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Opening Eyes Through Music  

It was an early Saturday morning and over 30 students were prepping for two performances that day. Directors Carol Agler and Dan Kelley were corralling their students to make sure that everyone had their uniforms and instruments and were making their way towards the bus.

The first of the two stops for the Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB) Marching Band was at the Skull Session -- a pep rally on the Ohio State University campus that takes place before the university's home football games -- where they were participating as a featured performer. Thousands of Ohio State alumni were in attendance for this regular pre-game event with the school's Homecoming taking place that weekend.

On the floor was the OSU Marching Band; on one side of the bleachers sat the OSU pep band. With a couple of hundred students playing, they dwarfed the 32 student musicians sitting on the other side. While the college level bands played with volume and precision, the OSSB Marching Band performed with heart and determination.

It is the same heart that drives the band to practice, work and perform for their peers. It is the same determination that helped them to march five miles for the 2010 Tournament of Roses parade. It is for these reasons that Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia presented the OSSB Marching Band with the National Citation.


According to the co-director Carol Agler, the marching band was started in response to the Ohio School for the Deaf starting a football team. The superintendent of the school mentioned that OSSB should start a marching band to play for the football team.

Agler recalls, "I said, 'Yeah. That would be too good to pass up!' And he replied, 'You mean you'll do it?'"

There was some initial trepidation after she committed. At the time, the band was comprised of 11 students and almost half of them were playing keyboard instruments. Additionally, she had no marching drums to use.

"Come fall, the superintendent got me some marching drums and some of the keyboardists became drummers," laughs Agler. "And we've been using them ever since."

Before her arrival at the school in 1998, the band had been non-existent for more than ten years. Along with the classes for students with multiple disabilities, the music program featured a hand bell choir. The band program began when Agler discovered band instruments at the school that December.
As a teacher with normal vision, learning to teach students with impaired vision, or no vision at all, was not easy.

Agler comments, "The biggest challenge was getting away from the visual and entering their world."
Dan Krueger of the national staff (left) presents the National Citation to Dan Kelley and Carol Agler of the OSSB Marching Band.

The National Citation is given to any non-Sinfonian individual, company, corporation, and other organization, that has significantly and lastingly contributed to the cause of music in America (professionally, philanthropically or as an advocate) on a national scale may. The text of the National Citation given to the Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Band reads as follows:

Being a program providing an unparalleled experience to musical students;
And, serving as an example to others by recognizing the value of music even when facing extreme adversity;
And, bestowing confidence, trust and a musical bond among their peers;
And, sharing their gift and talents with thousands during the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade;
And, opening the eyes of their community by creating new standards of excellence for persons with disabilities.

In recognition of these achievements and these significant contributions to the cause of music in America, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity pays respect and tribute on this 23rd day of October 2010.
Sam Shepherd, with his marching assistant extraordinaire Chuck Penrod, blasts out a trombone solo on the field.
She realized that listening to recordings of music needed to be her primary means of preparation. Reading scores was not as important since most of the students wouldn't be using printed notation to learn their music due to the scarcity of music in Braille. Agler used three main criteria to determine what music the students would play: "How worthy is it?"; "How memorable is it?"; and "How valuable is it?"

Without being able to read score markings, crescendos, and dynamics, students don't get the needed cues. Agler has to use creative methods to teach musicianship to the children.

"As they are playing or singing, you are telling them what to do by using your voice to demonstrate," she explains. "You put enough mental imagery in their heads and they can hear you even if you're not saying it anymore when you perform it."

After the first year of the marching band, Dan Kelley became involved with the band. As the computer and technology instructor at the school, his schedule at the time didn't allow him to participate in the band. He is now the director of the band.

Kelley is completely blind, yet he can navigate the hallways of the school as well as anyone with normal vision. Being at the school for 13 years has helped, but he has learned how to be independent.

"Whenever you travel, there are a number of things you can use -- landmarks and clues -- to help you out. For me, echo changes in the hallway can tell me I'm in an open space. You start to develop a mental map of the building," he explains.

As a child he attended the Alabama School for the Blind. He played in a small band and his teacher encouraged him to arrange pieces for the band to meet their instrumentation. He decided to pursue his love of music and attend Ohio State University as a music education major. Early on, he focused on classical trumpet repertoire. Towards his senior
year, he discovered jazz which he found to be of benefit to him as there weren't the same memorization demands.

Kelley explains, "It was nice to sit down and play with anyone or get an Aebersold Play-a-Long out and play along." I thought, 'Why didn't I do this from the beginning?'"

After graduating, he became a substitute teacher, but was never able to secure a regular teaching job. He decided to go back to OSU to get his Master's Degree in special education and began working as a substitute teacher at OSSB. Within six months, the technology position became available and he began teaching full-time.

Agler and Kelley collaborate to work with more than 30 students. Kelley directs the band, while Agler (who refers to herself as the "co-director") will step in to direct when needed, and play musical passages for students to hear and learn. As Music Director she arranges liaisons with other groups, finds marching assistants, makes travel arrangements, and runs band camp, collaborates with others to create the marching drill. Agler, Kelley and music assistant Martin Williams choose the music the band performs.

Technology plays a considerable role in teaching the students. It has also increased the amount of music they can play. When the marching band first started, they had only two songs to play other than 16 bars of "Le Regiment," which is the song used by the Ohio State University Marching Band when performing the Script Ohio on the football field. Using Finale and SmartMusic, students are able to hear a part, for memorization and play it back. Now their field show includes four songs, including ALL of "Le Regiment," with a number of additional pieces that can be played from the stands.

"Many of these kids have perfect pitch. If you sing a melody to them and they know how to finger the notes, then out comes the right melody," Agler says.

In what has become a tradition for the band, one of the drills they march is the spelling of the "Script Ohio" that is done by the OSU Marching Band. The only difference is that the OSSB students spell "Ohio" in its Braille format. Even in this format, they still have a sousaphone player "dot the I."

When they are marching, most of the students have a marching assistant that helps them move into each of their field formations. One student's parent is his assistant; two are grandparents of a marcher; another's sister assists with marching, while three others are music teachers. The remaining assistants are community members who wanted to participate or people that Agler has networked with throughout her years as an educator.

The percussion line keeps the marching band on the beat.
The hard work and determination of everyone involved with the marching band was recognized nationally as the band was invited to march in the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade. In order for this to happen, the band had to fundraise to make the trip. More importantly, both the students and marching assistants had to train to build the endurance to march and play for the five and a half mile route. Many long hours were spent on a running track in November marching in weather that most people would stay inside for.

This year, the marching season has come to an end as there is no national parade on the itinerary for the year. Still, the band does not have much of a break. All of the students will continue in pep band for Ohio School for the Deaf basketball team over the winter. The long hours of work and lengthy performance season may seem like a grind, but Kelley knows the benefits that this experience brings to the kids.

"Whether it's how fast a student picks up on their instrument or hearing them perform at the concerts or parades, it's a rewarding experience to get that immediate feedback through music," he says. "The marching band teaches them about body awareness, spatial awareness, and kinesthetics that they normally wouldn't get in other classes."

After a quick lunch back at their school, the marching band hopped on their bus and traveled to the Ohio School for the Deaf. The band was scheduled to perform their full field show at their homecoming football game. It may have been a long day, but it allowed the students to put their talents and abilities on display.

It may be easy to think that a school for the blind would have a difficult time teaching music concepts to students. It might be difficult to comprehend how marching drill can be understood by those who can't see. In the end, this school is no different than a typical school. There may be different methodologies to teaching and learning, but, just like any other school, the teachers challenge their students to meet their potential, no matter what they are capable of doing.

"We have students who range from totally blind to those who have good vision. We have differing abilities in the band." Kelley says. "We take all we can and see what their potential is. We expect them to work to that potential and maybe raise the level a little higher."

Agler adds, "People who don't know Mr. Kelley tend to assume blind individuals are not as capable as sighted people. We want to change that perception. In taking our show into the community we hope to raise awareness as to the abilities of those with disabilities and to demonstrate how to fully incorporate blind musicians into a marching band."
  Click play to watch the OSSB Marching Band field show