PIERSON, Iowa | Kennedi Vondrak, a seventh-grader at Kingsley-Pierson Middle School, smiled when asked about her first band concert performance.
"It was our Veterans Day concert," said Vondrak. "We played 'God Bless the USA.'"
That one-small-step moment for a middle school band program signified one giant leap for Vondrak, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that, until recently, has prevented her from playing in a band.
"Band was never on our radar," said Kennedi's mother, Kari Vondrak. "We didn't know what you can play when you can't hold a horn."
Kari and Jesse Vondrak, of Kingsley, wrestled with this issue for all three of their girls, Kennedi, 13, Jaycie, 10, and Bentley, 8, as all three have this form of muscular dystrophy.
And while the girls love music and love to sing, they believed their band options were limited.
That was, until Kari Vondrak noticed a story in the Journal three years ago featuring Risty Bryce, a Siouxland percussionist who lost the use of his legs during his late 20s when he was diagnosed with idiopathic neuropathy, a disorder of his nervous system that's much like multiple sclerosis.
"For years, I played drums in a local band," Bryce said. "Around 2003, I stepped away from the music scene as I was starting to get symptoms and the issues around my legs."
First, he walked with braces. Then, he used a cane. Five years ago, he began using a wheelchair.
"I'd play drums a little bit in that time at church, but drumming started to become more a disappointment and heartbreak for me," he said.
Bryce was on the verge of giving up on his passion when he bumped into Mike Goodman, his first guitar player. He then met Matt VanMeter and that led to the men tinkering with a system that would aid percussionists who had physical limitations.
Four years ago, they formed Drum Sparx, a system that takes a vocal signal and creates the drum sample sound. Drummers can either use a drumstick or their voice to key one of 200 sound samples.
On Thursday, Vondrak practiced the bass drum part in a Christmas song by using a drumstick she could hold. She rested her elbow upon the front of her wheelchair and tapped the stick on the microphone, which, through a speaker, pounded out the bass drum noise.
"She has no shoulder or girdle movement," Kari Vondrak explained. "Her movement is elbow-based."
Kingsley-Pierson, Bryce said, is the first school using the Drum Sparx technology, a system that Bryce set up and displayed for the Vondraks and Seth Snakenberg, instructor of bands at Kingsley-Pierson, who said, "It's been a fun learning process. It's really cool that it's opened the doors for Kennedi and her sister to come in and do something they probably didn't think was an option."
Kennedi Vondrak, who wasn't a band member early on in middle school, took lessons with Snakenburg in her attempt to catch up to her fellow percussionists. Officials at the Kingsley-Pierson Community School District, which purchased the Drum Sparx unit, allowed the Vondraks to check it out and take it home on weekends, providing Kennedi time to practice her new craft.
"We plug it into our karaoke machine at home and she practices," Kari Vondrak said.
"It's nice to be able to participate in an extracurricular activity like band and not just sit in study hall," said Kennedi Vondrak, who noted she's looking forward to playing two songs during the school's Christmas concert on Dec. 19.
Sister Jaycie, a fifth-grader, is stronger in the arms than Kennedi, so Jaycie plays snare drum without the Drum Sparx unit. As the diseases progresses, though, she may get to the point where she'll employ the device, just like her sister.
While Kingsley-Pierson is the first school with the Drum Sparx technology, there are others using it. Bryce, an employee in the West Monona Community School District, disclosed that Van Meter has created at least eight Drum Sparx units via custom-order. There are two drummers in Florida using the technology, one in France and one in Louisiana, to name half of them.
"The ones we've sent out have all been drummers who suffered an accident or were in situations similar to me," said Bryce, who recently began playing with the band In Due Time, a group featuring musicians from Sioux City and Onawa, Iowa. "Kennedi is our first kid using the system and she's still learning, which is exciting. She's a milestone for us."
Kennedi Vondrak said she's pumped about being part of the Kingsley-Pierson Middle School Band, making patriotic and holiday music from her position in the percussion section, a position she didn't know was possible until she made that giant leap.
"I was nervous for our first concert," she admitted as she grabbed her sheet music. "There were a lot of people there."
The instructor said he's anxious for the learning -- and the playing -- to continue. "Kennedi gets a normal experience in the band," he said, delighted she's a member of his corps of percussionists. "She's having fun with it and that's what matters."