Back at home in Seward and at the airport his grandparents help run, five-year-old Colton Whisler got to spend the Fourth of July at the airshow surrounded by planes and around a thousand attendees. At this airshow, Whisler got to be the first one to watch a choreographed flight made especially for him.
The Chase the Music organization, run by Clark Hodge, dedicates itself to create collaborations between composers and children battling critical illnesses. The organization works to form a bond between the child and the composer to create a unique performance that is solely for the child.
Whisler got to be paired with Garrett Hope, who works as a music professor at the Hixson-Lied College at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“I believe that Clark reached out to me initially in January or February. Then I was kind of thinking about the piece and letting it roll around in the back of my mind for about four or five months,” Hope said.
Whisler was diagnosed with Parameningeal Rhabdomyosarcoma (PRS), a type of brain cancer in October 2018. He had to almost immediately go through extensive treatment and after many months away in Memphis, Tennessee, he was finally able to return home to Seward.
“We told [the Whislers’] the story of how this piece came to be and why we think it’s important and how we hope to really just bless and honor the family and encourage them through this,” Hope said.
Hope was tasked with coming up with a piece that captured the true essence of who Whisler is as a person. Whisler’s love of airplanes eventually led to the creation of “Boundary Layer.”
“So planes and flying were the main inspiration and the title itself is an aviation term. It describes the drag of wind on the fuselage,” Hope said. “So it’s an aviation term, but also used to describe where two layers of things that don’t mix meet.”
Hope said the title is also a reference to the layer between oil and water, referring to Whisler’s battle with cancer and how it didn’t mix.
“I’m picturing Colton breaking though his personal boundary layer of cancer as he moves towards freedom and healing,” Hope said.
Hope wasn’t alone in his planning. He had the help of extreme solo aerobatic pilot Bob Freeman. Freeman also had cancer and felt a connection with young Whisler, he decided to take part in the Chase the Music initiative thanks to the invitation provided to him by his friend and neighbor Clark Hodge, to create a special piece dedicated to the challenges and victories Whisler faced.
“Clark said, ‘Let’s get some original music commissioned,’ and so I’ve been sort of keyed into doing the choreography,” Freeman said.
Hope and Freeman were concerned that Whisler would not be able to get out of treatments in Memphis, Tennessee in time for the show. With the news that Whisler was able to catch a break between chemotherapy sessions coming early in the week of the Fourth of July, Chase the Music planned to give the family a special showing the day before the flight was planned.
“So on July 3, Bob and I got together with the Whislers and we did a private presentation of the music, something that we could do just with the family so they wouldn’t be experiencing it for the first time in front of a thousand people,” Hope said.
With the festival in Seward in full swing, airplane fans and Colton supporters gathered at Seward Municipal Airport to witness the initial flight performance. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Freeman’s plane suffered mechanical difficulties. Freeman had to turn to a friend and fellow pilot, Craig Gifford, to take up the task of the flight.
“So he [Gifford] jumped in and we played the music for him, and I gave him the choreography of what I had planned to do and he tweaked it a little bit. And then he went up and did a bang-up job,” Freeman said.
When the plane landed the airport was filled with applause and support for Colton who got to finally see the flight and song combine for the first time. Freeman, who was able to watch next to the Whisler family, was able to see the initial reaction of the family.
“I had a unique opportunity to be there during the performance because I did the introduction over the PA in front of everybody, and I got to introduce Colton and he was very cute,” Freeman said.
Hope was also with the family and said he felt the audience really loved the performance and that Gifford performed the flight perfectly, which caught the ups and downs he had composed the song to impart to the listeners.
“Bottom line, this was all about making Colton happy, and I think we succeeded in doing that and maybe some stress relief for his family. It was pretty gratifying to be a part of this,” Freeman said.