Lincoln girl receives one-handed saxophone through UNK program

By Tyler Ellyson, UNK Communications

KEARNEY – You can see the joy on Claire Bahensky’s face as she plays her new saxophone.

Music makes 10-year-old Lincoln girl happy.

It’s something she discovered earlier this year as students at St. Joseph School in Lincoln prepared to move from plastic recorders to more complex instruments.

“Claire tested the saxophone really well and really enjoyed it too. She picked it up right away,” said Brenda Bahensky.

As parents, Brenda and Nate Bahensky wanted their daughter to pursue this newfound interest. But they also knew there was a chance it could end in disappointment.

Claire sustained a brachial plexus injury during delivery which resulted in extensive nerve damage in her left arm. She has undergone three surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy over the past decade.

“It gave her a little bit of function in her left hand, but not enough to play a regular saxophone,” Brenda explained.

Instead of telling their daughter, “No, you can’t,” the Bahenskys decided to explore their options. Megan Burkle, a close friend and former band teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School, offered some advice.

Burkle attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney and took lessons from music professor David Nabb, a leading voice for musicians with disabilities. She knew he could help.

Program for one-handed woodwinds

Nabb was just 37 years old when he suffered a stroke in February 2000 that left him paralyzed and threatened to end his professional career.

Despite being unable to speak, walk or support himself for a time, Nabb never lost his desire to make music, which he still does thanks to a life-changing innovation. Nabb returned to his job at UNK in 2001 with a one-of-a-kind saxophone designed and built by Jeff Stelling, a UNK graduate and owner of Stelling Brass & Winds in Kearney.

The unique instrument, which features a toggle key system that allows it to be played with one hand, took around 1,600 hours to produce. The saxophone consists of around 750 individual parts.

“They’re Orange County choppers on steroids,” Nabb said of the complex build process.

“Oh yes, and more,” Stelling quickly added.

Her invention has received awards worldwide, including from the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust, the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, the National Association of Music Merchants, the Kennedy Center, and the OHMI/Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.

Nabb played the original prototype until 2003 when his current Yamaha sax was upgraded to the toggle key mechanism. Since then, the two men have provided adaptive tools to other people with disabilities as part of the UNK One-Handed Woodwinds Program.

Stelling has built a total of six saxophones – each designed for a person’s specific needs – and has customized many other instruments while maintaining his instrument repair and custom horn building business.

“I never thought about that until it happened to David,” Stelling said. “There is a tremendous need for adaptive instruments for people because music is such an integral part of people’s lives. It’s great to be able to give them that.”

The prototype used by Nabb was rented out to musicians in South Carolina, New York, Connecticut and Hawaii. Claire Bahensky was the sixth person to receive this special instrument last month.

“My illness was a tremendous challenge for me to deal with, but that’s a good thing to come out of it,” said Nabb, who has written articles on adaptive tools for national and international publications. “It’s just great to see that Claire and her family are getting help. It’s wonderfully satisfying.”

After some modifications to ensure the instrument would properly fit a fifth grader, the Bahenskys picked up the saxophone on October 29 in Kearney, where Claire’s grandparents, Dan and Beth, live.

It was an emotional moment for the family.

“We’ve seen a lot of doors that were closed to her over the past 10 years because of her injury, a lot of things she just can’t do, so it’s nice to see a door that’s open to her,” Brenda said. “I’ve seen her work very hard for things that come very easily to other people. Now she gets the chance to be just like everyone else.

“And I think she’s already pretty good, so that gives her an opportunity to be really, really good one day.”

Music in Lincoln’s Catholic Schools

(SNR) – The Catholic schools in the city of Lincoln have a common instrumental music program. 320 students from grades 5-8 take part in the nine primary schools.

The students are taught by several teachers. They include Jared J. Wilhelm, department chair and principal at Pius X High School in Lincoln, as well as Joshua Kirkwood, Melissa King and Brock Nutter. Kelsey Bugarin is their Pius Administrator and Supervisor.

The teachers cover teaching at nine elementary schools and Pius X. They visit each elementary school two or three times a week and teach band classes and group band for grades 5-8.

“Music lessons are great for students in many ways,” Wilhelm said. “Research has shown that instrumental music helps students in a variety of ways, both musically and non-musically. It has been shown to improve executive and cognitive functioning, improve test scores, support critical thinking, and teach creativity and social skills.

“It’s also great for teaching students music for lifelong learning and enjoyment,” he added. “They can participate in and improve the music in our churches.”

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