Olathe East High School band is on the march to excellence

Updated: 2013-10-16T12:30:32Z


The Kansas City Star

As they loaded the bus in the late morning last month for a three-hour trip to Webb City, Mo., 150-some Olathe East High School students know all their work is about this moment.

A two-day camp in June. A week and a half of band camp later in the summer. Before-school rehearsals. After-school rehearsals. Performing at football games. Weekend parades. It’s all a small pixel of what has gone into the big picture: A whole lot of work to prove they are the best when competing against other similarly driven marching bands around the region.

Welcome to the marching band, circa 2013.

Competitive high school marching bands today are certainly more complex than what they used to be. They not only perform at parades and high school football games, but they also spend hours and hours perfecting their competition/halftime show, a 12-minute themed drill where the band simultaneously marches and plays four numbers with specific music and movements written for each.

Most competitive marching bands, like Olathe East, will compete in an average of three shows throughout October, some local, some regional. This year, the Olathe East Orange and Blue Brigade traveled to Webb City and Lawrence and were scheduled to perform at their final competition Tuesday in St. Joseph.

“The discipline has evolved so much in the last 15 years,” said Jeff Smikahl, head band director at Olathe East. “What kids do now comparative to what kids did 10 years ago is unbelievable, in terms of how hard the drill is, how much movement there is.”

And how competitive it is: These kids want to win.

“It’s more fun than it looks, and it’s a lot harder than it looks,” said Natalie Alton, a senior drum major in the Orange and Blue Brigade. “It’s a lot of time commitment, but most everyone who participates wants to be in it.”

Marching band “season” is the fall, beginning with the first football game and parades in September and peaking with competitions, which began for Olathe East in late September with Webbstock IX in Webb City.

But preparation began almost a year before. As long ago as November, the band directors chose what next year’s halftime and competition show would be.

“A lot of times we like to pick the halftime show for the next year when we’re finishing up marching season because that’s when your brain is most into marching band mode,” Smikahl said.

That 12-minute show is the heart and soul of what a marching band does. The music was a stock piece the band bought, then customized specifically for the show with music written by area composer Patrick McCarty and a drum sequence by Brandon Graves, the drumline instructor.

The show that the collaborators — the band directors, composer and choreographers — designed for this year, called “Tribal Dances,” includes an intricate body movement sequence in the beginning, which uses original choreography by staff member Brian Penny, an assistant director for the color guard.

The competition show incorporates several visual elements: the band’s transition into different formations, dance sequences from the color guard — and even props.

Giant props.

This year, the prop used in “Tribal Dances” is an intricate wooden pyramid made up of pedestals and ramps, designed and built by band parents.

The idea to use the pyramid was borrowed from a school in the Southwest and then tweaked and adapted by band parent Trent Hudak, who has an engineering background.

From there, it took several weekends to construct, and another band parent even fabricated the metal pieces that joined the parts together. Wheels were added, the structure was painted, and band moms used fabric to drape over parts of it.

Props are nothing new for Olathe East. One year, the band used a 30-foot long steel pirate ship, another year a giant inflatable iPod that parents made out of ripstop nylon.

“We’re kind of known for having rather big props, it’s one of our things,” Smikahl said. “My thing on props is, they always look smaller on the field. ... We don’t do props every year, but when we do them, we try to do them big.”

The props have been known to add an element of the unknown to the show. In 2010, his first year as head director, Smikahl experienced an “uh-oh” moment that stands out in his memory.

The Orange and Blue Brigade’s show that year used five steel frames with ripstop nylon. The band was at a competition at KU and wind turned the nylon-covered frames into giant kites. One moved through the band like a sail across water.

Despite the distraction, the band kept playing and ended up placing first in its division.

“The kids did awesome, they just kept marching,” Smikahl said. “There’s this giant backdrop blowing across the field, and these kids are just marching it up. Some didn’t even know it happened.”

That’s where the band’s hours of preparation pay off.

First are the rehearsals in the first week of June to learn the music and practice over the summer. Players met with their sectional — the trombonnes, the trumpets, etc. — to practice as a group.

Before field practice begins, players are given their own coordinate sheet, describing each set, the number of counts and exactly how many steps from the sideline and what yard line they’re supposed to be on.

Then the heavy work begins: a week and a half of band camp at the end of the summer, where they learn marching basics, then the entire show. Once school begins, it’s morning rehearsals four days a week and evening rehearsals on Monday night.

And finally, once September hits, the performances begin: parade appearances, football games, and then, competitions.

On a cool summer morning in August, the Olathe East marching band is spread out on a grassy practice field, wearing costumes they coordinated by section. The drumline is decked out in head to toe black Ninja attire, the trumpets in white T-shirts, each with a letter that together spell out the names of their directors. Each day of camp is designated a spirit day, and today is section day.

It’s the second week of summer band camp, and they’re heavy into learning “Tribal Dances.” It’s a casual atmosphere, until Smikahl, up on a tower with a microphone, signals that it’s time to start again.

“Here we go, let’s do this!” he calls out, as the drum majors signal along and the band starts simultaneously moving and playing the opening segment.

“Cut! That is a mess,” Smikahl says. “The quality of sound is excellent, we’re just having trouble with tempos.”

The rehearsal continues like this: a series of frequent stops and starts, with critiques in between. The band members listen intently; most are upperclassmen and are accustomed to the drill.

Color guard director Cathy Alcorn, along with assistants Penny, Lexi Glover and Darcy Hiebsch, go through movements with color guard, who have their own intricate sequences in the show.

The sun reaches higher and the temperature rises as the band begins to feel the heat.

A few more segments later and it’s time for a water break. The music dies and the chit-chat starts. The practice field turns into a playground as the band of almost 150 scatter to all sides of the sideline, some going immediately to their jumbo water bottles and others sitting in small circles.

And just like that, their 15 minutes of break time are up and they’re back on the field, instruments in hand, this time to practice the body movement sequence included in the opener. The movements are sharp and in sync — or they’re supposed to be; it’s early yet in the season. Brian Penny, an assistant director for the color guard, developed the moves specifically for the band.

Smikahl climbs back up to his tower, and assistant director Jennifer Creek is on the field to observe individual errors and little mistakes.

“Set One. Let’s do a little dancing,” Smikahl says.

And so begins the body movement, from the front of the line to the back. The band members may be tired, overwhelmed and unsure, but they push through, going over that last movement one more time until it’s just right. And practice has only just begun.

The physical challenges of playing in a competitive marching band are similar to those experienced by athletes who participate in sports like football, according to 2009 research presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting.

Marching requires stamina, focus, attention to detail and great memory work, to name a few.

To say the Olathe East marching band works hard is an understatement, but they do so with great reward. The non-musical benefits of playing in a high school marching band have shown up in countless research studies, most indicating that band students tend to perform better academically.

And students who decide to pursue marching band in college can earn scholarships; Kansas State and the University of Missouri, for example, offer marching band scholarships based on instrument needs of the band and performance ability.

But at a school like Olathe East with more than 2,000 students, being a part of a group can also foster a sense of self and belonging.

“Just the environment (in the marching band) is completely different than anything else you would experience” at the school, said John Meyer, a senior and drumline major in the band. “It’s one big happy family. I don’t think a lot of people understand that.

“It’s a place where you could be an outcast in the social chain of high school, but come into band and be completely welcome,” Meyer said. “We welcome everybody.”

When Allie Brachtenbach was a freshman band member at Olathe East, two senior band members made sure her birthday was extra special by dressing in tuxedos and marching throughout the school that morning. They also put balloons in her locker. For a freshman in a school of more than 2,000, those band members made sure Allie’s birthday was one she would remember.

“Obviously there’s a lot of push all the time for the core subjects, math and reading and science,” Smikahl said. “And obviously those are important; standardized tests are important. But I’ve had multiple kids that have told me personally that they would have dropped out of high school if they wouldn’t have been in band. And at the end of the day, to teach them math and science and reading, you’ve got to have a reason for the kid to be here. And for some of those kids, it’s music.”

On Friday, Sept. 13, it’s Homecoming.

Four buses and two trailers line the parking lot at the College Boulevard Activity Center in Olathe. The Orange and Blue Brigade is here early for the homecoming football game, which starts at 7. Most in T-shirts and shorts, the band members grab a bite to eat around the stadium before the hustle and bustle of Friday night school football kicks in.

A group of band parents, who call themselves the “Orange and Blue Crew” unload the trailers of instruments and the pieces of the “Tribal Dance” pyramid.

On the south side of the field, instrument cases clutter a patch of grass, the students’ band uniforms hanging on the silver fence surrounding it. After they eat, the Orange and Blue Brigade make their way to the grass, now a changing station, before they warm up.

A group of band parents assemble behind the fence, piecing together the pyramid they spent most of the summer constructing.

“The kids can’t get any benefit if the parents aren’t involved,” said Jerry Meier, who also video tapes performances and has a son in the band. “It’s important to volunteer our time.”

It’s an hour before game time, but the band will soon form a line to perform for the group of tailgaters in the parking lot. After they’re dressed, they huddle around Smikahl, who directs them as they begin warming up with Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” and the school fight song.

“Let’s pump up the volume a little bit,” Smikahl says.

A band mom makes her way toward the group, fixing the hem on the uniform pants of a few tuba players as they continue to play their instruments. Then, in single file, the band moves from the grass to the parking lot, parents lined up to watch their kids in action. The drill team, standing in front of the band, dances along, their bright smiles and red lips accompanying the peppy sound behind them.

After the song is over, it’s back to the grass for the Orange and Blue Brigade, who have a few more minutes to warm up before their pre-game show in front of the crowd in the stands.

The crowd that has slowly been trickling into the stadium is now filling in quite nicely, the students in full force in their own section.

The marching band begins moving toward the end zone on the south side of the field, ready to bring in some school spirit before the first home game of the Hawks season begins.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, Woo!” The band cheers, marching toward the 50-yard line.

Another rendition of “Any Way You Want It,” begins, followed by the crowd favorite: the fight song. The familiar sound of the drums begins, that da-da-da da! da! da! da! of the horns, and the crowd claps along, chanting as the band calls out: “O! E! H! East Hawks!”

The pre-game show is over, as the band swiftly moves back toward the south goal line and huddles for a pep talk from Smikahl.

“I want you to cheer, I want you to get into it,” Smikahl says. “Get excited. We don’t ever want to treat a performance like it’s a throw-away performance.”

The band heads to its section of the stadium, where members will remain for the majority of the game, playing throughout to keep the spirit of the crowd and football team going.

It’s a long night, especially since it’s Homecoming. Because the Homecoming Court crowning will take place during halftime, the band will have to wait until after the game is over to perform the real spectacle: “Tribal Dances.” Many of the band parents haven’t seen it yet, and they’re anxious to see what their kids have spent hours working on.

The preparation, the bonding as a band has led them here: Webbstock IX in Webb City, Mo., on Sept. 28. The first competition of the season.

Their hopes — their expectations — are high. Olathe East has been consistently successful over the years, placing first in their division in 2010 at the Heart of America Marching Festival in Lawrence and first in their division at the Missouri Western Tournament of Champions in St. Joseph in 2010.

Last year, Olathe East won 2nd place in Division 1 at the Heart of America Marching Festival, also earning the Outstanding Marching Execution award.

“It gives them a sense of pride and sets them up for success,” said Jan Bush, Olathe East band booster president.

Like the wind that turned a prop into a sail during the competition at KU years ago, the weather threw Orange and Blue Brigade for a loop. Rain rolled into Webb City that Saturday, forcing them to compete inside a gymnasium. Space was limited and they couldn’t perform their signature visual effects.

Competing against 27 bands from around the region, Olathe East placed 5th overall. An impressive feat, but for the students and their staff, it was not what they had hoped for.

But when they boarded that bus for the return trip to Olathe they knew they would have more rehearsals, more events, and another chance to prove that they are better than fifth place.

They’ve put in the work for first, after all, and won’t be satisfied until they get it.

They got their next chance to prove themselves in October — last Saturday, to be exact.

The Orange and Blue Brigade, along with the color guard, fell into their normal competition day routine. They met at Olathe East, rehearsed, loaded up the instruments, props and flags, and got on the bus to Lawrence.

This time the weather cooperated, and the band was able to perform its full show in front of a stadium of spectators, proud parents and judges.

They performed second to last out of 24 total bands.

“We didn’t get to see any of the other bands, so you don’t know who you’re up against,” said assistant director Creek.

“It’s so hard, because this isn’t a sport, there are no goals scored or points on a board. It’s a subjective art form,” Smikahl said. “We knew that we had a strong show, but you just never know.”

After a long day of performances, the time all 24 bands had been waiting for finally arrived: awards.

The award for Outstanding Music Execution? Olathe East.

Oustanding Marching Execution? Olathe East.

Oustanding General Effect? Olathe East. Outstanding Percussion? You guessed it, Olathe East.

And that wasn’t it. The Orange and Blue Brigade took home first in its division and the cherry on top: Grand Champion.

With each announcement, there were hugs, cheers and jumping up and down from the students who put so much time into achieving perfection.

“It was really fun to see, and the seniors were really emotional,” Smikahl said. “I told them, ‘This is one of those moments that you probably won’t ever have in your career. It’s a special moment that you will remember for the rest of your life.’”

To reach Melissa Schupmann, send email to mschupmann@kcstar.com.

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