Six Miles in Pasadena
Marching in the Parade of Roses is just another step forward for this high school band.
By John Rosales
Photos by Tim Revell
At first it seems like the start of a typical Thursday afternoon band practice—students are packed into the cluttered band room, sitting shoulder to shoulder on folding chairs with shiny instruments resting in their laps.
But look closer—there are no music stands here. At the Ohio State School for the Blind (OSSB), students play by memory and stay in sync by listening to band co-director Dan Kelley’s hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and vocal cues.
Dan Kelley (far right) leads a practice session.
Kelley stands in front of the group, wedged between an old piano and the first row of musicians. Most of the band’s 38 members are present, and Kelley knows where each drummer, trumpeter, trombonist, and flutist is seated even though he, too, is blind.
“Horns up, mouths closed,” he says, as the band launches into a marching-time rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” “Don’t drag the tempo, don’t make those runs muddy!”
Between numbers, one student shouts, “Why is it every time I see you, you’re wearing the same shirt?”
His joke breaks the noticeable tension in the room; there’s a little anxiety about three performances the band has scheduled on Saturday.
First, they are slated to perform during half-time at a football game between two high schools for the deaf. The band will play “The Star-Spangled Banner” among other marching tunes, and perform their signature drill: “Script Braille ‘Ohio!’” in which each band member represents a marching “dot” in the dot-code Braille system, arranging themselves to spell out “Ohio.”
Blind musicians read and write music Braille in which raised dots signify the names of musical tones beginning with “do.”
Before the third quarter begins, they’ll hustle to the bus for a two-hour ride to their next event, a caravan of a dozen cars in tow. The band kicks off the Wellston Coal Festival Parade with “Eye of the Tiger,” followed by “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “Sir Duke,” both by Wonder. After the parade, they’re scheduled for an outdoor concert, one of many shows they do regularly at schools, nursing homes, pep rallies, and charity events.
That’s right, the Marching Panthers are hot. Countless newspaper and magazine clippings posted around the school attest to their popularity. The band has also appeared on CBS News and stars in several YouTube videos, including one filmed in front of Ohio State University fans attending a Buckeye marching band practice session (find the links at the bottom of the page).
But through every practice session, every concert, and every parade in 2009, says Kelley, they’ve had one thing in mind: Pasadena.
Step to the Beat
The band marched in the legendary Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade on January 1. For college marching bands, Pasadena is Carnegie Hall. For high school bands, it’s Mt. Everest. For a blind marching band, well, it’s unbelievable.
Initially, one of band co-director Dan Kelley's greatest concerns was the six-mile march all band members face at the parade. Kelley, an OSSB alum with a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in visual impairment from Ohio State University, put the entire band on a fitness program.
By last November, the marchers’ longest trek was only three-and-a-half miles—and that was without instruments. Their longest parade in 2009 was the two-mile Millersport Corn Festival in September.
And it wasn't just the band members who needed to get in shape for the march. Each band member has a sighted marching assistant to help them zig and zag, criss and cross during marching maneuvers. Assistants either put one hand on the marcher’s shoulder to direct left-right moves, or slip a hand into a loop-strap that is sewn on the lower-back of a marchers’ jacket.
It’s harder than it sounds. Marchers and assistants get to know each other during a week-long band camp in August where they work on drills. Assistants, too, must be in parade shape.
Another challenge, of course, was funding the trip. Aside from practicing songs and building stamina, the band helped raise more than $115,000 to pay for the trip to California. As a state agency, employees cannot ask for donations, but they can accept them. They got lucky when the Ohio Lions Clubs pledged to raise $80,000 toward the trip.
By all accounts, all the hard work and preparation paid off. The parade was the experience of a lifetime for the marching band.
"The Rose parade was unimaginable -- a sea of cheering people for two hours,” says Carol Agler, band co-director. “It was very moving. Some of our students cried, overwhelmed by the support of so many.”
Kelley says the experience was “a real rush, but something of a blur” because of the large crowds and loud applause. “You’d turn the corner and there were 20,000 people cheering us on and giving us standing ovations,” he says. “It was great to see the payoff for these kids.”
Some of the band members couldn’t believe they marched in one of the nation’s most prestigious parades alongside university bands, Kelley adds. “They told me afterwards, “If I can march six miles, I can do anything,’” he says. “That’s what we are really trying to teach these kids. It’s not about their disabilities — it’s about their abilities.”
Ohio’s Big Step Forward
A state-sponsored blind marching band did not happen in Ohio by accident. Although education for the blind had been offered in Europe since the 1780s, it did not occur in the United States until the 1830s—and the earliest such schools were private.
In 1835, after two physicians presented recommendations to the Ohio General Assembly, legislators passed a resolution directing the governor to establish the nation’s first public school for the blind. Two years later, the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Blind (predecessor to OSSB) opened its doors in downtown Columbus, and moved in 1953 to a former golf course in north Columbus. Across a ravine on the same property is the Ohio State School for the Deaf.
When Carol Agler joined OSSB as a music teacher in 1998, she revived the band program after happening across some musical instruments in a closet.
“I found those instruments and said to myself, ‘My goodness, we can have a band,’” she says.
In 2005, the superintendent of the school for the deaf started a football program and needed a band for halftime. When he mentioned this to Agler, the nation’s only blind marching band was born.
“Keep those feet up,” Agler says from the sidelines during marching practice, her ever-present clipboard in hand. In addition to marching prowess, Agler says the band needs to project!
“We’ve got to make the big sound,” she says. “I know they have it in them.”
Senior band member Macy McClain produces a powerful sound, although it’s on a tiny piccolo. A talented musician, she sings, plays piano, and possesses a trait common to the blind: Perfect pitch.
“I can hear a chord or sound and tell you what note it is,” says McClain, who has been blind since birth. “When I hear a train whistle, I can tell you what pitches are in it.” Agler agrees McClain has an incredible musical memory.
“It’s something how talented these kids are,” she says.
A Special Place
Blind students from across Ohio, ages three to 22, are eligible to attend classes at OSSB. There are approximately 125 students currently enrolled from kindergarten through 12th grade.
All school expenses are paid by the state, including lodging for the 60 percent of students who board at one of the school’s eight cottages.
Since the school is categorized as independent, it does not belong to a school district—OSSB has its own superintendent with an office on site.
Cynthia Johnson, interim-superintendent, says students who start at OSSB in the early grades might transfer to a mainstream school in their home district, but often return.
“Once they reach high school, they may need more technology and travel skills,” Johnson says.
Seventeen seniors are set to graduate in 2010, many of whom are taking classes at local mainstream schools. Likewise, some visually impaired students from mainstream schools take courses at OSSB.
With 6—8 students for every teacher, the school has 130 employees. Forty-eight states have at least one school for the blind and visually impaired.
Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Band - Rose Parade