The Ohio State School for the Blind marching band will be the best blind marching band in the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

The Ohio State School for the Blind marching band will be the best blind marching band in the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

That's not good enough for co-director Dan Kelley, who wants the marching Panthers -- possibly the only blind marching band in the country -- to be the best band in the Jan. 1 parade.

That's the challenge he's giving band members as the days dwindle to departure for California.

"Absolutely," Kelley said last week.

Each time they play, march, do stretching exercises or rehearse, the goal Kelley has for his musicians is for them to be their best.

"Concentrate on what you can do, not what you don't do," said Kelley, who also is visually impaired.

What the members of the band can do is play their instruments, a third of them with perfect pitch, and march with a little guidance from sighted assistants.

What they can't do is see very well or at all, in some instances.

The Ohio State School for the Blind traces its origins to the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Blind, which was established by the state in 1837 and was the first public school for the blind in the U.S., according to the school's Web site. The current name was adopted in the early 1900s when the school came under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Department of Education.

The school moved to its current campus at 5220 N. High St. in 1953.

The school's band became a marching band in 2005 when the football program at the nearby Ohio School for the Deaf was revived after a hiatus of more than 30 years.

The band that will depart for California on Dec. 28 has 32 members, two of them alumni and the rest current students, according to co-director Carol Agler. That's up from only 17 when the band received its invitation to the parade.

The time is drawing nigh and the time to prepare is growing short.

"I'm hearing from numerous sources that the kids are nervous, and they understand that this is a huge arena in which they are performing," Agler said. "The nervousness that comes with that is normal and appreciated."

Band gets chance

to make history

These young musicians have been in a veritable whirlwind of preparation and practices since Oct. 20, 2008. It was on that day, with the entire student body assembled in the gym, that Agler received a cell phone call from Gary J. DiSano, then-president of the Tournament of Roses Association.

He was calling to offer the marching band the chance to make history by participating in the 121st edition of the parade.

DiSano, 62, died on Sept. 20. A volunteer with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association since 1972, he chose the theme "2010: A Cut Above the Rest" when he was named president on Jan. 22.

With Jan. 1 rapidly approaching and the funding for the trip having fallen into place, the musicians, their assistants and their co-directors are polishing their act with twice-a-week rehearsals, outdoors when the weather cooperates.

The goal, Kelley said, is to have "chops of steel, strong as we can be."

"You want to make sure that you've got all the little things covered," he said. "It's kind of more of the same. My philosophy is you keep covering the fundamentals.

"It's nice to see that kind of come together."

In addition to being co-director of the band, Kelley also coaches sports at the school, so he's traveled with many of the musicians before.

The OSSB marching band co-directors have gotten some advice from Mike Sewell, director of the Pickerington High School Central marching band, the only other Ohio high school entrant in this year's Tournament of Roses Parade, as well as a folder of information from the parade organizers, Agler said. All of that information and advice can be adapted to her young charges, she said.

"We just have the different tweak of blind musicians," Agler added.

For example, she said that one of the musicians will not move until her sighted assistant places a hand on her shoulder. Then she knows that the ground before her is level, and she can step out with confidence.

Charities donate

funds for trip

The trip to California, which is to include a performance at Disneyland and marching in Bandfest on Dec. 30 with the Pickerington Central and Ohio University marching bands, is being paid for by money raised by the school's parent-teacher-student organization, a grant from the Columbus Foundation and donations from Lions clubs around the state.

"It's been a real thrill for the Lions of Ohio," said Ron Robbins, a past district governor for central Ohio and current president of the club in Dublin.

As soon as word of the Tournament of Roses invitation was out in October of last year, Robbins said he got in touch with members of the state Lions governing board to ask permission to form a committee to help fund the trip.

Helping the visually impaired is a main thrust of the service organization.

The original goal was around $125,000, Robbins said, but more investigation revealed the expense would be more along the lines of $175,000.

In the end, Robbins said, the PTSO raised $97,000, the Columbus Foundation provided a grant of $17,000 and members of the 470-plus Lions clubs around Ohio contributed $65,000.

"That's going to be a real treat and adventure for those kids," Robbins said.

"It's such a valuable life experience," Kelley said. "It's going to prepare them for things they'll do in the future. They're going to carry this through when they're tackling other pursuits."

Robbins and his wife plan to see the 2010 Tournament of Roses Parade in person.

"What a just great group of kids," he said. "The musical talent, just to listen to them play, it's been phenomenal."

For Kelley, it isn't all that "miraculous" that visually impaired students can play instruments and march with assistance. The amazing thing to him is the way the community "pulled together for this historic event."

"I want this to be the best band in the parade," Kelley said. "That's the way we approach it as instructors."

Kelley paused while his co-director made some comments, and then he added: "California, here we come."