Playing in GMU Green Machine Pep Band with Vision Impairment

One of the fun facts I like to share about myself is that I play bass clarinet for my school pep band, the GMU Green Machine. Anyone who is from the area is frequently surprised that I am able to play in the pep band with vision impairment, because there is so much movement and so many different songs. I love the chaos, and am currently in my third year of playing for Green Machine, and I love it.

Last night, I was interviewed by NBC 4 (Washington DC affiliate) alongside one of my best friends, McKenzie, about what it's like playing in Green Machine and pep band with vision impairment. Today, I will be sharing my tips for playing in different pep bands and what has worked for me, in honor of Music in our Schools Month. Scroll to the end of the post to see the NBC segment.

What is a pep band?

In this context, a pep band is a non-marching band that plays at school and athletic events. Most of the music they play is recognizable pop and rock songs, along with the school fight song and the Star Spangled Banner. Many middle schools, high schools, and colleges have a pep band ranging from being an informal group of students to hundreds of musicians.

Some examples of places where pep bands may play include:

  • The bleachers at a football game
  • In the school pep rally
  • In the stands at a basketball game
  • Outside at a soccer game
  • For special events such as back-to-school night

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What is the GMU Green Machine?

The GMU Green Machine, at surface level, is the college pep band for George Mason University. However, it's much different than your ordinary pep band, and I'm not just saying that because I am a member and have been for three seasons.

The Green Machine is made up of hundreds of musicians that play almost every instrument you can think of. Besides the traditional pep band instruments, we have strings players, guitarists, vocalists, keyboardists, and percussionists. Our main performances take place at basketball games, where we play quite the variety of songs from artists such as Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Rage Against The Machine, Beyonce, Bruno Mars, and more. We're also the number one pep band in the NCAA and have been ranked nationally and internationally as one of the most interesting pep bands to watch. It's a lot of fun to play in!

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Some background on me

From the moment I first saw a video of Green Machine playing my favorite song (Livin' on a Prayer by Bon Jovi), I knew that I wanted to join the pep band when I got to George Mason. I even had a poster of the Green Machine from an alumni magazine pinned on my bulletin board. However, I knew that I wouldn't be able to just walk in and grab a music book just like everyone else, and I had to think about accommodations so I could play.

I have low vision as the result of two separate eye and brain conditions called accommodative esotropia and Chiari Malformation. In addition, the Chiari causes me to have difficulty with walking, moving around, and it also causes chronic migraines, with one of the largest triggers being flashing lights. I also wanted to play bass clarinet, an instrument that the Green Machine didn't have at the time. While I knew my accommodations wouldn't be obtrusive or keep me from playing, I did have to make sure people understood what they were.

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Talk to directors ahead of time

Before the first day of class, I met with the directors of Green Machine and explained what accommodations I would need. These accommodations slightly differed from what my Disability Services file had listed, because reading music on a music stand is much different than reading a book on a table. Also, there aren't (usually) any flashing lights in my college classes, so it was important that I explain my light sensitivity and the importance of knowing what lights would go off at the basketball games and when.

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Have music available in accessible formats

All Green Machine members keep their music in a three-ring binder. Since I can't read the small print music in the normal binder, I have my own large print binder that has all of my music inside. My first binder was very large and heavy, but since then I have designed my own large-print music binder that is easy to carry around and fits in a bag. I enlarged most of my music myself, but Green Machine staff members gave me enlarged copies of music as well.

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Memorize accessible/ADA routes for the area you play in

I frequently have my hands full when I am navigating the arena we play in, as I have my bass clarinet in one hand and my blindness cane in the other, plus my music book on my shoulder. As a result, I have trouble navigating down the steep stairs in the arena. I learned from arena staff where the elevators and ADA routes for the building are, so that way I can get to the stands in a safe way and not worry about dropping everything. I also travel with a friend whenever possible- more on that in a minute.

Learn the cues for the performance

At the beginning of every basketball game, the overhead lights go out and then colored lights swirl around the arena. Videos play on a large screen, many of them with strobe or flashing effects. While this looks awesome for attendees, it is a giant migraine trigger for me, so I memorized the music we play in the dark so I don't have to worry about opening my eyes. For a while, the lights would also repeatedly flash at the end of a basketball game if we won, but I am glad to report that doesn't happen anymore.

If needed, block out lights with a hat and/or glasses

The lights at a pep band performance can be very bright! I wear sunglasses when I am playing and have a hat that blocks light from behind me so that it doesn't reflect on my stand. Green Machine members are encouraged to make their uniform stand out, so I don't strange for having my large hat and glasses.

Veronica standing next to a picture of Zoot the muppet. Both are wearing a large hat, yellow shirt, sunglasses, and holding their instruments

My mom told me I look like Zoot the Muppet with my uniform on

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Put your instrument in an easy-to-find space

Pep bands frequently have to store instruments on the sidelines or under the stands. Make sure your instrument is in a well-lit and easy to find area so that you don't have to stumble around in the dark trying to find it.

For people that play more common instruments, I recommend having distinctive decorations on your case so that you don't confuse it with someone else's. Since I am the only bass clarinet player, I don't have this problem.

Take the time to learn choreography

A lot of pep bands have their own choreography, or things that they do during certain songs. Green Machine has lots of choreography for different songs, including dancing, singing, and different chants. I had a few people sit down and spend time teaching me what to do and when, since I can't see what everyone else is doing during the game. There are other parts of the choreography that I slightly modify so that I can do them.

Some examples of choreography include:

  • Everyone spinning around and chanting at the beginning of "Don't Stop The Music"- I just stand there and chant so I don't run into people
  • Dancing to the school fight song and using specific hand signs
  • Singing the chorus of "Misery Business" when everyone is resting
  • Pointing in a specific direction during "Battle of Honor and Humanity"
  • Clapping before and after the song "Power" with a specific rhythm

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Have a guide to help you, if needed

During my first semester in Green Machine, I didn't have a permanent guide to help me with navigating the stands or understanding choreography. I was frequently lost and confused, until my band directors introduced me to one of my now-best friends who helped me learn everything and helped me with balancing my music. Since then, I now have about three people that are "trained" to help me with adjusting my music stand, describing visual cues, and even narrating the basketball game. Thank you to J, G, and C!

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Have fun!

Being in a pep band is an awesome experience, and I am proud to be a member of the GMU Green Machine. This video from NBC 4 sums up how great Green Machine is better than I could- check it out below!

GOING GREEN: One of the lasting legacies of @MasonMBB's Final Four run... the Green Machine! And as @CaryChow_ explains, the band is bringing both pep to George Mason fans and purpose to its members @gmugreenmachine@MasonAthletics @GeorgeMasonU @DocNix12  @nbcwashingtonpic.twitter.com/sL5ymy6lnS

— NBC4 Sports (@NBC4Sports) March 4, 2019