Columbus, Ohio USA
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Parade Aides
Three Montessori students are part of world's
only blind marching band
By Karen Edwards
December 2009 Issue

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(L to R) St. Joseph Montessori School eighth graders Elliott Narcross, Nicholas Salamon, and Elisabeth Spector,
serve as sighted assistants for members of Ohio State School for the Blind’s marching band.
© Photo/Richard Spector

Happy New Year! So – how do you plan to spend the first day of 2010? Shaking confetti from last night’s revelry out of your hair (and off your carpets)? Preparing a groaning board of snacks for the big game? Gritting your teeth through yet another list of New Year’s resolutions?

Whatever you choose to do, chances are you won’t be spending it like Elliott Narcross, Nicholas Salamon and Elisabeth Spector, three middle-school students at the St. Joseph Montessori School located in the Short North’s Italian Village neighborhood.

On January 1, the trio of students will rise early, dress in black pants, white shirts and snappy red blazers and proceed on a six-mile march – not through the streets of wintertime Columbus but those of the much balmier California city of Pasadena.

Pasadena, of course, is home to that granddaddy of all parades, the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, and the three Montessori students will be part of the procession – but not as part of their school or the school band (of which they’re all members). Instead, they will be marching with the Ohio State School for the Blind’s marching band as sighted assistants, helping to keep the band in straight, tight formation – and safe across the parade route’s foreign terrain.

The Ohio State School for the Blind’s marching band is the only blind marching band in the world, says Carol Agler, the school’s music director who co-directs the band with Dan Kelley.

The marching band’s start
Credit Agler with starting the band program after noticing various band instruments were stored away at the school. “The previous band director left 13 years before I arrived and had not been replaced, so the band instruments were just sitting there,” she says. Agler quickly formed pop, jazz and concert bands at the school but had not considered a marching band until the school’s superintendent came to her one day in 2005 – after having lunch with the superintendent of the Ohio State School for the Deaf. “The deaf school had decided to revive its football program and wanted to know if we could furnish the marching band,” she says. To the surprise of both superintendents, she agreed to take on the project.

Now, four years later, the blind school’s marching band is comprised of 32 students between the ages of 13 and 23 years. As Agler points out, however, the band could not march without the help of 35 sighted assistants who help guide the band during practices and performances. All of the assistants are volunteers and range in age from early teens to senior citizens. With the exception of the 11-year-old daughter of one of Agler’s assistants (she helps with the band occasionally), the three Montessori students are the youngest regular volunteers.

Narcross and Spector are both 14 years; Salamon is 13, yet all three are mature beyond their years, as often happens with students who are above average in terms of scholarship and leadership. All three play instruments – Salamon plays the trumpet and piano; Narcross the trumpet, Spector the flute and piano. None, however, have had any marching band experience.

“I had no idea,” says Agler abut the trio’s lack of marching experience. “They had no trouble marching with the band.” In fact, Agler once placed Spector as the leadoff person in a “fall out drill” – a position she might normally assign to someone with more band experience, or more experience with the band – but she says Spector did a great job.

Sabrina Say, who plays cymbals for the band, with assistant Elisabeth Spector.
© Photo/Richard Spector

Community service a given
The three Montessori students are used to community service. “It’s something the school believes in, and we encourage the students to participate,” says Sandra Methany, the music director for the Montessori school. “The opportunity to help the marching band came through a music teacher who comes to the school,” she says. “She had connections to the blind school’s band.”

Methany presented the volunteer opportunity to her band students near the start of the school year, and six students immediately volunteered. Only Narcross, Salamon and Spector, however, were able to fit the rigorous time demands into their schedule.

Even then, the three say, it’s not easy. “You have to be a good manager of your time,” says Narcross. And it doesn’t hurt to be a multitasker – something all three students say they’re accustomed to. After all, in addition to their schoolwork there are the two-hour, twice weekly practice sessions with the blind marchers as well as weekend performances which are often held out of town. All three are also involved with school clubs, soccer practice and games; and all three have worked on community service projects. Narcross participates in projects, both inside and outside school. “I do babysitting during Gallery Hops,” says Spector. She also participates in Montessori’s “carpool” program, which escorts preschool students to their classrooms after parents drop them off at the curb. Salamon has organized his own school community service group of six students who assist teachers and staff with jobs that need to be done. Still, they maintain their grades, and while juggling class time, homework and other responsibilities can be tough, the three say they’re glad to be able to help the marching band.

“It’s rewarding,” says Spector. “You realize how much help you are to the band.” Narcross says it’s his first experience working with the blind, and the position has made him both proud that his help can make such an impact on the band’s success, and grateful for his own gifts. “We’re able to sight read music,” he says. “The band has to listen to the songs over and over again before they learn them.”

Perfect pitch
Agler says the marching band does have access to sheet music in Braille, but “it’s a laborious process for them to read the music and memorize it.” Instead, they learn through a Smart Music computer program, and Agler sends her students home with MP3 players to listen to the songs and learn them by ear. Fortunately, one-third of her group has perfect pitch. “That’s unusual in the sighted community,” Agler says. “Studies have shown that one in 200 sighted persons has perfect pitch, yet for those who have been blind from the age of eight on, one in eight of those individuals will have perfect pitch.” Although not all of the marching band’s members are blind – some have partial or impaired sight – all of them are assigned sighted assistants to work with them. Generally, volunteers are assigned to the same person, but because not all volunteers show up for each practice – or performance – the pairing can be different.

That means flexibility is a necessity, says Spector. “You have to be able to adjust quickly – and be talkative.” The blind need to know you’re there and can lead them efficiently. For the volunteers, that means getting to know the person with whom they’re working and how best to communicate with them.

Methods of communication have been standardized, at least to some extent. For example, if a band member steps left when everyone else steps right, the sighted assistant taps the band member on the right shoulder. Sometimes, says Agler, some of the band members need to be pulled back into place. Volunteers also have to count steps, just like the band, and know when to stop. During half-time shows, it’s the job of the sighted volunteers to keep the band members from tripping on the field – or over each other.

Generally, the sighted volunteers maintain control by holding on to the fabric of the band member’s uniform, the band member’s shoulder or the instrument’s brace – whichever that particular member prefers. (That’s why communication with the band member is important.) “But if we’re doing our job right,” says Narcross, “It doesn’t look like we’re holding on at all.”

All three Montessori students say their parents and families are likely to accompany them to Pasadena. The students’ trip, however, is being paid for by the Ohio State School for the Blind, which is raising money through donations, and with the help of the Lion’s Club which has raised $80,000 by mid-November.

An unexpected invitation
“We weren’t expecting an invitation to march in the Rose Parade,” says Agler. “One of the officials of the parade had been searching on the Internet for unusual bands,” – and when he came across the Ohio State School for the Blind’s band, he sent Agler an e-mail inviting her to submit an application. “He wasn’t guaranteeing anything,” says Agler. “He just suggested we might want to send in the application.” She went to the school’s director. “I didn’t think the school could afford this,” she says, but she was told to apply. “The money will come,” the school’s superintendent told her.

And it has – but a lot of work has gone into making the band’s dream a possibility. It has meant more music, more drills and more practice time – for band members and the Montessori students as well.

But on New Year’s Day, the work will pay off as band members, wearing their blue pants and their white-and-blue jackets with a flash of red, go marching through the streets of Pasadena with their red-jacketed assistants. No doubt, somewhere along the way, the award-winning band (the band has already won four trophies in addition to the Rose Parade honor) will perform its signature formation en route. Just as the OSU Marching Band performs its script Ohio to the tune of Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse, the Ohio State School for the Blind’s marching band begins its very own script Ohio to the same familiar tune – only when this band is done, the word “Ohio” is in Braille.

It’s an impressive performance, and one all three students say they’re glad to share.

“Since this is the world’s only blind marching band, there is a sense of being a part of something pretty big,” says Narcross.

The students play more than a part, though. It takes true leadership to jump into a community where you’ve never been and into a situation where you don’t know a chair step from a toe point. Suddenly, you’re thrust into the position of being ambassador, leader, and band marcher all at the same time. Difficult? Absolutely – but the three students have no regrets. They’ve found the people they’ve come to help are much like them, and the key to helping them is really quite simple.

“Open your mind,” says Salamon.

“Open your heart,” adds Narcross, “and give of yourself.”

© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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