Overcoming Obstacles

According to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Music is the universal language of mankind.” This phrase takes on a whole new meaning as many students with physical or developmental challenges have found an outlet in the marching arts where they have been judged not by their disabilities, but by their abilities. Meet four of these outstanding young performers.

In February 2008, millions of television viewers were inspired by the story of Patrick Henry Hughes, showcased on ABC’s popular “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Hughes, who was born without eyes or the ability to straighten his arms or legs, participates in marching band at the University of Louisville with the assistance of his father who pushes his wheelchair through the formations. Hughes also travels throughout the country singing, playing piano and spreading his message of overcoming obstacles. He’s recently published a book, “I Am Potential,” about his experiences.

Like Hughes, students of all abilities are finding a place in the world of marching arts and a voice through music at schools all over the country. Many with physical or developmental challenges have overcome obstacles in pursuit of their passion for performance and love of music, providing just a bit of inspiration along the way. Here are four outstanding performers who inspire us!

Lukas Bratcher

What Drum Corps is All About

Age: 20

Section: Euphonium

Number of Seasons Marching: 6

Groups: Mead High School, Whitworth University and Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps

Lukas Bratcher has spent the past two summers playing euphonium with the Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps. But his story is different than most. Due to a rare birth defect leaving Bratcher with very stiff joints and little or no muscle in all four limbs, he plays euphonium from his power wheelchair with the aid of a joystick that controls the instrument’s valves.

“I see [the device] as an extension of my body that allows me to be on a level playing field with others my age and ability,” Bratcher says.

Assistive Technology Bratcher’s physical challenges might have made his progress difficult if not for an amazing twist of fate. After moving to Spokane, Wash., before 6th grade, Bratcher’s new middle school band director introduced him to local music storeowner Robin Amend. Inspired by his musician grandfather who had lost an arm during a logging accident, Amend invented the assistive technology device that Bratcher uses today.

Bratcher remembers those early days as “frustrating.” First, he had to relearn how to play the instrument using the joystick. There were also technical problems. Then, to top it all off, the instrument and device were stolen … twice!

“I was never one to quit when things got difficult, so I pushed and persevered,” Bratcher says. “All I can say now looking back is: ‘I’m so thankful I kept on going.’”

Drum Corps Dreams

Bratcher participated in the marching band at Mead High School where he also earned spots in the top concert group, top jazz band and went to the state solo and ensemble festival. Now he is a member of the Whitworth University Wind Symphony.

His mom, Kristy Stender-Bratcher, describes him as “a fierce competitor.” “What marching band gave him was the opportunity to compete at a very high level with his peers … to participate in something where he’s judged on his musical ability rather than his disability,” she says.

Bratcher certainly continues to push his musical talents to the limits. “Because marching band made my high school career, I wanted to continue growing, and drum corps was that next step, so I charged up the hill,” Bratcher says.

After being turned down by a top corps due to his inability to march, he had almost given up on that dream. Then he received a call from the Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps where his younger brother, Noah, was marching. They had an opening and wanted him to audition.

“Lukas’ involvement in the Oregon Crusaders has been integral to our success over the past two years,” says corps director Philip Marshall. “His musicianship, leadership and integrity have been exemplary.”

Bratcher plays his instrument from the pit area for most of the show. “Because I drive my chair with the same hand I need to play my instrument, I can’t do both at the same time,” he explains. “So, I play from the pit, and then for solos and small ensembles, I go out to the field, play with the group and then turn around and come back.”

Changing Perceptions

Bratcher challenges his staff, teammates and audience to re-evaluate their expectations of what a person with physical challenges can accomplish. “It’s given scared parents hope,” shares Bratcher. “It’s given uneducated people a new lens to look through, and most importantly given the people I marched with a positive outlook on people who are different.”

Bratcher recalls one moment that made him feel particularly proud. “This past summer when I was touring, I had friends up in the stands … I had a solo in the show,” Bratcher says. “I finished my solo and then went off the field back to my spot. Apparently some random person leaned over to a friend of mine, not knowing we were friends, and said, ‘That’s what drum corps is all about!’”

Barrie Kleinert

A Lesson in Humanity

Age: 22

Section: Guard

Number of Seasons Marching: 8

Group: The Special Needs Color Guard of America in Sunrise, Fla.

Barrie Kleinert fell in love with the winter guard activity at age 13, watching her brother’s friends compete with Stoneman Douglas High School. But Kleinert, who struggles with learning disabilities, says that the pace of the nationally competitive teams in her local area moved too fast.

So she and some friends approached her mom, Ellen Kleinert-Cohn—a longtime volunteer with the Special Olympics where Kleinert and her brother, Wes, had been athletes—about starting a special needs winter guard.

Today, Kleinert performs and coaches for the Special Needs Color Guard of America, which has been serving the Broward County, Fla., community since 2000. The group recently became the subject of a documentary, “A True Lesson in Humanity,” by Wolfgang Busch.

“[Barrie] has a great deal of patience working with our very special guard members because she has much compassion and breaks tasks down,” says Kleinert-Cohn, who also serves as the group’s director. “She understands what it is like to have a tough time learning when much of society is in a big old rush to move on.”

Changing Lives

Kleinert’s teammates have included up to 30 performers with a wide variety of exceptionalities including physical challenges, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The group also has up to five high school-aged volunteers who teach and participate in performances.

“Everyone on our team learns at their own pace, and our routines are designed specifically for each member, keeping in mind their strengths and limitations,” explains Kleinert-Cohn.

Participation in the group greatly impacts the performers’ personal lives. “I’ve seen many people on the guard where before they joined, they weren’t talking very much,” Kleinert says. “But when they joined the guard, they had the opportunity to make new friends, and their self-esteem became stronger.”

Kleinert herself has gained the confidence to pursue all of her dreams including starting a business selling her own handmade leather crafts and jewelry at guard shows and craft fairs. “I picture myself expanding my business,” she says. “I see myself teaching color guard to special needs individuals. When I’m not doing that, a dream of mine since I was little is to sing, dance and act.”

This season, she’ll get the chance to fulfill that goal as the 2009 program will incorporate live instrumental and choral music.

The color guard doesn’t just change the lives of its special needs performers, however. “A lot of our non-disabled participants have changed the course of their career paths to go into areas of human services,” Kleinert-Cohn says.

Head coach Jacquelyn Sears had planned to become an elementary school teacher. “But now, working with the special needs population, I want to become an occupational therapist,” she says.

A Must-See Performance

The Special Needs Color Guard of America has performed in exhibition with South Florida Winter Guard Association (SFWGA) and at WGI Sport of the Arts World Championships. This year, the group will make its second appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“When you see this group on the performance floor, they embody all that we hope to see,” expresses SFWGA president Kathy Porter. “They draw out this huge raw emotion from the crowd that leaves not an eye dry and all on their feet in an ovation that rocks the house! They are a must-see!”

Kleinert-Cohn says she is grateful for the warmth and acceptance that the group has received from the winter guard community. “Our mission is to bridge the gap between the general and special populations,” shares Kleinert-Cohn. “When SFWGA and WGI gave us the opportunity to perform, they didn’t just give 30 young adults an opportunity; they gave the world the opportunity to be kinder, to be more compassionate and to realize what the special needs population is truly capable of.”

Samuel Shepherd

Felt With the Heart

Age: 17

Section: Trombone

Number of Seasons Marching: 3

Group: Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Panthers in Columbus

Imagine learning your halftime show without seeing hash marks, yard lines, printed music or even the drum major’s downbeat. It might seem impossible, but that’s business as usual for Sam Shepherd and the Marching Panthers from the Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB) in Columbus.

Led by Carol Agler and Dan Kelley, this unique ensemble was founded in 2005 after school administration approached Agler about starting a high school marching band to complement the newly reinstated football team at the Ohio School for the Deaf.

“We did Script Braille Ohio,” reminiscent of the Script Ohio made famous by Ohio State University (OSU), recounts Agler. “They stood in that formation and played two pep tunes.”

The next year the program added a band camp and 8th graders, growing to its current size of 17 marchers for the 122-student school.

Learning Music

Born one of triplets, 12 weeks premature, trombonist Shepherd suffered retinal detachment at 4 months old leaving him only able to see large shapes and shadows. He learns his music by ear with the help of a computer music notation program.

“Sam is always the first one to learn his music,” comments Agler, who also teaches her students to read Braille music and play phrases sung to them in fixeddo solfège. “He’s an amazing musician.”

As a sophomore Shepherd is the full trombone section in the tiny ensemble and serves as one of three band officers.

Mental Mapping

Band co-director Kelley, who is also blind, believes that marching band teaches his performers valuable life skills. “They’re working on kinesthetic awareness, spatial awareness, where they are in relationship with things around them,” Kelley says. “Mental mapping skills are crucial when you’re out on your own. You need to have that picture in your mind. Learning these drills is really helping them develop the skills of mapping out their environment.”

Each of the on-field performers has a marching assistant who moves through the drill sets with a hand on one of the marcher’s shoulders to prevent a wrong step or turn. The goal is for each band member to learn the drill, so that the assistants only help to avoid accidents.

Shepherd’s mom, Paula, calls the assistants “the unsung heroes marching behind the kids. It’s a great thing for someone to learn to be humble enough to be the wind beneath the wings and help the kids fulfill their potential as musicians,” she adds. “I’m very, very grateful.”

Evoking Emotion

In just three short years, Shepherd and the OSSB Marching Panthers have performed in front of thousands of spectators for two OSU Skull Sessions— pregame concert/pep rallies. And in 2010 the group will be heading to California as the first blind marching band in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“After we perform it’s just like an ongoing applause, almost without end,” Shepherd says. “It’s just like a mighty cheer around the whole area.”

Many in the audience are moved to tears by the group’s heartwarming performance.

“I cry every time I watch them perform,” says mom Paula Shepherd. “I tell myself I’m not going to, but then I see people reacting to them. The director of the Ohio State [University] Marching Band was crying. It touches people in an unexpected way.”

Kelley says that he hopes OSSB will inspire others. “I hope more schools follow the course that we’re starting out on … instead of riding through a parade on a float, get them out there and march,” he says. “It’s a great learning opportunity, and the kids get a lot from the experience.”

Shepherd agrees. “Just because we’re blind, it doesn’t mean we can’t be a marching band,” he says. “If you just put your mind to it, you can focus, and you can do the drills by heart.”

Jordan Dazé

In Front of the Block

Age: 17

Section: Guard

Number of Years Marching: 4

Group: W.T. Woodson High School Marching Band and Winter Guard in Fairfax, Va.

Coach Eric McWilliams has two main requirements for his performers with the W.T. Woodson High School Guard: They must have a positive attitude, and they must be willing to work hard. These characteristics have enabled the group to win many marching band auxiliary awards and advance to the highest level of Scholastic A Class competition in the Atlantic Indoor Association.

Senior Jordan Dazé has been a member of this award-wining ensemble for four years, but unlike her teammates, Dazé was born with complicated physical challenges that make performing the skills required for color guard difficult. She struggles with gross motor skills and balance as well as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She also wears hearing aids and lives with a condition called kyphosis, which causes her spine to bend forward.

Tenacious and Determined

These difficulties, in light of the equipment and movement demands of a highly competitive color guard, might seem insurmountable to some, but Dazé is not one to back down from a challenge.

“Jordan has great confidence; she is not afraid to get in front of the basics block,” McWilliams says. “Jordan has helped to show the group how you can improve and overcome challenges through hard work and dedication.”

Guard parent Betsy Burgett calls her “tenacious and determined.” “I remember how she struggled to get her drop spins that first season,” Burgett reflects, “and now there are tears in my eyes when I watch her perform because now she can just do so much!”

Dazé says her biggest challenges are making sure she can keep up with the tempo and maintain her endurance.

“The marching arts has improved my balance and my coordination,” says Dazé who hopes to become a coach. “We always stretch at the beginning of practice, and we do a lot of dance moves and jazz running. Mary Ann, our movement coach, has helped me move more gracefully. Guard has also made my muscles stronger.”

McWilliams works to accommodate Dazé’s needs and feature her strengths. He says working with Dazé has allowed him “to grow as a designer in learning how to utilize members effectively.”

As for Dazé, she enjoys being an active member of a school team. “There’s no way I was going to play basketball or any other sport, but Eric makes sure there is part of the show I can do, and it is really a lot of fun,” Dazé says.

Just Be Yourself

While Dazé depends on her teammates to help her learn choreography, they have learned much from her as well. Allison Cernoch missed a week of band camp during her first season on the team. When she returned, she found Dazé ready to help. “Jordan’s kind of like a big sister to me,” Cernoch says. “She’s always been so caring and always someone to talk to, someone I can open up to.”

Close friend Tory Burgett, who has been Dazé’s teammate since they started four years ago, says she admires Dazé for her commitment to never giving up. “I’ve really changed because of Jordan because she’s shown me what is cool,” she reflects. “And that would be, to be yourself.”

About the Author

Catina Anderson has been involved in the color guard activity, first as a performer and then instructor, for the past 20 years. She is currently on staff at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va. She is also the founder and editor of www.colorguardeducators.com, a website for color guard coaches. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Towson University and a master’s degree in education from Marymount University.

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