, it is hard for children who are deaf or hard of hearing to fully engage in a musical experience; however, Madie has developed ways to interact with the music visually, tactilely and physically.”

The experience of organizing the Music Field Day affirmed Willard’s decision to add a concentration in entrepreneurship and further piqued her interest in the business side of the music industry. She says the skills she has gained — such as fundraising, grant writing, leadership, networking and recruiting volunteers — will be useful after graduation when she plans to pursue a position in arts administration.

“The School of Music faculty and Dean (Tayloe) Harding have been so supportive every step of the way,” she says. “If I had a roadblock, I've been able to find someone to help me through that hurdle. I could not have had the confidence to do this project without this network of support.”

As a student from Lexington, Willard says she chose her “hometown” university because undergraduates can find their own niche and create their own path. In addition to opportunities to expand her musical experiences, Willard is also in the Graduation with Leadership Distinction program where she has shared experiences with students in colleges throughout the university from business to engineering.

“There's so many amazing opportunities, and if you tried to do all of them, you'd never sleep,” she says. “But with a goal and a vision and a passion, you create your experience at the university, and it pays off in so many ways.”


If you’re going

  • Register online for the Music Field Day 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday (April 23). The event, designed to offer deaf and hard of hearing children and their families an opportunity to experience music through the senses, is open to the public. DEAFinitely Dope will perform.
  • On Friday, April 22, DEAFinitely Dope also will perform and participate in a Q&A at 1:10 p.m. in the Koger Center Large Rehearsal Room as part of the Luise E. Peake Colloquium Series. Admission is free.


About the Koger Center Plaza Stage

  • During the pandemic, the Koger Center hosted events outside as a way for local arts groups to perform in a safer way. The area in front of the Koger Center was an ideal location because the hill offers natural seating.
  • The stage has been completed. Additional plans include adding power, landscaping, lighting and a sunshade.
  • The plaza stage will offer better experiences for UofSC students, including an outdoor space with WiFi for studying and performing, and for patrons of the Koger Center to enjoy before events. The stage also may be used for pre-show concerts.
  • Audience members may bring their own blankets, chairs or cushions for seating.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about