Marching to his own beat

Kristy Mason

Munfordville junior James Fitzstephens looked over to his walker, an aid that he has depended on since he was 4.

He was ready to answer the question he is constantly asked.

“Many people can’t understand how I’m able to help a band when I don’t even have the ability to march,” Fitzstephens said.

Fitzstephens, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after birth, travels to Louisville four times a week to help the trumpet section and color guard of Butler Traditional High School’s marching band.

Fitzstephens’ disability makes it difficult for him to stand, much less march. But his students are helping him fulfill a dream.

“I’ve always wanted to march, but I never had the chance,” Fitzstephens said. “However, seeing the students I teach on the marching field, knowing I taught them, makes me feel like I’m right there with them on the field.”

Fitzstephens was born two months premature with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy – an inability to control movement caused by nonregressive brain damage resulting from a birth injury.

As Fitzstephens was going through physical therapy, he began to gain more strength in his hands by playing the trumpet. He has been playing for nine years.

After learning the trumpet, Fitzstephens became a teacher faster than he planned.

Three years ago, Tina Turner, instructor of Butler’s color guard and Fitzstephens’ friend, asked him to come with her to Louisville to help with visual drills and offer suggestions.

He soon began working with the trumpet section as well as helping Turner with the color guard.

“I’m here for them,” Fitzstephens said. “I love what I do and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want to help, I feel I will benefit someone in some way, whether it would be teaching performance technique or just lending a friendly ear.”

Fitzstephens said that the Butler band members have been a positive influence.

“They are a very outgoing and enthusiastic group of kids,” he said. “They always make me laugh. They are an extension to my family.”

Trumpet section members Jesse Schuler and Andrew Dewitt both said that Fitzstephens has improved their performances.

Dewitt, a high school sophomore at Butler, has played the trumpet for four years and really appreciates Fitzstephens input.

“He’s helped me in a lot of ways,” Dewitt said. “He is a person I can talk to about anything. He’ll do anything to help you. He’ll go home and learn more techniques of the trumpet to teach us.”

Schuler, a high school junior, has noticed an improvement in his playing with Fitzstephens’ assistance.

“He helps everyone,” Schuler said. “He wants us to have nice sound and tone quality. He’s helped me hit higher notes by teaching me to work on breathing exercises.”

But the band members aren’t the only ones learning. Being a teacher has taught Fitzstephens a lesson as well.

“I have a new-found respect for anyone who teaches,” Fitzstephens said. “There is a lot of effort and preparation behind the scenes that students don’t see.”

Barry Milner, the Butler band director, appreciates Fitzstephens’ positive attitude and the training he brings to every practice.

“He’s a really great help to me as far as helping the kids,” Milner said. “He is a salt of the earth kind of guy and is well liked among the kids. He is making a difference in their lives.”

Along with helping the Butler band, Fitzstephens is a full-time student, a member of Hall Government and works part time at the front desk of McLean Hall.

With a major in television production and a minor in music performance, Fitzstephens plans to get a master’s degree in film in hopes to direct and produce one day.

Fitzstephens said he looks at challenges as tasks to overcome. Even though he constantly requires a walker, he will never let it bother him.

“I’ve never considered myself disabled,” Fitzstephens said. “I’ve always been able to do anything I’ve ever set out to do. I’ve just had help along the way, and who doesn’t need help once in a while?

“Life is a deck of cards. You’re only dealt one hand. It’s up to you to play or to fold. I’m not folding. I’m still in this game.”

Reach Kristy L. Mason at [email protected]