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Marching band and low vision

Tips for musicians participating in marching band programs with visual impairment.

When I transferred to my second high school, my new band director and guidance counselor encouraged me to participate in marching band as it was a great social outlet and also a class requirement. At my previous high school, I had been exempt from marching band due to low vision and my band director allowed me to participate in pep band during my second year, so I originally asked if I could just do pep band again and not think about marching. My band director and guidance counselor both persisted though, and I played clarinet in my school’s halftime marching band. Here are my tips for including students with low vision in marching band, based on my own experiences.

More background on my school’s marching band program

My first high school had one marching band program that performed the same show at football games and at competitions across the region. My first band director took marching band very seriously and required all students to participate for a grade. However, my band director exempted me from this requirement due to my disability, though during my sophomore year I pushed for them to allow me to be part of the pep band and play in the stands during football games and school events.

At my second high school, there were two marching programs, a halftime band that played at football games and a competition band that performed at competitions. I participated in the halftime band as it involved less complicated marching drill and I felt more comfortable participating in this type of program. My band director did encourage me to participate in competition band senior year, but I didn’t feel confident with the more elaborate choreography, and also ended up breaking my ankle a month into the school year- more on that later.

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How I read music with low vision

I’ve used a few different strategies for reading music with low vision, including:

I don’t read music while on the field for marching band performances, and neither of the high school pep bands I attended used music stands in the bleachers/at performances. However, for my college pep band, I had my own large print music binder that had a dedicated stand.

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My experience learning to march

Because of my low vision and neurological condition, it took me twice as long to learn marching band drill and marching techniques. Part of this is because marching band is a very visual activity that often takes place outside in bright sunlight, and I have more trouble seeing in environments with bright lights. I also have no depth perception and it is more difficult for me to visualize the distance between two points.

To help make my experience learning to march easier, my band director had me work with another staff member to practice and help me with reading the drill sheet. Another helpful strategy was having me work with the section leader or other experienced marching band members so that I could practice different techniques such as straight leg marching. This is similar to the strategies I used when taking dance classes at a local studio for many years and really helped- I’m still friends with some of the students that helped teach me how to march many years later!

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When relevant, disclose your disability to other staff

While my band director was aware that I have an IEP for low vision and a neurological condition, other marching band staff were not aware of this because they were not teachers at my school. One of the staff members I worked with during band camp one year actually had no idea that I had any type of disability, and as a result would frequently yell at me for missing cues or walking differently because they didn’t notice the leg brace under my clothes. After a particularly traumatizing incident where they temporarily kicked me out of marching band, my band director realized that this staff member didn’t know I was disabled, and had me talk to them about how my usable vision affects me and how to better help me with marching band drill.

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Asking for modifications

For one song, my band director wanted to have each senior in a “leader” position, and wrote marching band drill where I would be walking in a backwards diagonal line and leading a group of eight students. While I admire my band director’s optimism, this was not something I could do with limited peripheral vision safely, and I talked to them about modifying the drill so that I wouldn’t be in a location where I had to walk long distances backwards.

Some students may prefer to march with a guide, linking arms with another student or using another aid for marching. I never used a guide when marching and preferred to instead receive simple choreography where I only had to march in a straight line.

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Standing to the side

A few hours before senior night was scheduled to begin, I fell off of the band bus/school bus and broke my ankle in multiple places, which meant I had to miss the event and also wear a boot on my foot for several weeks. My band director felt really bad that I had been injured before a band event, and let me play while standing off to the side instead of marching- I stood near the drum major stand facing the audience with another student who was also injured. I had an “assistant” that would help me with getting back to the stands and navigating the metal bleachers- this was usually my brother (who was also in band) or one of my friends.

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Other options for participating in marching band with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated August 2023; original post published August 2017

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