Marching band shows require hours of practice and preparation
By Sarah Campbell
“Why am I putting myself through this torture?”
That’s what Alex Osterweil kept thinking during this first week of marching band camp more than three years ago.
“It’s miserable,” the Carson High School junior said. “That first week is the hardest one you will ever go through in band.”
Osterweil, who plays saxophone, said he was surprised to find out just how much time and energy band takes.
“I didn’t realize it until I joined, but you’ve got over 100 people and you’ve got to get them all in sync while they’re playing their instruments and doing some unique movements,” he said. “It takes a lot of focus, a lot of work and a lot of dedication.”
The Carson Marching band practices at least six hours at week, often more, in preparation for halftime shows during Friday night football games, competitions and parades.
“Marching bands have changed drastically over the past several years and the demands on the students to keep up with the times is sometimes strenuous,” Carson band director Jeff Street said. “It used to be that a marching band’s sole purpose was to be a cheer squad for football games. It has now evolved to be somewhat of a sport in itself.”
Gaby Roldan, drum major at West Rowan High, said the marching band logs more than 100 hours of practice time during band camp alone. Regular practices are held three days a week for a total of about eight hours.
“It’s a lot of practice considering we really only have four competitions, but it’s awesome when you see the show starting to come together,” she said.
Kara Riddle, color guard captain at West, said marching band is much more than meets the eye. Members have to learn choreography and drill, all while playing their instruments or performing their guard routine.
“I don’t think people realize how much time we put into this, there’s a lot behind every move,” she said. “I spend a lot of time doing this, it’s pretty much my life.”
Producing the show
West Rowan band director Daniel Trivette said he typically starts writing and designing the show in January, at least six months before the first note is even played.
“I design, compose and arrange every note the band plays from flutes and trumpets to the bass drums and cymbals,” he said. “All this while still teaching and rehearsing our indoor ensembles, which are working toward their own set of concerts and competitive performance venues.
“It’s a continuously overlapping vicious cycle that is incredibly physically and mentally taxing.”
Although the process of creating a show from scratch is long and intensive, Trivette said it’s worth it because he can play to the band’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
“In order to help groups achieve their full potential, designing a custom show is often the way to go,” he said.
Trivette said he begins designing the show by honing in on a particular theme or concept. Then he has to select and re-arrange or originally compose the musical material.
Street said preparation for marching band season at Carson also begins in January.
“We sit down as a staff, which is made up of music professionals, color guard instructors and student leaders, to discuss the direction that we would like to take in the upcoming school year,” he said. “We must look at our strengths and weaknesses, and we must consider our numbers.”
Street said he tries to vary the show’s concept from year to year.
“One year we may do a movie theme like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ then throw out a jazz show the next year and then a show that is way out there like this year’s show called ‘Tribal Affect,'” he said.
Street said his goal is to find a show that will appeal to the audience at Friday night football games.
“If the football crowd can dig what you are doing and enjoy seeing it from week to week, then you have done your job,” he said. “I don’t ever want the football crowd to be bored with what we are doing.”
Street said whether he composes the music himself or purchases it depends on the theme.
After the music is in place, Street said it’s time to write the drill. The drill consists of the movements students make during the show.
“Some band directors opt to do this themselves while others pay professional drill writers,” he said.
Street said he used to write his own drill, but found it to be a very time-consuming task.
“The time took me away from my family and I would often write drill after my children had gone to sleep, keeping me up until all hours of the night,” he said. “This was exhausting to me and I finally decided that I would communicate my ideas to a drill writer and let them take care of it.”
South Rowan band director Todd Whittington said he spent at least six months writing this year’s show.
“People don’t realize the hours band directors put in,” he said. “I’ve already started thinking about new year’s show.”
With a small 45-piece band, Whittington said it makes more sense to compose his own music so that he can write it specially for the instruments on hand.
“I’ve learned with a smaller band you have to utilize everything that you can,” he said.
North Rowan band director Andrew Howe said he purchased this year’s show titled “Conspiracy Theory,” but that isn’t always the case.
“Two years ago I wrote the show and sometimes we have people custom write it for us, it just depends on what we’re going for,” he said.
‘Broadway on the field’
Whittington said marching band shows have turned into what he called “Broadway on the field.”
“You have to have a production,” he said. “When I first started 25 years ago I could pick three songs that I liked and as long as they were played and marched well you could win.”
Whittington said the days of sporadically picking songs to perform are over.
“It’s about more than just the sound now,” he said. “You basically have to tell a story.”
Street said themed showed didn’t exist until the mid 1980s, when the Garfield Cadets and Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps started to perform more “serious literature.”
“This was the beginning of themes for shows with the Cadets performing music from ‘Les Miserables’ and the Vanguard performing ‘Phantom of the Opera,'” he said.
Street said now shows are much more theatrical.
“Along with more serious works came faster tempos and a sense of using the whole field as a stage,” he said. “We went from using straight lines and simple shapes to using more intricate forms that visually match the music.
“Special effects and props add to the overall message that is trying to be sent to the audience.”
Trivette said the transformation of band show into theatrical productions goes along with the new statewide curriculum standards that have a renewed focus on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which includes creating, evaluating, analyzing and applying.
“These types of productions are necessary in order to accomplish our educational aims,” he said. “In the realm of marching bands, the theatrics have become the norm.”
Howe said it’s been particularly interesting for him to see the transition to more highly-produced shows because he grew up around marching bands.
His father, Keith Howe, was a band director at middle and high schools in Rowan County for 31 years.
“It’s a lot more involved,” he said.
Howe said he spends a lot of time making sure the drill and any other kind of choreography goes along with the style of the music.
“Does it all fit together, does it tell a story, that’s what I ask myself,” he said.
Howe said he doesn’t believe the move to more theatrical productions is exactly a good change.
“We try to weave in a story, but to me it really should boil down to how well you play and march,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s a little more than that. If you want to win you have to have a production, that’s the nature of the beast now.”
The added movement and rigor means more practice, Howe said, which can keep students who work or play sports out of band.
“With the added components comes added pressure,” he said.
That’s why Howe’s created a separate marching band that doesn’t compete, but performs during football games and parades.
“It allows students to stay in the band and play without having to worry about going out to compete,” he said.
But Howe said the advantage of the more complicated shows is that its boosted music programs.
“You can’t go out and fake your way through the show, you have to have a solid program,” he said. “I think it’s made kids better players.”
Competitive in nature
Trivette said several years ago marching bands would learn multiple shows throughout the fall season, but that’s no longer the case.
“Variety was the spice of half-time, ” he said. “In recent years, these shows have become increasingly more complex to the point where they have developed into their own art form and include so many elements and such physical and musical demand that it take months of rehearsal and thousands of man hours to perfect them,” he said.
Trivette attributes the increasing complexity of shows to the competitive circuit.
“Although we love and cherish the time spent support our schools and teams at games, pep rallies and parades, these contests are the only venues that exist solely and completely for the bands to be center stage,” he said.
Trivette said the goal of the contests isn’t just to provide students a place to perform, but further their musical education.
“Each contest has a panel of acclaimed adjudicators who provide feedback to critique each performance and provide suggestions on how to improve broad-spectrum areas like music effect, marching, visual effect and more specific areas such as color guard, percussion and drum majors,” he said.
Trivette said North Carolina will likely eventually have state-sanctioned contests like South Carolina and Texas.
Such contests culminate in state-championships in each class, just like athletics, he said.
Howe said those type of state-sanctioned events up the ante.
“It’s serious business in those places,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for band directors to lose their jobs if they don’t perform.”
Howe said he tries to take the pressure off students by reminding them that the only thing they can control is themselves.
“I tell them to make it as good as they can make it and the students really buy into and understand that.”
Osterweil said the fact that Carson is competing in three competitions this year makes each one more special.
“We don’t get the opportunity to prove ourselves again and again and again,” he said. “We have three chance to compare ourselves to people who do the exact same thing.”
Alyssa Hall, a senior clarinet player at Carson, said she knows it’s important to hit each note and step just right when she’s out on the field.
“You’ve got to nail your performance in order to do well,” she said. “That moment when you finish the show, when you’re out of breath and you’re exhausted because you’ve given it your all, that’s an amazing feeling. You feel like you’ve accomplished something so big.”
Ryan Wilhite, a junior snare drum player at Carson, said he considers band to be the sport of the arts and welcomes the competitive aspect.
“You’re playing music at a very high level and marching at the same time,” he said. “Memorizing music on top of learning drill can be tough.”
‘A huge family’
Wilhite said he fell in love with percussion when he started playing back in sixth grade and that continued when he joined high school marching band.
“It’s an awesome experience to be part of something like this,” he said. “We’re all a huge family so it’s a lot of fun.”
Maggie Hollar, a Carson freshman who plays trumpet, has already solidified great friendships within the band.
“Even though practice can be hardcore you meet a lot of amazing people,” she said. “People who play sports, that’s there thing. Band is out thing.”
Roldan said her West Rowan band mates, who she also considers family, have helped her grow as a person.
“I’ve changed since freshman year because of band,” she said. “I used to be really quiet and shy and wouldn’t really talk to people.
“I have a lot more friends now than I probably would have if I didn’t do band.”
Hall said the family atmosphere is what has kept her in band all four years at Carson.
“I do get a lot of homework with the course load that I have, but I would be out here every single day of the week for three hours even if I had to stay up until 1 a.m. just because I love it so much,” she said.
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