JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Chief Warrant Officer Gregory Balvanz, the commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 56th Army Band, has literally conducted hundreds of musical performances.

He's played for generals. He's played for dignitaries. He's played for thousands of people and he's played for crowds of 50 or less.

With 13 years as a conductor under his belt and 22 years with Army bands, there isn't much in the way of music Balvanz hasn't done. But even as a seasoned band master, he's still having first-time experiences.

Such was the case Tuesday when Balvanz and his band performed a holiday concert at Carey Theater on Joint Base Lewis-McChord exclusively for the community's special needs children and their families, adding something novel to an annual JBLM tradition.

Performed just one day before the annual holiday concert, the show was a supplement to the typical Christmas concerts the band performs each year, and a first-time event for the installation.

Balvanz and the band played their music with the same heart and soul, the same zest and luster they would pour into any presentation, but this time for only an a handful of attendees.

"Special needs families don't want anything special," Balvanz said. "They just want a concert they can enjoy in their own way, just like anyone else."

The band altered its Tuesday routine slightly to accommodate for the sensory issues children with disorders and diseases like autism and cerebral palsy have that might interfere with the splendor and flare of a normal musical performance, making the show a living nightmare rather than entertaining.

Balvanz said the band played a bit softer than usual, since loud and thunderous noises can scare children with autism or similar disorders. Also to avoid frightening children, he said, they left the lights in the theater up instead of turning them completely down.

The band even scheduled the performance for early in the afternoon rather than at night to circumvent any interference with the children's schedules.

"A lot of times, individuals with special needs have very regimented days," Balvanz said, "and if you have an evening concert for them, it might throw a wrench in that routine of eating dinner, calming down and then going to bed."

Balvanz knows this because his 22-year-old son has Fragile X syndrome and autism.

He's become accustomed to the judgment in public. He's experienced the sideways glances from those who don't understand - the disapproving looks. He's even had to contend with rude comments.

Not surprisingly, then, he's able to appreciate the comfort special needs families felt Tuesday. There was no laughing - no staring. There was only acceptance.

"The nice thing about having a separate special needs concert is that those parents didn't have to worry about their children acting up," Balvanz said. "The child could have a full-blown meltdown and no one in the audience would judge them harshly or give them disapproving looks."

Sgt. Brian Cornett's eight-year-old son, Tanner, has cerebral palsy, a condition that causes inaccurate messages to be sent from his brain to his muscles.

At a regular performance, Cornett said, Tanner would have been overwhelmed with the large crowd and scared of the flashing lights and terribly loud noises. He might have even slipped into a seizure.

Tuesday, Tanner sat in the theater and enjoyed every second of holiday music. Nothing scared him and nothing took from his focus. With a slightly oversized Santa hat adorned a bit crooked atop his head, he was all smiles and enjoyment.

"The show was great," Cornett said. "It really let the special needs children enjoy the concert by themselves, without a big crowd. That way they could really focus on the music."

"Tanner loves music," he added. "He loves anything to do with music."

Nancy Dozier, an Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator on JBLM who worked with Balvanz ahead of time to publicize the concert, introduced the Army band and welcomed the families Tuesday.

She was overjoyed to see a show that catered to special needs children, many of whom have sensory troubles.

"This let the special needs families know they have value because the band cared enough to put the show on even though the attendance was small," Dozier said.

"Most children who have autism aren't able to go to a normal performance because they're making too much noise and people are getting upset with them," she added.

Dozier said she'd love to see more "sensory-friendly" presentations offered for the community.

"I think they should do other things like this here, like having early-morning times for movies at the theaters," she said. "That way, they could see a movie when no one's really there."

Balvanz is used to generals and dignitaries greeting him immediately after his performances. Tuesday, the first person to come up to him was a 6-year-old boy wearing a train conductor cap. He thanked Balvanz and said he only wished his brother who was at home with the flu could have come.

"That's too cool," Balvanz later said through a wide smile of his unique encounter.

Balvanz said he hopes to hold a separate special needs concert again next year. By that time, he said, he's sure there will be a bigger audience.

"People who came will only continue to tell other people," he said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16