From the thrilling drum roll of the national anthem until the last notes of the school fight song, Kentucky’s high school marching bands add excitement to Friday night football games. Up in the stands, the band’s popular peppy tunes get the crowd dancing and clapping during the game. Then at halftime, the band takes to the field to perform a show filled with pageantry, precision, and great music.
John Murrey, band director at Ohio County High School in Hartford, says, “Marching band isn’t a sport—but it is extremely athletic in what is required of the students.”
In today’s creative marching band world, simple boxes and unison marching have given way to elaborate patterns that often extend from one 20-yard line to the other across the width of the football field. Add in the color guard with silken flags, rifles, and sabers for more eye-catching drama, and the level of complexity goes up yet again. Everyone and everything has to be in a particular spot at a particular time—and it all has to be done from memory.
This very physical art form also has a competitive aspect. On weekends throughout September and October, many high schools in Kentucky host competitions for marching bands, each striving for a Distinguished rating. Morehead State University also hosts a band festival each year, and national organizations such as Bands of America hold multi-state regional competitions. Detailed standards and strict judging lead to trophies and bragging rights, culminating in state championships every November.
Entertaining crowds and earning praise from judges require tremendous effort from each student. This art form with a sporting angle is unique: once the band takes the field, the band director can do nothing. The band students must do everything for themselves with no intervention from adults during the performance.
First-year marchers are expected to perform just as precisely as seniors. Student leaders such as the field commander and the various section leaders are responsible for maintaining order, yet each individual must react on his or her own to what is happening as the show progresses. Self-reliance and determination combine with unselfishness to create an ensemble that works together to present a united whole.
While a typical halftime show lasts only six to eight minutes, putting it all together takes weeks of practice, starting in early July.
Marching to the Beat
When school band camps begin in the hot, humid days of July, one of the first tasks is learning how to march. Bands don’t march the same way a military group does.
Parading soldiers learn to take a 30-inch stride, then pivot or reverse direction as a group to spoken commands. Band students must learn to take steps of varying length to cover the distance between yard lines and hash marks on the field in ways that blend with the rhythm of the music.
A marching band’s drill consists of 60 or more sets, the positions the students march to, pause (“hit” in marching band lingo), then march to a different location to form the constantly changing visual patterns that complement the music. For each student, notes played and steps taken number in the thousands.
And that’s where athletic ability meets artistic ability. Look closely at the students and you’ll discover that although their feet and legs often move quite fast, their upper bodies are relatively still. For the brass players and woodwinds, the arms holding those instruments must be rock steady to allow for proper playing technique, and to prevent accidental injury to lips and teeth.
Many a trombone player, accustomed to playing seated in a chair in the classroom or the school auditorium stage, has been surprised by the extra effort needed to play such a large instrument outdoors while marching forward and backward and turning the lower body left or right, yet keeping the upper body facing the audience on the sideline. Tuba players switching to 30- or 40-pound sousaphones often stagger during the first practice sessions.
All musicians must learn how to play their instruments louder outdoors so fans sitting at the top of the stands can hear them. A playing technique that’s fine for the soft passages indoors must be changed to compensate for an outdoor environment that varies with the weather.
Some instruments are just too large or heavy to move with on the field. These instruments, such as kettledrums and xylophones, are set up in what’s known as the pit, an area along the sideline.
There’s so much to learn that many band directors hire staff to help teach each section of the band. Typically, these are college music students with experience in marching bands, who intend to be band directors themselves in the future. One staff member will help the brass section, another the woodwinds, yet another the percussion or color guard.
Developing Leaders and Scholars
In Hartford, Ohio County Marching Eagles band director John Murrey takes a year-round approach to developing student leaders. “We teach a leadership class each spring for students who want to try out for the field commander and field tech positions for the next season. We meet after school many times for about five weeks. My staff and I talk about the different styles of learning, different ways to teach, and a combination of other general education pointers. It’s similar to a college level introduction to education class. We cover everything from marching fundamentals to team-building exercises. This way, during summer band camp and fall marching season, our student leaders can go out with the students they are responsible for with the skills they’ll need to succeed.”
Most band directors stress that competition isn’t just about winning trophies, but about doing your best on any particular day. One band director says, “Instead of focusing on trophies, I tell my students that each time they perform the show I want them to do a better job than they did the time before. If our scores get higher as the season progresses, then I know they are working hard on the right things.”
Jeff Meadows, band director at Mercer County High School in Harrodsburg, says, “Our band’s student leaders need to be able to set a good example, behaviorally and musically. I assign section leaders, and we also have a color guard captain and a field commander who attend a special camp for one week during the summer before the start of the season. We depend on all of our seniors to be leaders, too. It’s hard for me to put into words, but it really reaches the bottom of my heart as I see these kids doing what I ask them to. I have some of the hardest-working students in the state of Kentucky.”
Band students have earned a reputation for success in the classroom, too. With after-school practices and weekend competitions throughout the fall semester, band students must learn excellent time-management skills. At Mercer County, at least two-thirds of the band’s students consistently make the honor roll. Many seniors enroll in AP English literature, a college level, college credit class.
Mercer County 2006 graduate Suni Ashton says, “When I joined the band years ago, the first real example of leadership I had was from Ashlee Sears, who’s two years older than me. Watching and learning from her, I had a bit of hero-worship, so I switched from playing clarinet to the alto saxophone to be like her. As I’ve gotten older I’ve taken the same path, and do things that I saw her do to inspire the younger students. This past season I was co-section leader of the saxophones.”
Travis Miller, former band director at Green County High School, says, “When I came here in 2003, I told my band students our first priority is service to our school, then service to our community. When we can do those two things well, that will allow us to go outside our county to represent our community in competitions elsewhere.” That strategy is working. In the midst of a downtown revitalization project, Greensburg holds many weekend festivals and parades—and in each one the Green County Marching Dragons are the first unit after the American flag.
In the 2004-2005 season, the Green County Marching Band added a new item to their busy schedule of football games and local parade, traveling to the Vanderbilt Invitational in Nashville, Tennessee. “For some of our kids, this was the first time they’d traveled outside Kentucky,” Miller says. “Marching in a big-time SEC stadium was a real eye-opening experience for the students—and it was a big thrill for the parents who went with us, too.”
In Ohio County, the Marching Eagles Band will be hosting its 52nd Ohio County Marching Invitational, an event that draws more than a dozen competitive bands. Band director Murrey says, “The John Deere dealer from Owensboro provides tractors and trailers for the bands to move their pit equipment on and off the field. Individuals and businesses buy ads in the program and sponsor trophies. Local companies donate food and other goods for the concession stands and hospitality rooms for visiting band directors and bus drivers. We have very good community support.”
Getting all the students to and from competitions and parades, feeding them during band camp, and a thousand other jobs big and small are the responsibility of each band’s booster organization. This support is vital to every marching band because, in general, school music programs receive only a tiny portion of their budgets from their local school boards. Depending on the number of students involved, the budget for a season of activities for a marching band runs from $20,000 to more than $100,000.
Parent volunteers do everything from measuring students for the uniforms to fixing lunches and providing drinking water to driving equipment trucks. Band members’ families take part in a steady stream of fund-raising activities, and are always looking for ways to make sure the students have the highest quality band experience possible.
In northern Kentucky, Dayton High School band booster Thomas Schwartz helped organize the first meeting of a statewide band booster group. At a lively informal November 2005 meeting in Lexington, moms and dads from around the state exchanged ideas about fund-raising, transportation issues, and networking. These dedicated parent volunteers were joined by more representatives from bands around the state for their second meeting this past June in Bardstown. Schwartz says, “It’s great to share practical ideas with each other. Our goal is to make things better for all bands in Kentucky.”
Marching Into the Future
Band director Meadows says, “My goals are to give my students a good music education, and to make sure that they come away with self-discipline, integrity, and class, all the things they’ll need to be good citizens.”
Suni Ashton says, “Now that I’m going to college this fall at Morehead to study nursing, I’m looking back at what I learned during my years in marching band. Here’s what I’ll take with me:
‘Follow directions first time given and always try your hardest.’”
KENTUCKY MARCHING BAND WEB SITE
Go to www.kyband.com for more information.