By David Johnson

Thanks to his innate desire to excel, the genius of a Spokane inventor and the impromptu stage presence of his mother, 14-year-old Lukas Bratcher was able to play in what he called his jazz ensemble’s “best ever” performance.

Spokane’s Northwood Middle School Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Lee Shook, won the junior high school instrumental competition at the University of Idaho’s 35th annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival last month.

And in the process, the group’s baritone player offered a clinic in determination.

“If I was to sit at home and feel sorry for myself,” Bratcher said, “I would have no life.”

Born in Saudi Arabia, where his parents worked before moving to Spokane about two years ago, Bratcher is the victim of a birth defect that left him a quadriplegic.

He plays the baritone by sitting in a wheelchair, cradling the horn in his lap, blowing into the mouthpiece and using his crippled left hand to manipulate a joystick mounted on a tripod next to him. The stick is connected electrically to a mechanical box on the baritone that depresses the instrument’s valves. By maneuvering the joystick through a combinatione of seven positions, Bratcher is able to make music.

But just as he and the rest of the Northwood ensemble were about to play, an electrical connection came loose. Thus, his mother, Kristy Bratcher, ended up on stage holding the wiring together.

I would have been so mad, it wouldn’t have been funny,” he said of how he might have reacted if a technical glitch had kept him from participating. “We did great. We did well, the best ever.”

While his band celebrated its success, Bratcher tried to deflect the attention he’s been receiving from the media.

But most of the attention stems, not just from his accomplishments but from the fact that someone recently stole his baritone, joystick connection and all. If it hadn’t been for a fundraising effort that garnered $6,000, he wouldn’t have been able to play.

The money bought a new baritone and Robin Amend, a Spokane instrument repairman and inventor, fashioned what Bratcher calls a new and better joystick assembly.

Kristy Bratcher said the old baritone was taken from the end of the family’s driveway, where she had routinely left the instrument each morning as she went to work. Bratcher always came down the driveway 15 minutes later to meet the school bus. But when he arrived one day earlier this year, the horn was gone.

All that seemed to be ancient history as Lukas and his friends celebrated, and his mom spoke of her son’s unrelenting struggle to make the most of his life. He was born with a condition that left him curled up, arms and legs, into almost a fetal position. About seven operations later, he’s able to walk with the aid of braces and a walker, and his arms, wrists and fingers can move to a degree.

When Bratcher first started playing the baritone three years ago, he did his best with just his hands. But now, with the joystick attachment, he not only plays but also wins solo competitions

“Isn’t that awesome that your mom held that wire,” Shook told Bratcher after the competition. The director told all his students that they performed admirably. The judges apparently agreed.

Bratcher’s future, he said, will definitely revolve in part around his music. He’s also a stright-A student and the number one chess player in his school.

“The baritone is the only instrument I can play,” Lukas said. “I’ve worked real hard. What I want to do is get through school and play chess and play my instrument.

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