Blind horn player brings new perspective to marching band

12:16 PM, Nov 24, 2009   |    comments
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If you don't know anything about marching band, consider this analogy: "One of the big differences between sports and band is that there is no junior varsity or freshman team, this is all varsity as far as we're concerned. So everybody is out there doing the same thing, pretty incredible," says Sawyer.

Ken Sawyer has been the director of bands at Ralston Valley High School since the school opened 10 years ago. In recent years, the marching band has been ranked in the top 15 among the 4A schools in the state.

In marching competitions, bands are critiqued by eight judges on the field and in the press box. There are visual and music judges that evaluate the band throughout their performance. If a band member even steps onto the field a minute before the allotted time slot, there is a deduction in the final score.

It is the precision and physical demands of marching band that makes this story so extraordinary.

Last summer, Derek Reimer contacted Ken Sawyer to ask him about joining the marching band as an incoming freshman. Derek started playing the French horn in 5th grade and was interested in joining the jazz band and marching bands.

Unfortunately, other schools had told Derek it wasn't possible for him to march on the field with the band, but he could play in the pit area. Then Derek called Ralston Valley.

"Mr. Sawyer said we'd figure out a way to get me to march everything," says Derek.

This was quite a commitment to a boy who is blind, unable to distinguish darkness from light. Despite this challenge, Derek impressed Sawyer immediately.

"If everybody came into the band, everybody came into everything with the desire he does, we'd be unbelievable," Sawyer said.

Upper classmen are key members of the band, as they are the ones who teach freshman how to memorize music and march at the same time. Sawyer knew Derek needed a strong leader as his mentor in the marching band.

He asked the leader of the mellophone section, Melissa McNally to work with Derek. Melissa points out, "I don't think either one of us really realized what we got ourselves into until we started working and it was a lot of work, but it was definitely worth it."

Melissa had to learn to play her instrument with one hand, to keep another hand on Derek's shoulder. Together, they created a communication system to help Derek keep time and stay on the right foot, with taps on the shoulder. Melissa memorized both of their movements and positions on the field, to make sure they never lose their spot.

Derek explains, "Until you're in the band you don't know, but it's really serious because you don't want to mess up. If we get off, Melissa just kind of comes over grabs me and guides me in the way I need to go."

Derek and Melissa have not only become close friends through this process, but Derek has had a strong influence on the entire band.

Melissa says Mr. Sawyer made that possible early on.

"One of the practices, Mr. Sawyer made us do an exercise, and everyone in the band had to close their eyes and march to their set and play their music and we opened our eyes and we were so wrong, we were so off, and I think it was then everyone realized that what Derek does is incredible," she said. 

This experience and these two band members specifically are part of the reason this band has performed so well. The Ralston Valley Marching Band entered the Colorado Bandmasters Association State Marching Band Festival ranked 12th in the 4A division. On the first day of the competition they competed against 32 other bands and made it to the top 20. In the next qualifying rounds the RV band finished in 9th place. Just the top 8 bands compete in the finals. This is the second best finish for the Ralston Valley Marching Band.

Next year, Melissa and Derek will be back, with ever higher expectations. Melissa will be a senior next year, and as a result of this experience is considering a college degree in teaching.

As for Derek, he's looking forward to participating in the jazz band and maybe even trying out for the role of Drum Major. 

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