Legally blind since birth, Kelsey Riley, 14, stands in parade formation, listening for the shrill sound of her band director's whistle to signal the beginning of the Coal Festival Parade in downtown Wellston, Ohio (pop. 6,078).
Her sighted sister, Katie, 16, waits at her side, smoothing Kelsey's red, white and blue uniform and carefully inspecting a clarinet before placing the instrument in Kelsey's hands as the drum line begins its cadence.
Hearing two long and three short blasts from director Dan Kelley's whistle, Kelsey and 31 other members of the Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Band step to a steady drumbeat down New York Avenue before launching into the 1982 pop song "Eye of the Tiger." Kelsey plays while Katie walks by her side with her hand on her sister's shoulder along the entire 2-mile route.
Katie has been her sister's eyes this year, marching together through practices, parades and football halftime shows. In late December, they will travel to Pasadena, Calif., where America's only blind marching band, based in Columbus, Ohio, will perform on New Year's Day in the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade.
"It makes me more comfortable just knowing she's there," Kelsey says of her sister.
Focus on fundamentals
The unique marching band began in 2005 with 13 members when the Ohio School for the Deaf, also in Columbus, revived its football program and invited the blind school's music department to field a marching band. Since then, the band has more than doubled in size.
Invited to apply for a spot in the Tournament of Roses Parade, the group received notice in 2008 that it would be among 22 bands to perform in the 2010 parade and become the first blind marching ensemble in the event's 121-year history.
"They are our inspiration," says Stacy Houser, director of the parade's music committee. "We would like to inspire musicians throughout the country, especially those with visual impairments, to realize that anything is possible."
While the road to Pasadena has included obvious hurdles, the blind musicians have not let the challenges rattle them. Instead, they have put one foot in front of the other and focused on musical and marching fundamentals, says Kelley, 37, who co-directs the band with Carol Agler, 59.
"I always have the kids focus on their abilities instead of their disabilityhow well you play the music, how well you march," says Kelley who, like his students, is blind. "You don't get recognition because you're a musician who can't see. There are a lot of musicians who can't see. It's how you work, what kind of team player you are."
Each band member is paired with a volunteer sighted assistant. Agler drills assistants on the marching routines, while Kelley works with the musicians, who range in age from 13 to 23. When they come together, assistants serve as guides by placing a hand on the musician's shoulder or inside loops on the back of the student's uniform.
"It's all by touch," says assistant Valerie Herrington-Elhodiri, 47, a music teacher at Huber Ridge Elementary School in Westerville, Ohio, who read about the band in a local newspaper and wanted to help. "The only time I'll say anything is if in a parade there's a bump in the road, or a hill coming up, or something like that. Then I'll whisper that to them."
Since most of the students have never seen marching, even their steps must be guidedsometimes to the point of picking up a musician's foot and moving it, just to help the student get the feel.
"As a teacher, I'm so used to saying: 'Look at me. This is how you do it. Watch me,'" says Herrington-Elhodiri, who assists clarinet player Tamara Batchelder, 18. "That doesn't work here."
From sousaphone player Chris Harrington's viewpoint, training and performing with the Marching Panthers isn't that different from the approach of other marching bands. "A lot of people think because we are blind that it isn't possible," says Harrington, 18, of Westerville, "or that it must be a lot harder than for a sighted person to march. But once you get your form down, the marching part just comes."
A fine line exists between precision and collision, however, when the musicians measure their steps while performing halftime shows, including forming the word "Ohio" in Braille on the football field, where Harrington does the honors of dotting the "i."
"Everyone has to do the same thing, or you're going to mess everything up," says Jerrimia Williams Smith, 15, a sousaphone player from Zanesville, Ohio.
Kelley acknowledges the challenges of marching blind. "Sometimes someone's step can be a little bigger than the person in front or behind them. That's where you get into trouble," Kelley says. "Marching assistants work as a safety net and as guides on the field. But they're not just helping the kids; they're part of the show."
The assistants include all age groupsteenagers, college students and grandparentsand different backgroundsteachers, insurance agents and retired band directors.
"I love it. I love helping out," says Nathan Brown, 13, of Columbus, who is dyslexic. "Their disability is not being able to see. My disability is not being able to read."
Assistants stay busy off the field, too, unloading equipment, assembling instruments, and bringing water to thirsty marchers.
"Being a marching assistant is all volunteer," Kelley says. "You're not getting money, but you're getting some reward out of it."
The road to Pasadena
This year, band members, parents and other boosters have raised $115,000 to cover travel costs to Pasadena for 72 marchers, assistants and support staff, and another $45,000 to buy more instruments and new uniforms to replace the donated ones worn during the band's first four years.
The musicians have practiced by marching in three community parades in Ohio and have conditioned for the 5 1/2-mile Tournament of Roses Parade by marching 2 miles on the school's track and throughout its campus every Tuesday and Thursday evening for four months.
On the band's playlist are selections from its halftime showa medley of Stevie Wonder tunes, including "Superstition" and "Isn't She Lovely."
When finally stepping onto Orange Grove Boulevard, the 32-member group not only will become the parade's first blind marching band, but its smallest band in more than a century.
Agler promises the band's sound will be bigger than its numbers, however. "Dan works magic with these kids," she says.
For Harrington, marching before a worldwide TV audience of millions is both a privilege and a responsibility. While other bands represent their schools, his marches for people with visual impairments everywhere.
"I just want to prove to other people that just because we're blind, it doesn't mean there's anything else wrong with us," he says.