Blind percussionist overcomes obstacles to excel

Greg Dodge

The ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the Northwestern State University snare drums means it’s almost show time for Gregory Dodge.

Dodge is positioned on the home sideline with his mallets and drum sticks in a precise location, on a wooden table attached to a vibraphone in the NSU front ensemble section.

The junior can feel the excitement of the thousands in Turpin Stadium awaiting the halftime performance of the Spirit of Northwestern, NSU’s marching band.

He can hear the cheers, he can touch the turf and he can smell the savory meats of nearby tailgating.

But he can’t see. He can’t see the drum majors standing atop the podium that spring the band into action with the motion of their arms.

He can’t see the concert bass drum, the gong or the suspended cymbal that he strikes.

Dodge, who is blind, relies on the clacking of sticks on drum rims to signal the field show is about to commence.

“I’ve always enjoyed being out in front of people in performances,” said Dodge, a Dry Prong native who wrapped up his third season in marching band with last Saturday’s football game against McNeese. “I love the feeling of performing like that.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s not always easy, but the rewards are well worth all the effort. And I’d be lost without the drum line — I wouldn’t know when to start. This year, I have a hit on measure one, count one, so I have to have that.”

His vision is non-existent except for being able to detect the presence of light in his left eye. He uses a long, white probing cane to maneuver around campus.

Before the drum taps, Dodge, who describes himself as “musically inclined” from a young age, said it was the sound of toy musical instruments that spurred his interest.

Dodge learned to play the recorder in elementary school by memorizing music like “Hot Cross Buns,” but it was a visit from the junior high band that cemented his musical path.

“The junior high band would come on a tour of schools and play a small concert,” Dodge said. “I thought those instruments were a lot better than the recorder — I thought they had the most amazing sound ever.”

Dodge recalls a sixth-grade music test in which he listened to 41 different instrument audio clips — exactly 41 — to determine which instrument he’d like best.

He tried all of the instruments, eventually settling on the trombone. He didn’t score any points on the trombone in his “test.”

“I was drawn to the sound of the trombone, and the concept of the slide is really cool,” Dodge said. “There wasn’t complicated fingering patterns with valves, although I remembered those too because our band director drilled it into other players’ heads.”

Dodge learned to read music by listening. He listened to his bandmates beside him play the part, and he could copy what they did and eventually sync his part with the rest of the band.

“In junior high, the music was pretty easy,” Dodge said. “At (Grant High School), it was more complicated, but I had a really good trombone player beside me when I was a freshman, and that was beneficial.

“Eventually, my band director would record my parts on a CD that I could take home and listen to. I could easily hear my part, then hear it in context when the rest of the band plays.”

That method of learning continues to the present, where Dodge also plays trombone in a spring semester concert band.

Instead of a CD, members of the band can email him audio files of his part that he can access on his phone.

Dodge said he has a “decent memory,” but he wouldn’t call himself “an elephant.”

“Memorizing music parts are kind of second nature for me, and I have a musical ear,” Dodge said. “I listen to talent competitions on TV, and I analyze it from a music theory point of view what that person does.

“The moment somebody sings a note out of tune, it hurts my ears. That’s why I like ‘The Voice,’ because they let only people who can sing well on that show.”

Dodge learns his front ensemble parts just by directors or other ensemble members telling him what part of the song the strikes occur and on which instrument.

“They’ll me that I have a bass drum and gong hit at measure five … so it’s really not that hard to get since there aren’t different notes,” Dodge said. “In the second show of my freshman year, one of our new graduate assistants told me that I had a ‘bong’ hit at measure five.

“I was thinking, ‘Wait, I didn’t realize it was that kind of show, whoa.’ I mean the song was, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,’ by Elton John, so I wasn’t sure. He clarified that a ‘bong’ hit meant bass drum and gong. There’s usually more of an effect when you hit them together.”

Oliver Molina, assistant director of bands and leader of percussion, said Dodge is a valuable member of the front ensemble, which includes stationary percussion instruments that are too big to march with like xylophones and marimbas.

“Greg is a fun guy who will tell you about his love of football,” Molina said. “He definitely adds a sense of humor to the group and adds musical impact to the show.”

Back at Grant High School, Dodge contemplated marching with the band. But he settled for being a front ensemble member on the field and playing trombone in the stands.

“It is possible for blind people to march, but we had a new band director who had no experience of teaching a blind person to march,” Dodge said. “I had planned to march my senior year, but one of the (front ensemble) guys missed our last competition of my junior year.

“The band director told us to not load his stuff, but I said that I knew his part because I’ve listened to it long enough. None of it interfered with my part, so I played it. That’s the reason I decided to stay in front ensemble even into college.”

The communication major said he considered marching in college, but he didn’t think it was fair to make more than 300 other band members learn to march with a blind member.

“That’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world, and I figured it would be a bit annoying to try to do all that,” Dodge said. “It’s too much of a hassle for me to learn to march.

“Honestly, I’m perfectly happy in the front ensemble. One of my personal beliefs is that you can never truly succeed in life by taking the easy way out. Sometimes you can make it a little easier and that’s fine, but I definitely try to challenge myself and strive for excellence. That’s not just in band but in college, too.”