Band Directors Sound Off On The Value Of Marching Bands
Energizing Friday night halftime shows with rhythmic music and formations, marching bands turn their hot practices into cool performances. But their commitment extends beyond mere minutes played on the field. Here, seven local high school marching band directors reveal what it takes to win championships and rally fans.
By Holly Morse-Ellington
Drums echo from a nearby schoolyard. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Horns and woodwinds join in, adding melody and flourishes. The sounds of fall approaching ring through the air.
It’s marching band season.
For many, high school marching bands are synonymous with the Friday night lights of football games. Beyond the halftime shows, though, marching band members and their directors dedicate months and years to perfecting the art of music made on the move. Each step-by-step stride draws crowds and accomplishments. From games to competitions, band members build confidence, discipline, and friendships.
Strong Recruitment Cycles
For most schools, participation in the marching band is voluntary. Given the variety of extracurricular activities and sports schools offer, it may seem like a challenge to fill all the sections that complete a marching band. Yet often, the total number of members represents a significant portion of the student population. For example, Ringgold High School’s Marching Tiger Band has 160 students which, according to Director Tracy Wright, accounts for a little over 10% of the school’s students.
Even larger bands continuously strive to maintain their numbers. “When you see a group our size come on the field, you go, ‘Holy smokes!’” says Donald Benton, director of Walker Valley’s Mustang Marching Band and its 270 members. “But recruitment is always the most difficult hump to get over right out of the gate. Not everyone feels like they can accomplish this activity.”
Other schools are in the process of growing their programs. Timothy Ellison, entering his second year as director of the Ooltewah High School Band, plans to build upon his current count of 70 marching band members. “My goal this year is to get over to the middle schools and establish relationships with those kids. That way, when they enter high school, they are already informed about the opportunity to march,” says Ellison.
Often, establishing contact with respective middle school programs in their districts results in greater turnout at the high school level. “When the middle school does their summer band clinic, they’ll have 30 to 35 high school kids there working with them,” says Blair Callaway, director of Heritage High School’s Legion of Generals Marching Band. “We have a pretty good presence of high school students working with middle school students.”
The link between middle and high school programs is integral to success. “We’re fortunate in the fact that we have a new band director at Soddy Daisy Middle School,” says Joshua Light, director of the Soddy Daisy High School Band. “We’re seeing the benefits as more and more kids join our high school program,” he says of his membership, which is 85% sophomores and freshmen.
Student audiences are also potential candidates to join the marching band. “The band performances are a great recruitment tool,” says Tracey Frazier, director of Brainerd High School Marching Panther Band. The Panthers play at churches and community events, offering a sample of what new recruits can expect. “Last year we played at my church, and it was more like a pep rally style,” Frazier says. “We try to hone in on what you can expect at the football games.”
Getting Buy-In from Students
Expectations are high, but students know the workload before signing up. “One of the things we tell them upfront is, ‘Nobody said this was going to be easy, but they all said it would be worth it,’” Benton says. Teamwork solidifies their commitment. “Our motto is, ‘All of us, all the time,’” he explains. “I tell them to be motivated because of their buddies beside them.”
Buy-in comes from knowing that their friends and bandmates count on them. “Where we differ from athletics is we don’t have a second or third string sitting on the sidelines,” Ellison says. “Everybody participates in our activity all the time. If somebody is missing or if somebody gets hurt, there’s a hole there.”
Many of the programs allow advanced students to assist and incorporate their ideas, which inspires ownership. “We have a leadership team of students who help out. Teaching the younger students is important to them,” Callaway says. “There’s a culture we’ve grown here where the students are proud of the product and want each year to be successful.”
While students sacrifice vacation time, summer rehearsals keep them engaged. “Even though students are looking forward to school being out in May, we actually start up right after Memorial Day,” Frazier says. “I don’t want them to come to band camp and see all these high notes and technical rhythms and become frustrated.” And Frazier incorporates additional motivation into their activities, such as taking her band to see former members who now perform at the collegiate level. “I think they really love getting to watch their friends from high school and see what they do now,” she says.
Preparing the Show
Oftentimes, the first halftime show of the season is the result of a year’s worth of planning and practicing. Many directors collaborate in-house with faculty members to begin designing the show in January. “We sit down with our staff, and it’s no holds barred. We throw all the ideas out on the table,” Light says. Program budgets factor into final decisions. “For a good Friday night competition show you’re probably looking at an excess of $40,000 to $50,000 every year to put that on the field,” he says.
This creative process is months in the making and covers every aspect of what audiences will see on game night, from writing arrangements and drills to color guard choreography and visual design of flags and costumes. “When I find a piece of music I want to use, I’ll listen to it a hundred times to make sure I won’t get tired of it,” Callaway says. “It’s got to be fresh and useable for 15 weeks in the fall.”
Students begin learning the new show during summer band camps. Most camps pack over 80 hours of rehearsal during two weeks in July. “We start out every single day with basic marching fundamentals. And we start back at ground zero every single day and go from there into more advanced skills before putting everything together on the field with our movement,” Callaway says.
During camp, students invest their time and passion to lock in all the moving parts. “It’s not just going out there and playing your horn. There’s movement and theatrics involved,” Ellison says. “We also work on conditioning our students to be able to move and play.” And the schedule doesn’t ease up once school starts. “On a normal week our kids spend 35 to 40 hours rehearsing, and the majority of that time is spent preparing for the halftime show,” he adds. “We put all these hours into eight minutes on Friday night.”
And practices can be hot and every bit as physically demanding as a sport. “These kids are putting out a lot of energy and effort to make this happen,” says Jim Burton, director of Cleveland High School’s Blue Raider Marching Band. “To be able to run around on that football field and only breathe in every 16 counts, it’s an athletic-driven endeavor. We’re trying to make it look easy, but band kids are more in shape than they usually get credit for.”
Of course, as with any great high school program, parents are key support systems. “The parents help build props, mow practice fields, and fit uniforms,” Light says. “They’re invaluable tools to making it all happen.”
Practice Makes Perfect
From July through November, marching bands work double time to prepare for both halftime shows and competitions. “They are practicing the same amount of hours a sports team practices,” Light says. But there are differences when it comes to the starting lineup. “There’s not a JV band – everybody plays,” he adds. “We start all of our freshmen every Friday night.”
Also unique from many team sports and activities is the fact that band members rarely receive independent recognition. “They don’t practice for individual glory. It’s not like they will hear their name over the loudspeaker for scoring a touchdown,” Light says. “They’re working for eight minutes of team perfection.”
And band members do not simply clock in the hours. “It’s not about the quantity of time, it’s about the quality of time spent,” Wright says. “We don’t mess around at rehearsal. We’re all business while we’re there.”
That dedication is inherent in band life. “We live in a time where we want instant success. But anything truly worth having, you have to work hard at it,” Wright adds. “I’m really proud of my kids. We never have students late to rehearsal.”
Winning over the Crowd
The goal on Friday nights is two-fold: inspire the team and rally the fans. And the musical beats start before the stadium clock ticks. “We set up the tunnel, and our football team comes running through it onto the field. It feels electric on Friday nights,” Benton says. “They buy into the fact that we are not Walker Valley Band, we are not Walker Valley Football – we’re all Mustangs here.”
Every school rattles their opponents with a combination of home team fans, cheerleaders, and of course, the band. Benton remembers a compliment he received when football coach Drew Akins moved to Walker Valley from an opposing high school. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you, when I was at Red Bank I hated playing you guys because it was like having another defender on the field. And now I have that in my corner,’” Benton recalls.
But what would a game be without a little friendly rivalry? “Here at Cleveland High, we call ourselves the soundtrack of the Blue Raiders,” Burton says. “We talk to our coaches about how we can use the music to cause the other team problems and how we can use it to strengthen the resolve of our boys.”
During games, bands boost school spirit from the bleachers with traditional fight songs. Plus, playing in the stands heightens the intensity rippling through the crowd. “We have big play cheers we perform to match a big play on the field, like an interception,” Wright says. “What I call spirit tunes are the songs we play every year like our fight song, ‘Onward, Ringgold.’ Our fans want to hear them, and our kids want to play them year after year.”
Directors intentionally create shows in anticipation of wowing fans. “When I’m writing or designing the show, I think about how the audience will react. Just like a movie star or a rock star, you know that moment the crowd’s waiting for,” Callaway says. “And we try to build that moment two or three times into the show.”
Competing and Traveling
While Friday night football games are showtime, they can also serve as dress rehearsals for competitions. “Halftime shows are a great opportunity to perform in public for our home crowd and get those repetitions in for our contest shows,” Ellison says. Plus, you’re still experiencing a competitive environment. Frazier explains, “People don’t always think of halftime shows as competitions, but, the crowd is always comparing the other band to yours.”
The stakes are a little different on Saturday competitions though. “With these competitions, you’re taking your group to be evaluated by a panel of judges who are typically deemed to be experts in the field. It’s similar to test day,” explains Ellison.
On any given Saturday in the fall, hundreds of high school band contests take place across schools and auditoriums. Directors enter their bands in as many distinguished invitationals as possible depending on schedules and budget. “The kids live for the competitive side. The students really shine in the competitive arena because not only are they competitive with each other inside the program, they are also competitive with the other schools,” Light says. “At the same time, they are very supportive and feed off great shows by other schools.”
Contests are not only about scoring top awards; competing in them reaps a variety of benefits. “In preparing for competitions, students learn there’s a process involved in everything that is successful,” Wright says. “It’s really about music education and students loving music, not just winning the trophy.”
Competitions are a way for students to gauge where they are compared to other programs. “We do use competitions as a motivating factor for quality,” Benton says. And that drive has led his Walker Valley Mustangs overseas to London, where they performed in the internationally televised London New Year’s Day Parade in 2019. “It is unbelievable that they get to soak in that different culture.”
Traveling nationally or abroad to perform in parades can affirm all the hard work students, directors, and parents invest in their programs. Over the years, these schools have accepted invitations to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Ooltewah), the Orange Bowl Parade (Cleveland), the Rose Bowl Parade (Soddy Daisy) and New York City’s Veterans Day Parade (Ringgold).
And in 2020, Heritage High’s Legion of Generals will march in the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. “It gives them a chance to see the memorials and go to the Smithsonian,” Callaway says. “But then to march down the road in front of the Capitol playing music in front of a pretty big audience, that will be a big thrill for them and for me too.”
Experiences from competitions and tours not only create a legacy, they mark milestones. “It’s a culmination of a goal so they see, hopefully, that diligent effort over a long period of time has rewards,” Burton says.
And the Beat Goes On
Marching band programs instill members with lessons that transcend the music. “We want students to realize it takes a long time to get something good; there’s no quick and easy in the world no matter what you do,” Burton says.
“They learn teamwork, and they learn that doing or not doing their job affects other people they are working with,” Wright says. “In whatever phase of life or vocation they go into, they will have to work with other people and make sure their part of the process is done to ensure the overall goal is achieved.”
Like all of the arts, marching band opens up new ideas and possibilities. “We use music to teach kids about life and the part of the brain that is creative, all those things music can encapsulate,” Ellison says. “It gets you and you can’t turn back – you want more.” CS
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