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A sense of place

Even without her sight, Stephanie Fernandes keeps in step with the BC marching band

Email|Print| Text size + By Reeves Wiedeman
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2007

Stephanie Fernandes starts 40 seconds of marching band hell by squeezing between a tuba and trumpet. Marching backward, she becomes the center axis in a pinwheel of saxophones and tubas, spinning 360 degrees into a field-length company front as she slides between another trumpet and mellophone.

Forward . . . left . . . backward . . . between yet another pair of tubas.

And, finally, a breather.

Sixteen direction changes in 40 seconds, 10 more than the average, tests the patience and coordination of every piccolo player in the Boston College marching band during its Western-themed halftime show. But Fernandes isn't fazed. Forming the bottom-left corner of the on-field "B" in "Boston College," even the roar of 44,500 fans packed into Alumni Stadium can't shake her. The freshman from Steubenville, Ohio, was nervous stepping onto the field for her first college marching band performance, sure, but entering Alumni wasn't any different than the four years she spent marching in Steubenville High School's Harding Stadium.

Fernandes simply readies to hit the first note of "For Boston," sending the Eagles onto the field and the stadium into a frenzy - the same note the marching band will hit a final time this year at Friday's Champs Sports Bowl in Or lando, Fla. (a performance Fernandes will miss because of her commitments as a soprano in BC's University Chorale).

Her focus is on where she needs to sprint next, on what note she needs to hit in perfect pitch. She had known marching band was for her well before she arrived at BC. Standing on this field had been her goal well before she sent the e-mail to the marching band's director this summer, the e-mail that read:

"For the past four years, band has been a major part of my life, and I believe I would like to continue performing.

However, I am totally blind."

When Fernandes was born, she looked right into her parents' eyes.

It seemed that this time, Dave and Terri, had gotten lucky. They had been shocked four years earlier when they found out their newborn son, Steph's brother Nate, was blind. Nate's eyes were fine, but his retina was malformed - a working camera without any film. Dave and Terri decided to go through genetic counseling, where they discovered an unknown and unwelcome compatibility: a recessive gene that, when combined, gave each of their children a 25 percent chance of contracting Leber's congenital amaurosis.

They now knew there was the same 25 percent chance their second child, a girl, would be blind just like her older brother. But two months went by, and Steph's vision stayed clear - Nate had a sister, and the Fernandeses' odds had evened out.

Then, excruciatingly quickly, Steph's vision began to fade.

In six years as section instructor for the BC marching band's woodwinds, Brian Fulks had never heard anyone hit the double B flat. He expected, as the band entered its first rehearsal of a Tchaikovsky suite, that he would have to strike the note from the score as he did each year.

Fulks recalls stopping the band after hearing a pitch-perfect double B-flat pierce the practice room and saying: "Wow, who was that?"

"Oh, that was me," Fernandes said. "Sorry."

"No," Fulks said. "That was perfect."

Some studies have found that blind musicians are more likely than their sighted bandmates to have perfect pitch, that rarest of gifts that is the envy of musicians everywhere. A 2004 study in Nature magazine found that people born blind or who went blind early in childhood are better able to recognize variations in pitch than are sighted people. This doesn't necessarily make someone a superior musician. But it doesn't hurt.

"I really think she has this sixth sense about music," says the marching band's piccolo section leader, Katy Morrissey. "Without even seeing the conductor, she can tell when we start to speed up or even when the conductor is going to end the song. She never makes mistakes."

But despite her musical virtuosity, simply knowing what to play presents challenges for Fernandes. Sheet music does her little good, as she depends on Braille transcripts, recordings, and mostly trial and error. This all seems to have helped her musical ear: She even corrected Fulks on what note she should be playing once, with the director admitting his mistake after checking the sheet music that Fernandes would never see.

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

That's the first essay question listed on the Common Application, the gateway into Boston College. The responses are typically filled with tales of disabilities conquered, challenges surmounted, and trauma overcome.

But Fernandes did not mention her blindness - perhaps the ultimate disability, challenge, or trauma - in her application to BC last year. She didn't have to. She had a 4.0 grade point average in high school and a good score on the standardized ACT college admission test, despite algebra textbooks that took up four volumes in Braille. Each assignment took multiple attempts - once or twice in Braille for herself, then again to turn in to her teachers - consistently keeping her up till 1 a.m. She turned down a full ride to Providence College. She did marching band, chorus, and drama not for her resume but because she loved each one. She was named the best attorney on the Steubenville High School mock trial team her sophomore and junior years. Like any good lawyer who values stage presence, she scoped out the courtroom before each trial to find the jury box and witness stand. She made one opponent cry.

"She went big," Nate Fernandes says, recalling his sister's ruthlessness at the bench. "And I guess the other girl went home."

It's this side that Nate gets to see more than most - Steph's competitive streak. She is a perfectionist. She makes calculated decisions, typically not those that involve moving halfway across the country to a school where she is the only blind undergrad. She is organized, perhaps a result of the classical music she's played all her life, or so Terri says a study once told her. Dave used to call his daughter a little dictator.

It is near impossible to get Fernandes to complain. About living in a forced triple. About not having her Braille textbooks for three weeks because the company lost her order. And certainly not about being blind.

"I have it pretty easy, because they tried everything out on Nate and then said, 'Oh, that didn't work, guess we'll try something else on Steph,' " she says.

Nate certainly paved the way for Steph in marching band. Nate was a drummer, and drummers can talk to one another on the field. A short "Step up" or "Just a bit to the right" from his bandmates was enough to send Nate in the right direction.

"In middle school, people said, 'He'll do it a couple years, and then we won't have to deal with it anymore,' " says Nate, who no longer marches but still plays keyboards at church in Dayton, Ohio. "But when I stuck around, people realized they'd have to deal with me."

So when Steph wanted to join, blindness was nothing new for the Steubenville band. But things were different. It's not quite so easy talking to someone next to you with your lips on a piccolo's mouthpiece.

Outwardly, her mother said OK. Inwardly, she groaned.

"I thought, 'There's so much on our plate, oh shoot, now what are we gonna do,' " Terri says. "This is one of those times where people told us 'There's no way. You gotta be kidding.' "

But Steph wasn't kidding. Her neighbor and best friend, Caitlin Beach, had always wanted to be in the marching band, but she didn't play an instrument. Steph was her ticket in: Beach would guide Fernandes around the field by the shoulders while Fernandes played her piccolo and did her best to stay in formation. Fernandes marched at each home football game as the Big Red won every game it played during her four years, including two state championships.

When Fernandes arrived at BC - the only piccolo who had already memorized the band's first set of music - she wanted no special treatment. Band director Dave Healey had already concocted a plan similar to the one Fernandes used in high school. A fellow freshman learning the marches along with Fernandes would guide her around the field by the shoulder. But the duo quickly failed. The freshman told Fulks she couldn't learn the steps herself and be responsible for keeping Fernandes in one piece.

"It broke my heart to think that [Fernandes] might have to be on the sidelines as one of the best players in the band," Morrissey says.

Fernandes got frustrated and distressed - not because she couldn't march but because she blamed herself for making things hard on another band member. Many of the senior piccolo players understandably did not want to give up their final year of marching. It seemed unlikely that Fernandes would get onto the field.

Then Krystle North showed up. A two-year marching band veteran, North volunteered to give leading Fernandes a try - "It's better that Steph play than I play," she remembers telling Morrissey.

North questioned whether they could pull off the band's lightning-quick halftime show, when there's no time to whisper changes of direction into Fernandes's right ear. The arrangement wasn't perfect. North once sent Fernandes marching straight into a trash can. But the pair began to click, moving almost like one body.

If anything, it is now North who looks nervous squiring Fernandes through flying tubas and cruising snare drums as she barks movements into Fernandes's ear. North says she has steered Fernandes in the wrong direction on several occasions only to have her charge drag her the right way.

"If Steph had to march without Krystle, she could probably do it," Healey says. "I hope she can sense the energy in the stadium, because it's palpable to the rest of us. I just hope she can feel that."

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