by Dena Pauling
[This article appeared in the Centre Daily Times on Sunday September 14, 2008]

Before Alek Masters attended his first high school marching band practice, he drilled more than 40 hours on his own during summer vacation.

Not once did he complain.

He marched at Memorial Field. He marched in the parking lot. He marched up and down a ramp in the high school South Building. He marched in his backyard.

His heart was set on one goal – to play cymbals in the nationally recognized State College Area High School marching band.

But Alek, 14, has Down syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes mild to moderate retardation. He doesn’t understand the concepts of left and right. He doesn’t read music. His small hands make it difficult for him to hold the cymbals. His reaction time is slow.

He can’t possibly learn the motions and keep up with the rest of the 200- member band.

Can he?

Not once did anyone raise that question.

When he’s marching with “the big band,” he says it makes him “feel awesome.” And it’s as if his Down syndrome doesn’t exist.

“His dedication was more than I could have ever hoped for,” said Susie Lee, 19, a former member of the marching band who tutored Alek.

“He was so excited, and there was not one moment that he would complain. It was amazing. His disability was never a factor.”

Marching band has taught Alek more than music, and his relentless determination to succeed has been an inspiration to his teachers.

His parents say the band has brought out a side of their son they haven’t seen before. He wants to get out of bed in the morning, his academic skills have improved and he has friends he didn’t have before.

“He is just proud of the whole high school persona,” said his mother, Christine Masters.

“He’ll tell me sometimes when I’m explaining things in greater detail – “Mom, I’m in high school now.” ”

More than music

Alek Masters’ interest in music began at an early age.

He played in the percussion section of his elementary and middle school bands. He watched his older brother, Bart, 20, play drums. His older sister, Stephanie, 18, performed in the marching band when she was in high school. And his twin sister, Sarah, 14, plays cymbals in the marching band as well.

His parents, Christine and Rob Masters, decided to ask their son if he wanted to join. He did, he said, “because I wanted to do it.” He said his favorite song is “Hey Baby.”

“It’s nice being able to have this in common with him,” Sarah Masters, his twin, said.

“We’ve done stuff together before but not something that takes up so much time. It’s nice being with him and seeing how much fun he has and how much fun we have together.”

Teachers said Alek learned to play the cymbals through audiation – his ability to hear the music in his head when it wasn’t physically playing.

Many elementary and middle school musicians don’t understand that concept, said John Kovalchick, a music teacher at Mount Nittany Middle School.

“The fact that he’s picked up these various techniques, even in something that seems as simple as cymbals, means he has made great progress,” he said.

His education special teacher said Alek has improved academically as well.

“Because of marching band, I see a difference in the classroom in reading, in math,” said Jenny Lee, whose daughter, Susie, tutored Alek. “His attention span is longer. He’s able to want it, because he can focus more.”

But he didn’t learn cymbals overnight.

“Practiced a lot, a lot!” Alek said. “Every day.”

After much brainstorming with her mother, Susie Lee tried several teaching methods to help Alek learn to march.
Getting him to start on his left foot was one of the greatest challenges, so Lee tied blue and red yarn around his legs to help his coordination. But that didn’t work so well, she said.

Lee then started chants, saying “This. That. This. That.” instead of “Left. Right. Left. Right.” – concepts he didn’t fully understand.

She made him a CD to practice with. They ran drill after drill until finally things started to click.

“You had to be flexible and creative and come up with things that would work,” she said. “A couple times I would question myself “do you think this is going well” My mom would say, “He is responding, just give it more repetition.” She has that experience, and she can see a lot of the subtle things much more than I can.”

They know who I am

When Alek attends practice, he’s not there long before someone says hello to him.

“We don’t make it three steps with at least two or three people hollering, “Hi, Alek. Hi, Alek,” Sometimes they are right next to him on the sidewalk, sometimes clear across the grass,” Christine Masters said. “There are a lot of kids that just go out of their way to make contact.”

The camaraderie has given Alek Masters the chance to interact with peers outside special education. And before school started on Sept. 2, he already knew dozens of students.

“The other kids are fun,” he said. “We practice together and talk to kids and about “Ghost-busters” at break. Everybody says hi. They know who I am.”

Before Susie Lee left to go back to West Chester University this fall, she said she talked to Alek?s band friends about what worked for her as his tutor. If he ever runs into trouble, they know how to help him.

“He fits right into the cymbal line. Of course he still has some challenges, but who doesn’t?” Lee said. “I was comfortable when I left. I knew it would go well for him and the band.” It has.

And it can for other parents of children with disabilities, Christine and Rob Masters said.

They hope their son’s experience will encourage families with a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis to question their “ill-informed image,” they said, before choosing to terminate their pregnancies.

“Too often,” she said, “our kids are counted out early, even by those well-meaning individuals who are just trying to protect them and don’t want to see them reach too high and fail, causing them to miss out on great opportunities such as this.”