Reflection: What its like to march in a band while blind.

Beginning thoughts

I have been reflecting on the last decade and a half of my life over the past couple of months, in an attempt to better understand why I have made key decisions, and how those decisions were pivotal in shaping me. This is partially part of my goal setting exercise, where I plan to have at least 5 long term goals set out for myself by the end of 2021 since clear goals are very crucial for guiding ones life. As part of this reflection, it occurred to me that I never formally documented the truly amazing experience I had marching in the band as a blind high schooler. I realize it's been nearly a decade since I last stepped foot on a field, and my knowledge may be a little rusty, but I want to make sure information is available for blind children who are questioning if they can march in the band. I've talked to people who were required to stand on the edge of the field while the rest of the band marched, and I simply want other blind people to have a resource to use, and a resource to point future teachers, section leaders, and drum majors to for reference purposes so that blind people can actually be successful marching. There was one instance in band, where due to some odd conditions with the field, I didn't march during a 2 hour window, and as a result it made me realize I need to tell my experience the way it was, with no fluff, to encourage other blind teenagers to go out, march instead of stand on the sidelines, and have the time of their life. The friendships I made in band changed me and my friends for life, and I truly got to be a member of the band, my section, and the school in a special way that other blind people often don't get.

My drawn out story

In the beginning, there was hope, sweat, and finally success

As a young child, I was walking with a teacher and heard the elementary school band start practicing. I still remember clearly what happened next. I stopped walking on the spot and demanded to know who was playing music. After learning about the school band for older kids, I set a goal right there that I would join the band as soon as I was old enough to, and I did, choosing french horn as my instrument. After I proceeded to stick with band through middle school, my next challenge was getting myself into a high school band, but high school bands march in the fall. I have always liked a good challenge, and several schools in the area didn't think I could march, but were willing to let me play in the pit, which is where instruments that are stationary, like marimbas, timpani, gongs, etc are played. I wanted to march, and was not going to have it literally any other way. No was simply not an answer for me, I was marching in the band, because everyone else does, and because my parents instilled in me the value of not giving up on my dreams with an I'm blind excuse. Fortunately, Ken Sawyer, the band director at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada Co. was very much in support of this. After talking to him and my future section leader and drum major, I decided I would go to Ralston Valley for the band, but also because it was a highly rated public school with the academic rigger I desired, and was willing to accommodate my needs better than the competition. As I arrived at my first marching band practice in the summer of 2009, I picked up a mellophone (the marching version of the french horn) for the first time. French horn is often not used for marching because the sound is directed behind the player during a symphonic performance, and reflected off of other objects to create the horns distinctive sound. My first several weeks of practice were more 1-on-1 than other students, but honestly not that different. Besides some direct coaching from my section leader on how to march, I followed along with the rest of the band like everyone else. My section leader showed me what the parade rest, attention, horns up, etc positions looked like by letting me feel her horn, and by giving verbal directions, as well as sometimes, with concent, touching or moving my foot to a given position so I could get used to it. After several weeks of practices, I was just like anyone else in the band, and since everyone in marching band memorizes their music, it was actually a great equalizer. For the first time in my life, I had the same music as everyone else, no music. Having no idea braille music was a thing, I had to learn my music from recordings and other students, and I have never been good at playing by ear. I can do it, but its always been super hard for me to do. However, since everybody had to learn their music, I got to practice this with everyone, and it was super awesome to just work with the other students at learning our music. Learning to march, in formation, however was far from simple. I was constantly veering off course, taking too large or small of steps, etc. One day, I even veered 10 feet off the field, and smacked my leg on a large piece of metal from an instrument so hard there was a quite large Bruise, and was more frustrated than I've ever been before. That tested and trained my patience in ways that have made me a much stronger person today, and I have my parents, as well as other amazing students to thank for encouraging me, to stick with it. As I continued to learn the step sizes to meet 8/5 and 16/5 etc, as well as getting a better feel for what the sounds do on a football field, I learned how to stay with the rest of the band, and corrections started to get much smaller. I still occasionally had to have a band member tap me on the shoulder or similar, but the days of simply going the wrong direction started becoming less common. As competitions drew closer, I only had to have someone guide me for a handful of sets, and those cases were typically needed because there were clear and present dangers to me or others from the battery or large instruments like sousaphone as I was moving forward as people with large base drum's were moving in a way that made me invisible to them. Anyway, this section is getting long. I was marching, like everyone else, with surprisingly little guidance besides small corrections.

The first major success

The bands show my freshman year was based on the Divine Comedy, and consisted of us wearing hooded cloaks over our uniform for the majority of the show. At the final movement, we all removed the cloaks to unveil heaven which was the bands new uniforms. One particularly interesting day, my hood fell down over my eyes. I was always instructed that a good musician isn't defined by the lack of mistakes, but rather how they recover from mistakes, and how they react when mistakes occur. What an amazing life lesson by the way. So, instead of pulling back the hood so I could (not) see, I just kept marching and playing. The next day, my band director, in a very emotional state, pulled me into his office to show me something. he played a tape from one of the judges who just couldn't believe that someone was so good at their sets that they just kept marching even with a hood over their eyes. That judge didn't know I was blind. SWEET SUCCESS!

Life lessons, lots of them

As the weather started changing, I had to make choices, lots of them. Colorado weather in the fall is unpredictable. It might be freezing cold in the morning, 75 at 3:00 PM, and snowing 3 hours later. I had to prepare, like anyone else. one day, I forgot gloves, and the temperature was quickly dropping to about 40, so I very quickly had cold hands. Being a life long skier I was used to this, but I guess I didn't understand that a brass instrument is literally a heat sync, and was just gonna pull all the heat away from my hands faster than my body could replace it. I have literally never been in a situation again where I didn't have gloves. As the cold progressed, we kept attending competitions and games. One game night, I had to march in a blizzard with only very thin uniform gloves on, and it was probably 0 degrees with the wind chill. When its that cold, putting a piece of brass against your mouth can cause the brass to stick to your mouth, so I had to very carefully warm the mouthpiece before using it so I didn't end up with a horn attached to my face. To make hell even worse, the football refs didn't like that the band got the field and tried to come on field and stop the band. Funny enough, as the ref was trying to stop us, our set dictated that I was to start marching backward after moving sideways, and right as that happened the ref was positioned just behind the bell of my mellophone, so that as I started moving backward it hooked his shoulder and yanked him backward. Take that! Being nearly in tears from having no feeling in my hands and being kicked off the field by football idiots, I was at the point of quitting. Only a stern talking from my mom stopped me. The next day, I was at our next competition, again in brutal cold blizzard, and it got so cold that I set my horn down for our 20 second cloak removal mid show, picked up the instrument, and the valves were frozen. I literally couldn't move them and the other band members couldn't either. The music was weak, but just keep marching. Everything is fine here. All of these crazy harsh experiences gave me the realization that I can just keep going even after I thought I had nothing left, teaching me incredible lessons that gave me the strength, courage, and patience to handle college and my career even as a blind college student dealing with constant inaccessible material. I hated these experiences at the time, but taking inspiration from Cicero, nobody seeks pain because they enjoy pain, it is the struggle and toil that leads to further pleasure. In our darkest hour, I learned that we build the needed mental and physical strength to deal with the next life struggle and be resilient.

Second year, and beyond

I (hated)? marching band so much that I came back for more. My second year was amazing, as I now had some experience to start off my next adventures with. I even got to play in the Airforce Academy stadium for state quarter finals. That stadium is very special because of the ways in which sound bounces off of things creating epic echos. I also had been in boy Scouts for many years, had family members who were airforce vets, and it was just an honor to play music on an active military base. The process of learning in my second year was not worth writing down for this already lengthy article, and nothing of consequence sticks out. However, for the first time in my life, having never done any formal team sports, I got to experience the thrill of doing far better than anyone could have expected at a competition. This was an experience I will never forget. As my time progressed in band, I did improve on my skills, and learned new tools and techniques, which I will outline below. I made friends that I still call friends today, and even learned the most crucial leadership lesson of my life, when I became so arrogant about my leadership abilities that I was convinced I was the only person who would have a chance at being drum major. Not being selected for that taught me to hold myself as an equal to everyone, including people who I am responsible for leading in formal roles.

How to march as a blind student.

Over the course of 4 years, I picked up some very crucial techniques and skills for marching as a blind person. In parades, I always had a guide, mainly so that the guide could tap me on the shoulder to stop me, or slow/speed me up as needed, since the parade was never paced evenly. On the field, as time progressed, one very successful technique we used was that students were my reference point throughout the show and I could reference them to know where I should be. We would run through sets on off time with just that person so I could learn where to hear their instrument. This often worked best if that person was not in front of me, because that persons horn makes the reference sound. Also, learning where certain instruments should be helped me figure things out. Finally, a technique that was not discovered until my Junior year was to have certain key reference people hold a dog clicker. The dog clicker was not so loud that it would disrupt the music, but it stands out from the music so drastically that a single click from the dog clicker would allow me to hear where the reference point should be and correct on my own. This only was needed in very specific places, and wasn't needed all the time, only if the person acting as reference point noticed that I was off enough to warrant letting me know I was off. Another technique that bands use that helped me was bopping. Bopping is where the band plays every note, but stops the note as soon as they start so it's just a tiny bop sound. This makes sure everyone is playing on time, because if they aren't they'll immediately stick out like a sore thumb. This also let me hear grass moving under peoples feet and was just useful for me figuring out where people were. The bopping was not something we would ever do for my benefit, but we would do it normally as we were practicing and it was useful. A blind person can't see drill sheets, and we never tried to get accessible drill sheets. maybe its possible, but if it is, I haven't tried solving that problem. The drill would be pretty large in braille, but maybe it would be useful. Sometimes, however, I would be practicing on our own time, and would have a section member standing at the other end of the set and call or play a note so I could just practice a particular set over and over.

Final thoughts

The lessons, experiences, and friends I made participating in marching band were second to none. I owe Thanks to marching band, and the lessons I learned, and constantly drilling for hours on end, to the fact that I am able to handle a full time engineering job while leading other volunteering efforts, and am motivated to constantly improve myself. I've always done lots of outdoor activities in my life that taught me lessons, and am more fortunate than some blind people because I have always had people who were not afraid to hold me accountable and to the highest standards. However, it wasn't until I had to deal with marching band that I had to learn to critique myself, tell myself to do better, and learn to congratulate myself when I succeeded. My marching band instructors taught me invaluable lessons about how to lead, and how becoming arrogant about my skills would destroy me as a leader. This final lesson alone has been incredibly important on many occasions when I critiqued some role I was in, and realized I need to remember I am just like anyone else on the team or they will lose respect for me as a leader, destroying hard work and the trust we build on teams which takes lots of time to develop. It can be very easy as the only blind person on a team to feel good about ones self, and not becoming arrogant with my successes was and continues to allow me to self-critique. It is all too common that people congratulate blind people for their successes, but do not give constructive criticism when it is needed, in the feer that a blind person will be too weak to handle it. Having the skills to critique myself, ask for criticism, and know that I am human and am likely to make silly misjudgments, is thusly my most important lesson from marching band. My friends from marching band were friends for my entire time at high school, and I still talk to some of them, even today. Simply put, I would not have developed these friendships if I were the oddball on the side of the field. If you are reading this because you are blind, or if you are the current or future teacher for a blind student, It is really important to put blind students with the other students who play similar instruments. It'll teach lessons, skills, and create friendships that won't happen otherwise. Good luck, and go march. It'll be one of the best experiences you've ever had. Push through it even if its hard, you won't regret it. By the way, blind people face 70% unemployment, so building the strength, courage, and motivation to keep going even after receiving dozens of job rejection letters or having to build your own accommodations, tools, or processes, will pay massive dividends forever, I promise.