Music has held a precious place in the life of Jackson Sons since his birth some 17 years ago.

Born Feb. 1, 2002, with Down Syndrome and a number of health issues, the Rider High School student and member of the Rider Raiders band found music more than just entertaining. Music taught him how to spell his name.

“Jackson has ALWAYS loved music,” said his mother, Richelle Sons. “He loved to dance (even when strapped in his high chair) and clap his hands to music throughout the day.”

Music gave the stay-at-home mom a way to entertain her youngest child.

“When he was very young — maybe 6 — we discovered music therapy. It was amazing the things he was able to learn through music with his therapist, Jodie White,” said Richelle, who added that music also tamed some behavioral issues.

“Jackson learned how to spell his name, his address, phone number, and other things using songs — think Bingo, B.I.N.G.O, but instead he would spell Jackson,” she said.

His desire to take band as a class at Rider came as no surprise for the Sons family, which includes father, Rusty, and two older sisters.

Taylor, 23, graduated from the University of Texas in May and attends grad school at the University of North Texas, studying speech and language pathology. Maddie, 21, will graduate in May from UNT with a psychology degree. 

By enrolling in the band class, Jackson, by definition, became part of the Rider Raider band. Just what contribution Jackson would bring to the band took some thought and planning.

“His parents requested band as a class like all other students,” said Loy Studer, band director in his 14th year at Rider. 

“We weren’t sure what the path was at the beginning or how to best use Jackson’s talents so that band would be a benefit to him,” Studer said. “Just like every kid we teach, we had to get to know him as a person to see what his skill set was.”

Rider received a 1 score – Superior – from the UIL judges and will advance to the Area competition in Odessa next Saturday. 

“At the beginning, we just felt like percussion was the place that he could have the best chance to participate,” said Studer, whose younger daughter Lilly is a senior band member.

“Jackson has played a lot of different instruments in band from triangle to bass drum to other accessories,” Studer said. “He will try anything.”

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Jackson wouldn’t, though, have anything to do with performing in the stands or, at first, on the field.

His fear of heights still keeps him from joining the band in the stands during the game, his mom said, and he appears on the field during halftime after much encouragement and practice.

“He has a vestibular disorder that makes it hard for him to navigate anything that is not flat ground,” Richelle said.

“He is scared of heights, so being in the stands with the band is not an option for him,” she said. “Even sitting in our cart at the top of the ramp during the games was hard for him because he could see the field below, and I think it felt to him like he would fall if he got too close to the edge.”

His first halftime performance took much planning for Jackson to trust the process.

“When we practiced going down the ramp his freshman year, Mr. (Geoff) Martin was there, and Jackson had him sit next to him, while (dad) Rusty drove them up and down the ramp,” Richelle said. “Mr Martin is a saint!”

Jackson joins another band student with special challenges, Studer said. 

“We have a completely deaf student in guard who will compete at UIL this year,” Studer said. “I still don’t know how he stays in tempo when he can’t hear anything.”

Studer added that the UIL judges would have no idea a student on the field is deaf. All the students are judged by the respective rubric. 

Band competitions can be fierce with rivalries seemingly as intense as those in football pads, but that didn’t play a role in any decision Studer made with Jackson.

“As far as kids that are differently abled, I didn’t go to college to get a degree to be able to win trophies,” Studer said. “Those are great. They are a sign that you are doing the correct things every day.  However, what is most important is teaching kids. All kids.”

A highlight for the Sons family was when Jackson was recognized on senior night last month. 

“Every time I think, ‘That was the best!,’ it gets topped at the next pep rally, football game, electronica performance or show. Jackson is ALWAYS so proud of himself after each performance, no matter what it is,” said his mom, who added that she can see other percussion band members mouth “good job” to her son during performances.

“I will say, walking across the field with him on senior night and hearing the band erupt in cheers for him as his name was announced was pretty special,” she said. “He threw his fists in the air, and cheered for himself as well when he heard them. It was priceless.”

Deanna Watson is the editor of the Times Record News. Watson, in her third decade of journalism, can be reached at