Getting in step with marching band
10/29/2013 12:00 AM
10/28/2013 3:36 PM
On a warm night in September, crowds of people in crimson and gold make their way to Peve Stadium, home of the Blue Springs Wildcats. It’s homecoming, and pale purple and yellow balloons line the fences surrounding the bleachers and excited students.
Tonight, it’s the Wildcats versus the Liberty Blue Jays, a game that will stretch past 10 p.m. before Blue Springs wins. But even after the game is over, the Homecoming Court has been announced and the fatigue starts to set in, the crowd stays seated.
They stay because standing on the field in front of them is the Blue Springs Golden Regiment, the almost 300-member marching band that will now put on its own show, one that band members have spent countless hours perfecting and fine-tuning to provide some of the best musical entertainment in town.
Across town, on another warm September evening, members of the Platte County Pirate Marching Band are gearing up for their own homecoming game, their brand-new orange and black uniforms looking crisp against their shiny instruments.
Before kickoff, they trickle down a large hill single file, their movements tight and calculated as they make a striking entrance before the football team makes its own debut.
The band stands in seven straight lines, legs still in motion as a sea of helmets and cleats comes running toward the track, the fight song now ringing throughout the stadium as the spectators get to their feet, clapping along and joining in the chant to kick off the night:
“P-I-R-A-T-E-S, Pirates, Pirates, go-o-o Pirates!”
Marching band performances at football games are often a crowd favorite, but they are just a small portion of the work that goes into a competitive season for bands. The parade appearances, rehearsals and halftime shows lead up to what the students have worked all season for: competitions.
Today’s high school marching bands are often the soundtrack to high school memories: the familiar beat of the drums as they make their way toward the stadium and the extra pep they provide after an exciting play or touchdown.
But over the years, marching bands have evolved from musical entertainment to diligent groups that compete locally and regionally to put their skills to the test. Modern-day marching bands don’t focus on the music or marching alone. In competitions, they are scored on show effects and visual aspects.
“For a lot of bands that are major competitive type of marching bands, the drill and the involvement of the music written for them has evolved the most,” said Danny Watring, head band director at Grandview High School. “The music has evolved from just basic instrumentation to all kinds of percussion equipment found in the front ensemble.
“Now we’ve seen a trend over the last 10 or 15 years of a lot of electronics being used. There’s keyboards, there’s prerecorded sounds and voices.”
An average competitive marching band will produce a competition/halftime show anywhere from seven to 12 minutes long. The music for the show is either purchased from stock or developed specifically for the band. Once the music is selected, a drill is created to accompany the music, in which the marching band transitions into different formations and sequences throughout the show. Props are often used to add to the visual element, and a routine is choreographed for the color guard to perform alongside the musicians.
Grandview’s halftime show this year, “Music of the Masters,” is a sequence of classical songs originally written for an orchestra or piano. Watring and his staff acquired the music specifically for the Blue and Gold Brigade, Grandview’s 102-member marching band, which is a labor of love for its members. They volunteer for the group, practice entirely outside the school day and aren’t graded on their work for the band.
Preparation for marching season often begins up to a year beforehand, from when the show is selected to when the kids receive the music and learn the show, often in summer camp. Then school begins, and the work only increases.
For the Park Hill South High School marching band, preparation for their 7 1/2-minute show this year began in November of last year. The show, “I Have a Dream,” a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is not only meant for entertainment, but also a lesson in history.
“I thought it’d be fun to raise awareness of that speech and to have a teaching show about racial tolerance,” said Craig Miller, band director for Park Hill South. “I had our kids watch the speech, and we talked about it. We had actual snippets of speech play during the show.”
Like other bands throughout the region, Park Hill South used custom music created specifically for its show to play to the band’s strengths.
“It’s more tailored to what our kids do well,” Miller said.
To create a successful competition show, marching band students often spend hours practicing. There are before-school practices, after-school practices, Thursday night rehearsals and football games. There are parades some weekends, then day-long competitions in October, sometimes hours away.
“It’s a lot of practice,” said Shawn Garland, band booster president for the Liberty High School marching band. “It’s a lot of work. And then you just get rained out.”
Members of the Liberty High School marching band have a 7 a.m. practice each school day, which trickles into the first-hour band class. Before home football games, band members rehearse the night before to practice their show, this year’s theme centered around Billy Joel’s “The Piano Man.”
“It certainly gives them leadership skills,”said Garland, who has two kids in the Liberty marching band. “A lot of the kids that are in music aren’t necessarily in a sport, so it does give them that sense of teamwork.”
For the Blue Springs Golden Regiment, there are outside rehearsals Wednesday and Thursday, sometimes lasting three hours and including conditioning.
At 2:45 one hot September afternoon, members of the Golden Regiment stand in line formation in their warm-up sweats while director Tim Allshouse, acting like an aerobics instructor, leads them in conditioning drills in the parking lot in front of Blue Springs High School.
“Five, six, seven and lift,” Allshouse says, the band following directions as they stretch their resistance bands to work their arms. “Lift, lift, lift, lift.”
Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” rings out from a stereo as the band members’ stamina is put to the test in the heat of the afternoon. In the final minutes of conditioning, the band kicks into high gear, running in place and dropping down on the black asphalt for pushups.
Allshouse runs through the lines, clapping and encouraging the Golden Regiment to finish.
“Think about what you need to do,” he says.
Finally, the exercising is over and it’s time for a water break, but the Golden Regiment is just getting started. Band members will continue the day with breathing exercises, followed by marching and music fundamentals. Each movement is slow and calculated. Not a student speaks out of turn. Their raised hands acknowledge Allhouse’s critiques.
“We’re really, really slow with teaching fundamentals and the process of how to rehearse,” Allshouse said. “We’re at a point now we’re still trying to continually develop the culture, but the upperclassmen really take what we’re doing seriously. So the freshman come in, they see how it’s set up, and it just happens now.”
Marching band rehearsals often take hours because of the attention to detail in each step, note and movement. Band members will go over one set time and time again, repeating the process until the set is as perfect as can be.
“We don’t compete against other bands; we compete against our own standard,” said Jay Jones, band director for Platte County. “And I think that’s why we continue to grow and we continue to improve.”
Statistics and research over the years have consistently shown that involvement in a high school marching band fosters success in other areas. According to the College Board, students in music performance scored more than 40 points higher than their non-arts peers in the reading, math and writing portions of the SAT. The College Board also lists the arts as one of the six basic areas that students should study to succeed in college.
Academics aside, being in a high school marching band can also develop characteristics important to success in everyday life.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” Allshouse said. “But the things that are consistent are things about cooperation, learning to not give up until it’s perfect, because those are things we teach in band. Learning to have your teammate in mind all the time, to be persistent, commitment to a group — those are skills that will apply to anything in life.”
Band members also can benefit from social interaction and the ability to adapt and cooperate in a large group.
“When we’re on the field, everybody’s got to be firing the same cylinders at the same time or it doesn’t work,” Allshouse said. “One person out is everybody wrong. And I think it teaches them to value each other. With 300 kids, we’re all different. And they learn how to make that work.”
“We’re not just the standard ‘geeky’ band,” said Heath Hisel, the tuba section leader for Platte County. “There’s people who play football, people on the swim team. If there’s something in the high school, there’s someone in the band who does it.”
To be successful in a high school marching band takes commitment from the students as well as the staff, but the behind-the-scenes help from band parents is also a contributing factor.
For the Platte County marching band, that contribution this year included a semi-truck trailer, which was purchased and donated to the band, which the band parents worked on to include a dressing room for the flag corps. The parents also make sure the kids are fed at events, fix uniforms, hand out water and provide support when needed.
Then there’s the parent who converted a travel trailer into a mobile kitchen to pull up next to the buses and cook for the kids on site.
“I think that you have to show as parents to be involved with your kids, and it’s just been one of our goals and themes for her while she’s grown up,” Dennis Paxton, president of the Music Parents Association for the Platte County band, said. “We will always be involved. We just have a philosophy of ‘all in.’”
Karen Walls has been a Blue Springs Golden Regiment band parent for eight years and now volunteers as the field photographer. But her gift of time is just a small sacrifice compared to the benefits she’s seen the band give to her kids.
“They do give up a lot of their time, however, none of them would be out there giving up their summers, after school hours, if they did not have that willingness to participate,” Walls said. “My daughter was in the inaugural parade, and even with all the waiting they had on the buses, she came back and told me ... ‘I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.’”
Indeed, the Blue Springs band was chosen to participate in the inaugural festivities for President Barack Obama in 2009.
The memories and friendships made from marching band leave lasting impressions on the students; but like any competitor, nothing makes the hours of rehearsals, the parade performances and the football games worth it like hearing their names called out for that coveted award at competitions.
It’s Saturday, Oct. 5, and the first glimpse of fall in Missouri has arrived. The Platte County marching band arrives at Blue Springs High School for the Golden Regiment Invitational shortly before 8 a.m., dew still on the grass and fog still on car windows.
It’s colder than expected, but that does not matter. There are instruments for Platte County to unload from the trailer, and breakfast is being served in the parking lot. The sound of various instruments can be heard across the lot; there are 23 bands competing from across the region, after all.
This year, Platte County’s show, “The Embrace: From Daylight to Darkness,” incorporates a theme of good and evil, where members of the color guard play either side, with one member remaining pure. There are three large wooden coffins used as props, as well as a fog machine.
This is Platte County’s first competition of the season. Although they were scheduled to perform at Webbstock IX in Webb City, Mo., the weekend before, rain caused the competition to be moved indoors, and the band decided not to perform.
After all of the band’s preparation, it was a disappointing outcome. But that’s in the past. Now they have the chance to show everyone what they’ve got.
After changing into their uniforms, it’s time for Platte County to begin warming up as performers gather on a patch of grass on the north side of the parking lot behind the new semi. The nerves start to kick in as the students gather in sectionals, the sound of flutes, trumpets and tubas carrying on chaotically. A raised hand from Jones brings the noise to an abrupt stop; it’s now time to move to the practice field, where they will go over their marching.
It’s almost 9:45, and a light drizzle begins to fall, though not enough to put their performance in jeopardy. If they were nervous before, it was nothing compared to the anxious glances and serious expressions the 100-some students now carry.
Their marching rehearsal time is up, and the band moves to another patch of grass, this time to rehearse the music. The color guard, along with instructor Suzanne Frame, practices in the parking lot next to them. When rehearsal time is up, Platte County huddles together for one last pep talk.
“As long as I have belief you can do this, I will keep pushing you,” Jones said. “This is why you do this. Size does not matter when it comes to band. It’s about passion.”
“When you guys step out on that field, that field is yours,” said Matthew Bonsignore, associate director of the band.
Platte County makes its way from the parking lot to the stadium, eager to show the audience what they’ve spent hours perfecting.
Platte County, Blue Springs, Grandview, Park Hill South and Liberty all have seen success in competitions over the years; Platte County placed 12th in its division at the Blue Springs Invitational this year, enough to put the band into the finals, where it placed 11th overall. In 2012, they placed ninth out of 25 total bands at Webbstock VIII. The band has also earned four grand championships.
“My goal is to help the students understand what they’re truly capable of achieving,” Jones said. “And sometimes you can’t really figure that out until there’s somebody there that’s willing to push you nonstop ... but in the end look, at what you can accomplish. I think sometimes, to be able to figure out what you can accomplish, you need someone behind you saying, ‘OK that’s good, but it can still be better.’”
This year, Blue Springs placed first in its division at the Lee’s Summit North Marching Invitational, also earning Outstanding General Effect, Outstanding Color Guard, Outstanding Percussion, Outstanding Visual, Outstanding Music, and Outstanding Soloist in the Crimson Division.
At the Missouri Day Marching Festival in Trenton earlier this month, Grandview placed first in its division for the fourth consecutive year.
“Trenton, that’s what we kind of aim for,” Watring said. “That’s what we talk about way back in August when we start. It’s a big-time goal for us.”
Park Hill South placed second in its division at the Midwest Tournament of Champions in St. Joseph. Last year, the school placed first in its division at the Raytown Marching Festival, also winning Best Drum Line, Best Color Guard, Best Music and Grand Champion.
Liberty placed fourth in its division at the Lee’s Summit North Marching Invitational, also earning first in its division for Indoor Color Guard.
Throughout their high school marching band careers, students will spend hours rehearsing, give up their weekends and be consumed by band events and performances for most of the fall season. But in the end, they’ll come out with more than just a trophy on a shelf.
“Hopefully when they’re looking back on the experience, it’s not just about marching and music but just the environment and being together,” Allshouse said. “They’re going to spend hours and days on a bus with each other. It’s really like a little family in a lot of ways.”
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