Girl Born Without Hands a Standout Trombone Player

Ten-year-old Sara McKinney plays a mean trombone. Her skills have landed her in several bands in her school and in a New Jersey state band, where she excels even though she was born without hands.

Sara's mother, Debbie McKinney, says her daughter is tenacious. One day when Sara came home from Paul W. Carleton School in Penns Grove, N.J., last year, she was brimming with excitement at the opportunity to take music classes.

"She goes, 'I want to play in the band. I want to play the flute,'" McKinney told in a telephone interview Tuesday evening.

McKinney and her daughter's music teacher, Gary Schneider, didn't think the flute was the right instrument for Sara. They took a look at all the school's instruments and how they worked, and decided the trombone would be best.

Luckily, Sara agreed. Using prosthetics to play, she went from her school's beginner band to jazz band and advanced band.

She had to try out for a spot in the advanced band, her mother said.

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"And … one guy was really good and she was afraid he'd beat her out so she actually practiced all summer and when it came time for tryouts, she managed to beat him out and became first trombone," McKinney said.

Sara, whose hands are missing from above the wrists, uses prosthetics with myoelectric fingers. The prosthetics contain sensors that allow the fingers to move when they detect nerve or muscle activity.

Schneider recommended Sara for the South Jersey Band and Orchestra Directors Association's Elementary Honors Band, which is composed of outstanding student musicians from several counties in the state.

Schneider told the South Jersey Times newspaper that Sara was "one of the two top" trombone players he'd ever taught.

"Sara's just another trombone player, she doesn't have limitations," he said.

McKinney says her daughter plays the trombone using just one prosthetic.

"She is awesome," McKinney said. "She is one prosthetic on, one prosthetic off. It's the only thing I can get her to use her prosthetics for, except for riding her bicycle. She's great, she writes, she does everything without it."

McKinney said Sara hasn't been limited by her physical impairments. She's taken horseback riding and gymnastic lessons, and wants to learn karate, surfing and how to play the guitar, McKinney said.

"She taught herself how to do cartwheels," McKinney added, adding that her daughter "swims like a fish" without prosthetics.

When McKinney got pregnant with Sara after 16 years of trying, periods of fertility treatments and suffering miscarriages, some doctors told her that her daughter would have a "miserable" life, she said.

They told her Sara would be missing her hands and part of her foot, and said she had a heart problem.

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"We actually had somebody tell us to - she said 'I don't recommend you going through with it,'" McKinney recalled.

Sara outgrew the heart problem, and she has learned to adapt to not having hands or part of a foot. Indeed, the girl frequently exceeds people's expectations of her, and she doesn't consider herself disabled, her mother said.

She can write with pen and paper, is practicing her drawing skills and wants to be an architect.

Sara, who has two younger siblings, is encouraging her little sister to take up the trombone so she can help her out, McKinney added.

McKinney says there's nothing her daughter can't do. Sara has already told her mother she plans to drive.

"Oh, yeah, she already told me she wants a Harley," McKinley said.

She and her husband, Richard, each own Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"She goes, 'I want a Harley but … I figure you're going to freak out so if you get me a trike, it'll be a little bit steadier,'" McKinley said, a reference to a three-wheel motorcycle.

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