COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - "I used to have an old car that sounded like that when it started," the marching band director says. "Urr, urr, urr, blatt."
The players crack up, throwing their heads back and having a good laugh at themselves.
Dan Kelley is always saying things like that to his players. They sound like an Amtrak train going off a cliff, they sound like a car engine dying, that note sounded like a giant, wet splat when it should sound like the surf rolling onto the beach.
"It's audio imagery," he says. "I wanna keep it loose, too. I've got kind of a stern voice. If I say, 'I want this, I want that' all the time, I feel like I lose them because they feel like they're not doing it right."
The 32 blind players, 36 volunteer marching assistants, two band directors and one music assistant really, really want to do it right. The Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Panthers are going to Pasadena, Calif., to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day. They'll be the parade's first blind marching band. The smallest band, too.
The invitation to march came more than a year ago, giving plenty of time to practice. It's also plenty of time to ponder a tough question: Are we OK with being famous because we're blind?
Kelley believes in gentle honesty, but honesty nonetheless.
This is going to be hard. Six miles is a long way, longer than the parades they've marched in to prepare for Pasadena. In the past year, they've been playing and playing and playing. Performances in Lancaster, at churches, in Cincinnati, at the Ohio State University skull session and in the Circleville Pumpkin Festival parade.
Practice has not made perfect. That's the honest truth.
Eleven band members have perfect pitch (hearing them hum during marching-only practice is beautiful enough to make you hold your breath).
But when they pick up their tattered and battered and borrowed instruments, not every note is hit just-so.
Having perfect pitch "doesn't mean you have the finesse you need. It doesn't mean you have the articulation skills you need," says Carol Agler, the blind school's music director and co-director of the band. She turns no one away who signs up to play at the beginning of the year. No auditions are required, just desire.
It hasn't made a lick of difference to the audiences who have heard the blind band play.
The typical response: They leap to their feet, clapping wildly, some with tears in their eyes. Amazing! Unbelievable! Inspiring!
For the players, though, the experience is different. They want perfection, or near it. They are teenagers, after all, and they occasionally have bad attitudes and bicker at one another. So-and-so shouldn't get to go to Pasadena; he hasn't tried hard enough. He's playing the wrong notes. She's spreading rumors.
They have a lot of questions. Practices sound like a bustling cocktail party, with everyone lining up with the marching assistants who will guide them through the 5.5-mile parade route and a 12-minute halftime show in which they'll perform their signature: Script Ohio, in Braille. The twice-weekly practices after school and three-a-week band classes go too fast.
By the time Kelley scoots all the players through the side door at the school and into marching formation, the sun has set and the air is sharp with cold. His whistle tweets, and the band comes to attention. At his signal, they honk out Military Escort, one of two songs they'll play in the first mile of the parade.
The other is Superstition by Stevie Wonder.
Some of the marching assistants - they can see, because, as Kelley points out, keeping straight lines is a "visual thing" - stand beside their student and sling an arm across his or her shoulders. Others prefer to guide from behind, walking like Frankenstein's monster with one hand on each of the student's shoulders.
This is seriously taxing work. A few of the students have limited sight; they can see shapes or figures or have some light perception. Many see nothing. So, once the Marching Panthers make their way onto the school track for a mock parade route, the workout begins for the assistants. Pushing, pulling, steering.
This is why there are more assistants than band members. You wear out after a while.
The two songs sound over and over as the band makes five or six laps. In the pitch dark.
There are no floodlights around the track and field. Why bother with something you don't really need?
The farthest the band has marched is 4 miles. The students won't make it to 6 until they're in uniform and in California.
"If you can march 4 miles, you can march six," Kelley says.
Excitement (and a heap of nerves) has been building in the weeks leading up to the trip. Hotel rooms and chaperones have been assigned; someone donated cool sunglasses, and those have been passed out. Rules and travel tips - keep a firm grip on your belongings, mind your manners - have been laid out.
Kelley has reminded everyone, more than once, that they're representing the Ohio State School for the Blind, the Ohio School for the Deaf, and the entire darned state of Ohio while they're out west. People are about to see exactly what blind musicians can do.
"Even if they don't want to admit it, one of the reasons people say it's amazing is because we're blind," says Whitney Hammond, a 15-year-old who plays bass drum.
It's fair to say there's been a bit of discord among players as the band has become a public phenomenon. They put on their red-white-and-blue uniforms and march on, but the question of why they're so well-received really gnawed at some of the kids.
News crews from CBS, a Los Angeles CW network affiliate and local TV stations have stopped in with their cameras. Writers from national magazines and just about every local paper have hung around.
"It's really easy to say we're a unique story, a human-interest story. We're all that," Kelley says.
At the beginning of this school year, with the Rose Bowl months away and months of sweat and tears and bickering well behind them, something happened. The players started to make peace with the why.
"Now, we think it's because we're doing something good," Hammond explains at the last practice before the trip. Every player and marching assistant is on deck to, as Kelley says, make the practice count.
"We said, 'No, we're actually doing work. We're working.' We have style," she says.
"There's nothing amazing about a blind person walking and playing an instrument with a guide," Kelley says. "I ask the kids to reflect on that kind of thing, and what they want to get out of it. And not focus on 'They're just taking us because we're a blind band."'
Macy McClain, a 19-year-old who has played piccolo and flute for the band, thinks it is doing good by sending a message.
"I just think there are some people who don't understand what truly blind people can do. Blind people go to college, have jobs - do things sighted people can do," she says.
That's the right thinking, Kelley says.
"My philosophy is there's never been a bigger audience than what we're going to go out and play for. For me, it's getting people around the country to see that these kids have talent. I don't care about abilities and disabilities, blindness or whatever. They're out here marching."
The 32 musicians, 36 marching assistants, two directors and music assistant were scheduled to march onto a plane Monday. Then, they'll do exhibition shows, the halftime show and 2 1/2 hours of marching.
Kelley will boom, "We proudly present the Ohio State School for the Blind Marching Panthers!" and the banner with their name in Braille will start moving.
The players won't see the crowd, but its reaction will be easy to read. Amazing. Unbelievable. Inspiring.(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)