Blind freshman finds tradition and spirit as member of Auburn University Marching Band

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Auburn freshman Tripp Gulledge is an accomplished musician. Before coming to the Plains, he was drum major of his high school band for two years, consistently earned first chair symphonic band honors and spent four years playing in the Alabama All-State band.

This fall, the Mobile native earned a spot playing French horn with the Auburn University Marching Band. All this, without the benefit of sight. Since the eighth grade, Gulledge has been completely blind.

"You just have to be in awe over him," said Rick Good, director of bands at Auburn University. "He's determined. He's resilient. He knows his art form. He's a very talented musician. It's almost like you learn more from him than he's learning from you."

Before Gulledge decided to come to Auburn, he knew he was looking for a university not only with a strong music department, but also one with a strong sense of pride and emphasis on tradition. He said Auburn surpassed these qualifications.

"I saw a music department that had incredible faculty that was willing to work with me in every way they could to ensure my success," Gulledge said. "I saw Auburn as the perfect combination of a small department where I could get to know the faculty, and a large university where I could find plenty of places to plug in and fill my free time."

To become a member of the Auburn University Marching band Gulledge had to go through the same audition process that all potential members must go through, which includes a pre-season camp and an audition. Through this process the band directors ensured that Gulledge was given every opportunity to succeed while still remaining fair to the rest of the students auditioning.

"Once we knew he made the band, we starting thinking of how we could be accommodating moving forward," said Corey Spurlin, associate director of bands and marching band director. "We wanted to give him a really great experience and every possible opportunity to benefit from the organization just like all the other students."

One consideration that was discussed at the beginning of the season was the issue of safety and what Gulledge's limitations would be. A large part of marching band requires sight to be able to react to the people around you, Spurlin explained.

"Even as intelligent as he is, he would not be able to respond and react to some of the high tempo drills, so it becomes a safety issue," Spurlin said. "That's why he isn't always out there in every single show that we do, but we're definitely trying to incorporate him as much as we can."

In order to allow Gulledge to march on the field, several of the assistant band directors came up with unique ideas and built contraptions to help him stay in the required block formation. Gulledge was able to march on the field and perform during the AU Marching Honor Band show for the Jacksonville State game, as well as during the Auburn Alumni Band show for the San Jose State game.

"We do what we do because we are representing Auburn University, and we are proud to support our team," Gulledge said. "I love that it is expected that you continue to yell when we're on defense and cheer at the top of your lungs, even when we're down by four touchdowns late in a game."

Gulledge attributes his desire to put music at a focal point in his life to his Murphy High School marching band director, who was his greatest role model.

"He showed me the most incredible example of dedication to his students and to his musical endeavors," Gulledge said. "Until I got to play under his direction, I only saw music as an interest; he helped me realize it was possible for me to make a career out of my love for it."

As a young child, Gulledge was able to see, although his vision was limited.

"From the time I was born, my vision began regressing. What vision I had left was good enough to read at close distance, identify colors, recognize features like hair and skin color of a person and navigate school without a cane," Gulledge said.

At the age of five Gulledge began taking piano lessons, continuing until the end of elementary school.

"I always found that music just made sense to me in a way similar to speaking English," Gulledge said.

In middle school he picked up the French horn and has been playing it ever since. It was also in middle school, right before his fourteenth birthday, when doctors noticed that the retina in his right eye was beginning to detach. They began an eight-month process of stabilizing the retina before moving forward with surgery to reattach the retina, reinforce the reattachment with laser and remove cataracts in his right eye. This surgery left him without vision in either eye.

Gulledge has adjusted well to his life without sight, due in part to his guide dog, Dakota.

"Dakota was one of the most brilliant dogs of his class and has worked incredibly hard for me," Gulledge said. "Sometimes I think he's even smarter than I am."

Going forward, Gulledge's doctors are waiting on new technology to be developed further before proceeding with any other surgeries. Advancement in this technology would provide a permanent solution, such as an artificial retina. He is hopeful that he will regain at least some vision in the future.

"I have learned in my brief time at Auburn that when you pause for a moment and look at what you are really here for, be it both your plan and God's plan, and then dedicate all your hard work to fulfilling those purposes, everything else will take care of itself," Gulledge said.

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