Future Reflections Summer 2010
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by Gordon Kent
Reprinted from The Log of the Bridgetender, Spring 2010
From the Editor: It takes more than good musicianship to play in a marching band. Band members must learn and follow precise maneuvers that turn the musical performance into a full-fledged show. Although these routines present challenges, blind students have been playing and marching for decades. Gordon Kent, a professional musician and arranger who lives in Washington, D.C., recalls how it worked for him.
The appearance of the marching band from the Ohio State School for the Blind in the 2009 Rose Bowl Parade was a landmark event. It sparked considerable interest in the participation of blind and visually impaired students in high school and college marching bands. I would like to share my own experience as a member of the marching band at my high school in Little Falls, New Jersey. It happened quite some time ago; I graduated from Passaic Valley High in 1970. We're all familiar with the old adage, "If you remember the Sixties, you weren't there," but I'll do my best to recall how it worked for me forty years ago.
When I started marching with the band, my dad worried aloud that I would lose my place and end up all alone on the fifty-yard line during our halftime show. Dad had a rich imagination, and sometimes it led him to worst-case scenarios. I guess voicing his fears was his way of trying to deal with them. Luckily his worries were unfounded. My parents came to quite a few home games to watch me. They were both avid football fans, and since nobody in our family played team sports, I was the closest we ever got to a football hero. But I've jumped ahead of myself. As we musicians are fond of saying, "Let's take it from the top."
In eighth grade, while I was attending my neighborhood school, I took up the saxophone. I had been playing piano most of my life, but I thought that playing rock 'n roll sax would be really cool. Each of the town's three elementary schools had a small, ragtag band that occasionally played for assemblies in the auditorium. The three bands combined to put on an annual spring concert. This was a real thrill for me, as I'd never had the chance to play with a decent ensemble before.
During one of our rehearsals for the concert the head of the high school music department stopped by to audition prospective recruits for the band. My hand shot up when he asked if any of us wanted to try out. He asked several drummers to play basic rudiments and had some other players do a bit of sight-reading. When my turn came he just asked me to play something after going through the obligatory scales. I remember I played "Strangers on the Shore," a popular song at the time. He told us he would get in touch to let us know if we had been accepted.
I never heard back from him. In an uncharacteristic display of shyness, my parents and I didn't check any further. When the time came for me to fill out my high school course schedule, I joined the choir instead of the band. Because I was a freshman my parents really wanted me to have a study hall period, which would not have been possible if I took both choir and band.
A few months into my freshman year, I was sitting in our local barbershop when the music department head, who lived nearby, happened to walk in. I asked him pointblank why he hadn't accepted me for the band. He paused for a few seconds and said, "Oh, you could have come. You were certainly good enough." I must have shaken my head in bewilderment, but I vowed to join the band the following year.
Once I signed up for the band I don't recall meeting any resistance. Each problem that arose was handled calmly and logically. The tenor sax parts for some of the songs we played were transcribed into Braille music so I could memorize them ahead of time (I don't remember who we found to be my music transcriber). The songs included standards such as "On, Wisconsin!" "Fight On!" and our school's Alma Mater. Everybody was expected to memorize the music after a couple of weeks. I had an advantage since, as a blind musician, I always memorized my music anyway.
Our band had sixteen squads, each with four to six members. Sometimes the squads moved together as a unit, as when we marched in a parade or took the field to start a show. They could also move independently in various combinations--marching forward, turning, stopping, bowing, or pinwheeling (marching in a wide circle) to form letters and geometric shapes.
Whenever we started to learn a new routine, we got handouts outlining each squad's movements. I Brailled out my part, which might go something like this: (1) forward 32; (2) stop 8; (3) pinwheel left 16; (4) forward 8; (5) bow and hold 16; and so on.
I was pretty obsessed with memorizing the routines cold. I certainly didn't want my dad's fears to come to life! Fortunately for me, our band wasn't exactly the tightest marching unit on the planet. Some of the other schools in the area treated their marching bands like drum corps, developing very complex and precise routines.
It was decided early on that I should march in the frontmost squad, which was designated 1A. It didn't make the most sense musically, as my squadmates were playing flute and piccolo. However, it made sense physically, since there was less congestion and confusion up front. I ended up between two girls, Vicki and Denise. Denise was the only African-American girl in our school at that time. Back then some people may have thought it was pretty radical to have the only blind guy and the only African-American girl marching side by side. Vicki and I became good friends and even dated occasionally throughout our time in high school. A nudge from her now and then to get me back on track really wasn't such a bad thing.
In my junior year I switched from sax to trombone. The change made me appreciate marching in the front squad more than ever. A trombone slide can do serious damage if it hits somebody.
I look back fondly on my marching days. Being a part of the band helped me carve out a niche socially, something we all know can be difficult for anyone who is perceived as being different. I had the thrill of marching in a parade to honor Buzz Aldrin shortly after the return of Apollo 11. I even got to write music for the school's concert, stage, and marching bands. My marching band arrangement was--believe it or not--a beguine treatment of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."
To any student who considers joining the school's marching band, I say go for it! Quite a few of us are here to testify that it can be done. Most of all, it can really be a lot of fun.
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