While attending George Mason University, I was a member of the GMU Green Machine pep band and played bass clarinet in the stands for many home basketball games and other university events. I met so many lifelong best friends in Green Machine, and had the opportunity to be interviewed alongside one of them who also has low vision, Mckenzie Love, for a segment on NBC 4. Here is how I participated in George Mason University’s Green Machine pep band with low vision and photosensitivity/photophobia in honor of Music in our Schools Month.
What is Green Machine/Pep Band?
At George Mason University, the Green Machine is made up of hundreds of musicians that play almost every instrument you can think of. In addition to traditional pep band/marching band instruments, there are string players, guitarists, vocalists, keyboardists, and percussionists, as well as dancers. The most well-known performances take place at home basketball games, where members play a variety of popular pop, rock, rap, and original student-written songs- I’ve linked a viral performance of members playing Rage Against The Machine below. Green Machine is 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!
At some schools, the pep band may be considered part of the marching band program, or something separate. Here at George Mason, there is no marching band program, and Green Machine is part of the athletic bands department.
- Marching Band and Low Vision
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- George Mason Green Machine plays Rage – LIVE! – YouTube
How and why I joined Green Machine
When I was doing interviews with different staff members at George Mason, I would often mention that I play clarinet, and they would tell me I absolutely had to join Green Machine. After stumbling across a video of Green Machine performing my favorite song (Livin’ on a Prayer), I became even more excited about joining and taped a poster of Green Machine from an alumni magazine to my bulletin board.
Signing up for Green Machine is as easy as registering for MUSI 280, but I had to do some more planning on my end about how I would participate in Green Machine. I have low vision and a neurological condition that require me to make adaptations and modifications to participate fully in band programs, so I made a list of everything I planned to do to participate. In addition, I also decided I wanted to play bass clarinet, which was not an instrument Green Machine had at the time.
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Having a meeting with Green Machine staff
I have a Disability Services file at my college, but a lot of disability accommodations listed aren’t written with band or music in mind. Before the first day of class, I had a meeting with Green Machine staff about how to implement my disability accommodations, and what I would be responsible for vs what they would help with. We decided on the following items:
- Providing digital copies of music that can be enlarged
- Talking about my photosensitivity/photophobia- how I could minimize exposure to bright and flashing lights, and lighting effects used at basketball games
- Accessing the stands and building via elevator/ADA entrances
- Being exempt from “Mason Madness”, a yearly marching performance that involves strobe lights- I could not participate in this safely due to a medical condition
- What an adverse reaction to flashing lights looks like and what to do- while this responsibility was not strictly on the staff, it helped for them to know what to do if they noticed I was getting disoriented and quiet areas nearby
- Getting copies of music in advance so they can be enlarged for class
- Figuring out where I should stand since I was the only one playing bass clarinet- I wanted to avoid being in an area where I could easily get hit with a flying basketball
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Getting accessible music
All Green Machine members keep their music in a three-ring binder that rests on their stand, with each binder containing over 90 songs. My first binder was an 11 x 17 vertical binder with large print music that dangled over a stand, and was difficult for me to carry and flip by myself. When the binder became unusable due to damage, I decided to redesign how I store my music for Green Machine, including switching to an 11 x 14 binder size that I could carry and open on my own. I talk about this system in my post “My Large Print Music Binder” linked below.
I chose to use a binder over digital music because I wear polarized sunglasses during performances to block out bright lights, which make it difficult to look at screens.
- My Large Print Music Binder
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Memorize accessible/ADA routes for the venue
When I am walking around the performance or rehearsal venue, I typically have my bass clarinet case in one hand, my blindness cane in another, and my music book in a backpack, with no free hands. Some things that helped me learn how to better navigate the arena include:
- Finding the elevator and other ADA entrances
- Having a friend or other student meet me at the entrance or another location to help with carrying items
- Looking at an ADA map of campus to learn about easier routes and building entrances
- Using disability transportation and shuttle services to make it easier to get to the arena
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- Navigating Campus In The Dark: College O&M
Request cues for flashing lights when possible
At the beginning of basketball games at George Mason, the arena goes dark and there is an array of colored and white bright and flashing lights as different players are introduced and videos play on a large screen. I knew that as soon as the announcer says “lights off/lights out” that I would need to close my eyes, and I memorized the music I would play during player introductions. I knew it was safe to open my eyes when the first few bars of Seven Nation Army began to play.
If there was another special event during halftime, a staff member would let me know that I should keep my eyes closed, and that when I heard the buzzer, it was safe for me to open my eyes again.
In previous years, strobe lights would flash when the team won a game, which surprised me the first time it happened and caused me to get disoriented. After I provided feedback to the athletic coordinator (and others did as well), this lighting effect was discontinued and replaced with a non-flashing animation.
Adapting my band uniform
Green Machine members are encouraged to add personality and flair to their band uniforms, and I wanted to combine functionality and aesthetics with mine. Some of the ways I modified my band uniform include:
- Wearing a wide brim hat that blocks out light from overheard/behind me- I found a great hat in Mason green online from the Charming Charlie brand
- Sunglasses to block out additional bright lights
- Athletic fabric shirts for layering that feel comfortable against the skin
- Comfortable athletic shoes for walking around the arena and standing in the bleachers
- Pants with pockets so I can store my phone and use it as a makeshift magnifier as needed
- Wearing a silver necklace designed by my favorite band- not for functionality, I just like how it looks with my uniform (not pictured)
- Carrying a blindness cane that can be collapsed and stored in a chair behind me
After my mom saw me in my band uniform, she asked if I was intentionally modeling my uniform after Zoot the Muppet from Electric Mayhem. I wasn’t, but when I had to get a new jersey and had an option to customize the back, I wrote “Zoot” because I found the resemblance pretty uncanny.
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How I store my instrument case
Students often have to store cases under the bleachers or in another secluded area. Since I have trouble walking in the dark, I would store my case close to the edge of the bleachers, on the same side as the ADA entrance. I never had an issue with not finding a spot to put my case, and students would move their cases if I asked them to. One of my friends mentioned using the flashlight on their phone to locate their case in the dark.
I was the only bass clarinet player, so it wasn’t difficult for me to locate my case. In other ensembles where I play soprano/Bb clarinet or am surrounded by identical cases, I would decorate my instrument case to make it easier to locate, adding fun tags, stickers, and other items to make my case stand out.
Take the time to learn choreography
Even though Green Machine isn’t a marching band, students still dance and perform other choreography for songs. Many students learn it just by watching, but since I had trouble seeing the other musicians, I asked people around me to show me what to do and how other people were doing things, and adapted moves as needed for safety reasons
Some examples of choreography include:
- Members move their arms, spin, and chant at the beginning of “Don’t Stop The Music”- I would chant and move my arms, but avoided spinning, which other people did as well
- Dancing to the school fight song and using specific hand signs/gestures
- 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
- Head banging during “Rage”- I couldn’t do this safely, especially while playing, so I asked other musicians who were playing during that song what they did instead
- Singing and moving arms at the end of “Seven Nation Army” until the first basket
Using a human guide
During my first semester of Green Machine, I didn’t make any new friends and often asked my friend in a different section to help me with different things, though they were limited since we stood in different locations. On the first day of the second semester, the director called the first sectional of the year for students to talk with each other, and two musicians from the tenor sax section came to me and asked if I would join their sectional. That is how I met one of my incredible best friends, G, who served as my first guide in Green Machine and would help me learn choreography and set up my stand, as well as just be another pair of hands/eyes when I need it. Over time, I “trained” other people on how to help me navigate the arena and help with my music, including my dear friends J, C, and S, so that I didn’t have to only rely on G.
I use the term “human guide” over “sighted guide” because someone with vision loss can still serve as a guide. For example, Mckenzie has low vision and might help me with walking down the stairs to the bleachers, and I can show her how to find the elevator that’s in a hidden location.
- How To Be An Effective Human Guide For People With Vision Loss
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My feature on NBC 4
Mckenzie and I were featured in a segment on NBC 4 Washington DC about playing in Green Machine- 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 @nbcwashington pic.twitter.com/sL5ymy6lnS
— NBC4 Sports (@NBC4Sports) March 4, 2019