By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – You can see the joy on Claire Bahensky’s face when she plays her new saxophone.
Music makes the 10-year-old Lincoln girl happy.
It’s something she discovered earlier this year, when students at St. Joseph Catholic School were preparing to transition from plastic recorders to more complex instruments.
“Claire tested really well on the saxophone 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 that caused significant nerve damage in her left arm. She’s undergone three surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy over the past decade.
“She’s gained a little bit of function in her left hand from that, but not enough to play a standard saxophone,” Brenda explained.
Instead of telling their daughter, “No, you can’t do that,” the Bahenskys decided to explore their options. That’s when 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 classes with music professor David Nabb, a leading voice for musicians with disabilities. She knew he could help.
ONE-HANDED WOODWINDS PROGRAM
Nabb was just 37 years old when he suffered a stroke in February 2000 that paralyzed the left side of his body and threatened to end his professional career.
Although he was unable to speak, walk or feed himself for a time, Nabb never lost the desire to make music, something he continues to do 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.
It took roughly 1,600 hours to create the unique instrument, which features a toggle-key system that allows it to be played with one hand. The saxophone has around 750 individual parts.
“It’s Orange County Choppers on steroids,” Nabb said of the complex building process.
“Oh yeah, and then some,” Stelling quickly added.
Their invention has received worldwide accolades, including awards from the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust, National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians, National Association of Music Merchants, Kennedy Center and OHMI/Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.
Nabb played the original prototype until 2003, when his current Yamaha saxophone was converted to the toggle-key mechanism. Since then, the two men have made adaptive instruments available to other people with disabilities through the UNK One-Handed Woodwinds Program.
Stelling has built a total of six saxophones – each one designed for an individual’s specific needs – and adapted many other instruments, all while maintaining his instrument repair and custom horn-building business.
“It’s something I never thought about until it happened to David,” Stelling said. “There’s a huge need for adaptive instruments for people, because music is such an inherent part of people’s lives. It’s great to be able to give that to them.”
The prototype first used by Nabb has been leased to musicians in South Carolina, New York, Connecticut and Hawaii. Last month, Claire Bahensky became the sixth person to receive this special instrument.
“My illness has been a tremendous challenge for me to deal with, but this is something good that’s come out of it,” said Nabb, who’s written articles on adaptive instruments for national and international publications. “It’s just great to see Claire and her family get some help. It’s wonderfully gratifying.”
After some modifications to ensure the instrument properly fits a fifth grader, the Bahenskys picked up the saxophone Oct. 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 have been closed to her over the last 10 years because of her injury, a lot of things that she just can’t do, so it’s nice to see a door that’s open to her,” Brenda said. “I’ve watched her work very hard for things that come very easy to other people. Now she gets a chance to be the same as everybody else.
“And I think she’s pretty good already, so this gives her an opportunity to be really, really good someday.”