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Blind Kids Can't March!
Or Can They?

by Debby Brackett

From the Editor: Uncounted numbers of blind children and teens have participated in school marching bands. Nevertheless, questions arise time and again about whether or how blind students can take part in this activity. In this article Debby Brackett, an active member of the Florida Parents of Blind Children, relates the experiences of her daughter, Winona, when she played the trumpet in her high school marching band.

Winona stands on the football field with her guide, Tim.Can a blind student take part in marching band? From basic parades in middle school to full-fledged half-time shows and competitions, it can be done, and it can be fun, too! Like any meaningful activity, marching band requires a lot of determination and dedication. In addition, some extra ingenuity must be called upon in order for a blind marcher to learn and execute complex, coordinated routines. Seizing every opportunity, my daughter, Winona, learned and performed all of the necessary maneuvers to participate in her high school marching band. She says that marching band was a major highlight of her high school experience.

Winona joined the school band when she was in third grade. Because she didn't yet know Braille music, she learned her music by ear with the encouragement of her musically gifted brother, her peers, and the school band directors. An elementary school band director, Mr. Cancilla, helped her select the trumpet as her preferred instrument. In middle school another band teacher, Mr. Gilbert, willingly gave of his time during lunch break and after school to help Winona learn her music. Frequently he recorded the parts she needed to learn so she could practice at home. A guide was enlisted to direct her during parades.

In high school Winona finally won the fight with the school district to obtain Braille music instruction. Braille music allowed her musical independence to soar! Her high school music teachers, Mr. Marcucci and Mr. Himelberger, came up with imaginative ways to help her. They listened when Winona suggested ways to make her participation in band not only possible, but seamless.

Every spring Winona found a fellow student to guide her in band the following fall. Her guide had to be deeply committed to working with her. He or she had to learn the formations and attend all of the practices, including a two-week band camp during the summer. The guide also had to go to every football game and competition in the fall. With her first guide, Winona found it worked best for the guide to stand directly behind her, with hands on her shoulders to steer her in the direction she needed to go. The two of them had to be in perfect step, moving as one, and of course they had to be in step with the rest of the band.

Fulfilling Winona's need became a blessing to those students who guided her. Often the student was someone who longed to participate in some meaningful activity, but for a variety of reasons had been unable to do so. Student guides became an integral part of the band's group dynamic.

Winona marches with a guide.Each of Winona's guides was wonderful in a unique way, but our favorite was a boy named Tim. Tim was a great kid from a pretty rough background. As a guide he was dedicated, enthusiastic, and eager to ensure that Winona could focus on the music without worrying about where she had to be. Tim was a junior when he was recruited to guide Winona during her freshman year. He really wanted to play football, but the coach didn't think he was dedicated enough to be on the team.

Tim lived thirty minutes from the school and had no transportation. We agreed to drive him to and from practices and events if he would make the commitment to attend them all. He did an excellent job of learning the routines and making sure Winona got to wherever she needed to be on the field. He truly became a part of the band, though he had no musical ability.

That spring Tim was recruited for the football team. Beyond a doubt he had proved his dedication and commitment. Naturally he leaped at the chance to play football, but his decision to leave the band was a difficult one. Tim came to every band event he could squeeze into his busy schedule. One day when Winona's new guide was unavailable, he didn't hesitate to give up his half-time break. He came off the bench and marched onto the field to guide her once more.

Each week our local TV station runs a feature called "Student Spotlight." During Winona's junior year, reporters came to record Winona and her guide in action. They followed Winona around all day at school, including band practice and the Friday night football game. When asked about her role in the band, Winona's guide replied, "I play the Winona." The reporter did an excellent job of promoting the whole band, avoiding the "poor blind kid" mentality. As a result of the story, the band received donations that helped purchase new uniforms and instruments.

Our high school marching band won many awards, including several Superior ratings and a Best Music Performance prize. These awards demonstrate that the presence of a blind student had no negative effects, and perhaps had a positive one, on the performance of the marching band. More students who are blind or have other disabilities should be encouraged to participate in activities such as marching band. Does it require hours of time and dedication? Yes! Building any talent does. Is it worth the time and effort? Yes, indeed!

Today Winona is attending Stetson University School of Music, where she is studying music performance. Her expenses are paid in full by scholarships based upon her musical talents. The university currently has no marching band, but Winona and others are hoping to change that.

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