Banging the drum loudly

by Peter Altschul

(Author's note: The following is adapted from my upcoming memoir with the tentative title of "Working While Blind: Twenty-Three Days of a Life.")

My campaign to join the local high school marching band began in the spring of 1971 when my mother and I met with the high school's guidance counselor. At the time, I was an eighth-grader at a local private school where I was the only student who was blind. My mom had decided that the local high school would serve my education and social needs better than the private school; hence, our visit with the guidance counselor. After deciding what courses I would take during my freshman year, the conversation turned to extracurricular activities.

"What do you enjoy doing?" the guidance counselor chirped. 

"I play the drums," I mumbled. 

"Great!" she said enthusiastically and began rattling off all of the musical possibilities: the chorus, the marching band …

"I want to be in the band," I interrupted. 

"You can't do that," she said immediately. 

I would have liked to argue, but said nothing because Mom had stressed the importance of making a good impression. "They're still not sure they want you in their school," she had said.

So I spent my freshman year adjusting to the new school where again I was the only blind student. I took a full load of courses and began the often frustrating process of making friends. I began taking organ lessons and sang in the freshman chorus conducted by Renato Vellutino, who also was the band director. Toward the end of my freshman year, I startled Mr. V. by announcing that I was planning to join the marching band the following year as a drummer.

"But how will you learn the music?" he spluttered. 

"Oh, that'll be easy, Mr. V. I can learn the stuff by ear." 

"And how will you march?" he asked doubtfully. 

"I have no idea," I confessed, "but I'm sure we can work things out." 

So I joined the band at the beginning of my sophomore year, and learning the music by ear was indeed easy. Unfortunately, marching turned out to be a real challenge. Performing the simplest maneuvers in step with the rest of the band turned out to be impossible. Connecting me by rope with another percussionist caused us both to become entangled as the rest of the band tried to maneuver around us. Fortunately, Mr. V., instead of giving up, suggested that I stand with him during the halftime maneuvering and that someone could run with me to the percussion section after the completion of the formation but before they started playing and then run me back to him as the band started its next marching routine. While I wasn't totally happy with this arrangement, my experience playing with neighborhood kids had taught me that I didn't have to do everything that sighted people could do to be accepted. I was having fun while making a real contribution. I also got my first taste of fame.

"You won't believe this," Mom said as I walked in the house on a late October Saturday afternoon. "You were talked about on the radio."

"What did they say?" I asked, not sure I really wanted to know. 

"Well, during halftime, the radio announcers interrupted their summary of the first half and talked about this courageous blind boy in the band, and how inspiring it was, and well, you get the idea."

"You're joking," I said in amused embarrassment. 

"No, I'm not. I recorded the game for you so you can listen to the comments yourself."

She handed me a cassette. I thanked her and disappeared into my room. Listening to the condescending, sappy voices of the announcers without Mom's filter made me snicker and squirm, as I had no desire to inspire others with my so-called courage. It certainly would be courageous to rescue someone from a burning building or to face down a killer or to jump from an airplane, but somehow playing in a marching band didn't seem particularly risky. "I hope that none of my friends hear this," I thought.

I overcame the obstacle of not being able to march with the marching band during my senior year of high school. This was important because the best drummer was supposed to teach the various "street beats" we used as the band marched to our rhythm, call the "street beat" changes, communicate Mr. V.'s sometimes confusing instructions, and generally keep the section together. Everybody agreed that I was clearly the person for the job, except that I couldn't march.

"For heaven's sake," Mom said impatiently after listening to my dilemma, "why don't you find someone to grab your elbow and steer you from behind?"

"Oh. Why didn't you suggest that earlier?" 

"I thought I had." 

The solution worked brilliantly. Mr. V. found a female volunteer, and I was soon strutting with the band shouting directions over the noise of the drums while she discretely kept me in line with subtle tugs on my elbow and whispered directions in my ear. This solution worked even better while in college since its marching band considered drinking alcohol from concealed flasks while sitting in the stands during football games and writing sexually charged scripts to be read during the halftime show far more important than marching in lockstep to create fancy formations.

Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to bang the drums loudly in the band. It gave me a legitimate excuse to make a lot of noise while making friends. It taught me the power of working together to make a joyful noise. It taught me the importance of cooperating and of working together to find solutions to overcome barriers. Most importantly, the skills and confidence I developed while leading a group of sighted people to accomplish something worthwhile have proved invaluable in my work assisting groups and organizations to become more effective. I thank Mr. V., my mother, and my fellow band members for giving me the chance to have fun, to struggle, and then to succeed.