Inclusion Solutions in the Marching Arts

Learn about inclusion solutions for marching bands.
Using special strategies for students with special needs can lead to a successful and inclusive music education program.

Visiting rehearsal for the first time, the new principal was surprised to find out that there was a student who was blind in the band.

Afterward he said, “Wow, he’s not even looking at you! How does he know when to stop playing?”

The band director replied, “Oh, he’s just like every other band member. Nobody ever watches me!”

Jokes aside, the important part of the story is that the student was fully participating in band and treated like everyone else.

That’s just one of many successful examples seen by Dr. Michelle Hairston, chair of the music education department at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, as she works to teach future band directors about inclusion.

As the concept of mainstreaming (integrating students with special needs in regular classes and activities) becomes more popular than self-contained environments (grouping students with special needs together), marching bands have adapted and found ways to include everyone—whether the student has a wheelchair, other physical challenges, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism, Down syndrome, anxiety, vision problems, hearing problems, or any other special need.

Plus, schools have a legal obligation to include students with disabilities. “Each public agency must ensure that each child with a disability participates with nondisabled children in the extracurricular services and activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that child,” according to the U.S. Department of Education Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

On the Field

Just like no two typical students are the same, each student with special needs varies on level of ability. With physical or cognitive disabilities or combinations of both, even students with the same diagnosis can vary greatly. Band directors should work with the parents, case workers, and educational aides or paraprofessionals that know the student best.

If movement is a problem for students, some bands find that putting them in the front ensemble or on the sidelines is a good solution. But for individuals who can and really want to move on the field, directors can use creative strategies to accommodate their desire.

“I didn’t want him to sit on the sidelines,” said Dr. Greg Byrne, former band director at the University of Louisville (Kentucky) regarding Patrick Henry Hughes, a former student who is blind and wheelchair-bound. “We were fortunate to have his dad, and I know not all programs have that ability.”

Hughes, a gifted musician, was pushed on the field by his father all throughout his time in college. The story made national news and was even turned into a movie. Many students with wheelchairs or who are blind have participated in band with a parent, sibling, or fellow student guiding them into formation.

“I started out writing the drill with Patrick in mind, not knowing how much he could handle ’cause there can be tough moves and whatnot with the wheelchair,” Byrne says. “It turns out that they could handle everything.”

If the student can walk, sometimes smaller adjustments can make learning drill much easier. Using color-coded discs to mark dots during rehearsal, allowing a student to crab walk if sliding is physically impossible, or explaining marching technique with visuals instead of auditory descriptions are all potential ideas.

“One of the typical characteristics of autism is toe walking or just lower function in gait,” says Claire Leeper, band director at Harrisonburg (Virginia) High School.

To help teach proper eight-to-five step size, Leeper asked a student to march on a long piece of banner paper while wearing old tennis shoes dipped in paint. This guide was then given to a student with autism, so he could practice the step size at home whenever he wanted.

“We’ve pulled out that paper many times, just for different students to understand what that feeling is, marching in an eight-to-five step,” Leeper says.

In the Music

When it comes to learning the tunes, altering the music is the method most suggested by the experts. For example, some students may only be capable or ready to play one or two notes. Using music notation software, create a version with only those two notes and rests written in everywhere else.

For others, color coding the notes could make all the difference, and in some cases, magnifying by 200% or changing the spacing can make tightly packed sheet music less daunting.

“They’re playing fewer of the actual notes, but they’re playing the notes they can play in the right way at the right time with the right rhythm, all of that,” says Dr. Rhoda Bernard, managing director of the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs in Boston. “They’re participating in the piece, included, and still playing at a level where they can succeed … right at that edge where they’re about to be challenged.”

Students with cognitive disabilities may also have difficulty with impulse control and rehearsal etiquette. Based on a suggestion from special education teacher Paige Vass, who works closely with the band program at Harrisonburg, Leeper created a flash card system to deal with rehearsal outbursts.

“[Sometimes students will] be shouting out their thoughts or questions even if they’re not appropriate to the time,” Leeper says. “We have different flash cards … like, ‘Not now, wait until later.’ I hand them one of the flash cards, and they can write their question down, and I’ll get back to them later.”

According to Leeper, Vass’s guidance is invaluable. Together, they recently presented a workshop at the National Association for Music Education’s National In-Service Conference on “Making Music Accessible, Equitable, and Inclusive.” Band directors who want to learn more can seek out similar talks at music education conferences or even get a certification through programs like the one at Berklee.

“If you can find one person in your building, one special ed teacher to build a relationship with, that is going to go miles,” Leeper says. “You can ask them questions about disability-specific things and techniques to think outside of the box in ways to meet the needs of all of your students.”

In Competition

Highly competitive band programs may have reservations about including students with special needs. “Band competitions have gotten so competitive that nobody wants to take a risk of going with a special needs student,” Hairston says. “I think the band director has to make a decision: ‘Am I only going to be a competitive band that cares only about getting the highest mark?’ or ‘Am I going to do something good for the students and be an inclusive band director that lets special needs students participate and be successful in something?’”

Some competitive circuits have adopted policies to allow bands to submit a note to the judges about their special circumstances. It’s not about going easy on them or giving special treatment; it just gives the judges a heads up that there may be a student being guided on the field or explain why one color guard member has an adapted piece of equipment.

“My experience was in college, not high school band, but I’ve learned along the way from [having] Patrick Henry Hughes … that straight lines aren’t that important anymore,” says Byrne, who is no longer the band director at U of L but now works there conducting research on music education for students with special needs. “In Kentucky high school marching band competitions, you can comment and let the judges know they have somebody in their band program that’s blind or disabled. I think it’s been a great thing for our state to do that.”

The Social Side

Social inclusion for students with special needs is just as important as the practical concerns. Peer modeling is one of the most important tools for special needs education. Pairing or grouping the student with typical peers or student leaders for instruction is very effective, especially if framed in such a way that the student with special needs doesn’t feel singled out.

“Social anxiety is often a big part of the picture because things are hard, and you’re not the same as everybody else, and it’s a time in your life when you really don’t want to be different,” Bernard says. “Get everybody working in pairs or trios, and you have the students with special needs with strong students who can be good models for engagement and for learning.”

United Sound, a not-for-profit program for student musicians with disabilities, is gaining popularity nationwide, providing a framework and method books for participating schools. Students with special needs choose an instrument and then are paired up with two to three trained student mentors who instruct them as an afterschool activity. Several times a year, they perform in concert with the school’s general band or orchestra.

“[The student mentors] love our kids, and they treat them with respect,” says Angela Paxton, whose daughter Maddy has autism and is learning the violin through United Sound at Carmel (Indiana) High School. “I say that they’re doing such a great thing, but I think they get a lot out of it, too, right? They’re friends with their peers; it’s not charity. Maddy gets along very well with them, and they do other activities outside of the orchestra like maybe a football game or going to a restaurant.”

Inclusion can also be conducted at an organizational level. Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE) in Old Bethpage, New York, started one of the first completely differently abled drum corps. The FREE Players Drum and Bugle Corps has been welcomed with open arms by WGI Sport of the Arts and Drum Corps International (DCI), performing at WGI championship events in exhibition and competing in DCI DrumLine Battle and SoundSport. The corps will also be featured at DCI championships in 2018.

“We’ve been told time and time and time again by World Class groups and Hall of Fame members how much we’ve inspired them and their groups, how much we’ve inspired everybody else to work harder,” says Brian Calhoun, director and founder of the FREE Players. “We inspire people to remember: It’s not only about the competition; it’s about your love and your passion for the activity as a whole.”

Special Success

Patience and perseverance are the band director’s most important tools for inclusion. Trial and error may be needed to find the right solutions, and nothing will work perfectly every time. “It really is about becoming as many different people as you possibly can at once and giving yourself a break that it’s going to be imperfect sometimes,” Bernard says. “I think teachers beat themselves up because the task is impossible—you’re not going to get to every person every time—and because they care so much.”

The experts and band directors with knowledge in this field suggest that students with special needs should be challenged appropriately.

“A lot of the time, we err on the side of: Push them, and they will figure it out,” Leeper says. “And then if they are unsuccessful and can communicate with us, and we see that, then we’ll make modifications, but most of the time, they have risen to the occasion.”

As the story of Hughes went national, Byrne began getting letters and emails from all over the country about students who had been rejected or sidelined from band and other activities because of their disabilities.

“What I would try to say [to those directors] is you have to change your mindset,” Byrne says. “Look beyond the wheelchair. See the musician. If you’re in a position of power like band directors are, see this as an opportunity to open that door, to be that hero.”

Photo courtesy of Angela Paxton.

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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