It's a crisp, fall afternoon, and near the sidewalks by LaFollete Field, backpacks litter the grass.
There is a persistent thumping sound coming from the field. The sound is reminiscent of a person clapping, but it's too roaring to be from one source.
A passerby’s attention immediately turns to the rows of people lined up in vertical and horizontal lines across the field.
They stand with an upright posture, even though they’re each holding instruments. Look through each line, and notice all their eyes fixated on something from above —Caroline Hand, associate professor of music performance and associate director of bands, is standing on a podium elevated from the ground. She’s performing different hand signals and echoing authoritative messages, to which the band members precisely follow. After one group moves, the next group follows.
Eventually, all participants are moving in different directions.
Look closer. You will see junior Ethan Atterson, playing the trumpet and moving at his own pace on a journey that started when he was a little boy.
Growing up, Atterson’s two grandmothers, Bona Jean Atterson and Shirley Hinshaw, each played the piano — Atterson for her love of music and Hinshaw, who took lessons as a child — for the family at Christmas. Atterson’s family had a piano in their house, but when they moved houses in 2005, the family sold it, as they didn’t want to damage the new house's floors.
After they moved in, Atterson’s family received a free used piano from friends, and Ethan began taking piano lessons in sixth grade. However, Ethan’s mother, Karen Atterson, who was involved in choir and took piano lessons for a few years, didn’t notice his passion for music until middle school.
At 10 years old, Atterson learned he would live the rest of his life in a wheelchair because of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic illness involving the weakening of muscles because they lack a certain protein called dystrophin, but his diagnosis didn’t prevent him from pursuing his curiosities.
“As a seventh-grader, he decided he wanted to do things,” Karen Atterson said. “So, we had him try out the instruments. He had a couple of good friends that wanted to do band, so they were kind of like a trio, and it grew from there. He’s one of those kids who, if he is supposed to be practicing, he just religiously practices.”
In seventh grade, Atterson first picked up a trumpet. He immediately felt a connection to the instrument he hadn’t necessarily felt with the piano, the only other instrument he’d ever played. Throughout high school, he was unsure of what he wanted to do with music until he attended a music camp at Ball State during his junior year of high school.
“We were rehearsing a piece with a composer, actually, and I got to have a pretty interesting conversation with him afterward,” Atterson said. “I've come to realize from that conversation that music is more than just something to create — it can be made to change other people's lives, by the meaning behind the music. That's a big thing that's always been a part of me, is wanting to make the world somehow better from my existence.”
In 2019, Atterson graduated from New Castle High School in New Castle, Indiana. Hand met Atterson during his camp visit and, since joining The Pride of Mid-America Marching Band in August 2019, she said his relationship with him has grown.
“I knew Ethan as a trumpet player when he first attended that camp but have now come to know him as a better composer, student, leader and disability advocate,” Hand said.
He isn't physically marching, but Atterson sits in his wheelchair on the sideline, playing his trumpet as part of The Pride of Mid-America Marching Band (POMA).
The decision to join POMA was easy for Atterson, who relishes uplifting those in attendance.
“Marching bands and other methods of music-making have the ability to touch the lives of millions,” Atterson said. “You see other marching bands from other universities get televised halftime shows sometimes and, even though we don't get that at Ball State all the time, we still have a chance to play for a huge crowd and, hopefully, make at least one person’s day better by having played our music.”
In addition to performing, Atterson composes music and participates in the Ball State Campus Orchestra. This semester, he was accepted into the School of Music and will begin courses in spring 2022.
However, Atterson said balancing all his responsibilities can drain him mentally and physically. In 2016, he was diagnosed with depression.
“It can be very tough on your mental capacity, and it has been for me, for sure,” he said. “It can be hard to fit in socially. [It] can be hard to find your way. Even as a musician, there are certain things that can be hard, and you have to constantly advocate for yourself, which is a good thing. I encourage everybody to advocate for themselves but, to a point, it can get exhausting when you have to do that all the time.”
Atterson’s hands have a contracture in them, which forces his fingers to bend back into a fist. When playing fast passages, Atterson said it's “incredibly difficult” to move his fingers and, with muscular dystrophy, his lungs make it harder to breathe. Music has its challenges, Atterson said, but he believes people make it worthwhile.
“It's very hard sometimes, but with the individual people that are willing to be accepting and everything, there is hope,” Atterson said. “Even if it's not the whole society, there are still the individual people in our lives who are important and do listen to us and do help us and do care.”
For Atterson, his mother is one of his main sources of hope. During his time at New Castle, she drove him to marching band competitions and now helps him prepare on game days when he needs assistance.
“We're proud of him,” Karen Atterson said. “I think a lot of people thought, ‘Well, he can't do that,’ but he was always accommodated in high school for marching band, and he's continued to do that in college. We get that feeling in your chest, ‘That's my kid up there,’ but I’m happy because that's what makes him happy.”
Atterson keeps in close touch with a community of disabled musicians and said the individual people he's met through music-making have helped change his life for the better.
“To be honest, the individual people I've met through music-making, there are some wonderful souls who really changed my life for the better,” Atterson said. “What keeps me going in life is the fact that I can meet so many more amazing people by progressing on the path I'm going on and really make a difference in this world by meeting these other people. When powerful minds collide, powerful things can happen to make the world better.”
After he graduates in the spring 2024 semester with a bachelor’s degree in arts and music, Atterson said he hopes to become a composer and conductor for a major symphony. He wants to use his platform to raise awareness for disabled people and show they are qualified to operate in leadership positions.
“I think that music has the ability to allow disabled people to participate more in mainstream society,” Atterson said. “We have to just keep going, keep pushing and doing what we're doing, especially in music, or really any field for that matter, because our jobs that we do in our lives can positively affect other people.”