The Joy of School Bands
August 17, 2020
Nothing’s better than being in a school band.
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t cool enough to be a cheerleader, talented enough to be in drama club, or agile enough to be on sports teams. But I could play music—specifically flute and piano. And in my school wind ensembles, when I lifted my piccolo to perform a terrifying Tchaikovsky solo, soaring diaphanous and completely exposed in a sudden moment of quietude after one of the composer’s legendary roaring fanfares, or to whip out a lightning-fast Sousa rip as the trombones took a breather, that little bitty (13-inch) instrument freed my soul. For one moment, I became melody that spilled out beyond me and grew and grew—as large as an idea, as hopeful as a billowing cloud after a spring storm.
And I got to do that with friends—in a sweet, momentary symbiosis, a heartbeat-to-heartbeat communion, poetry that finds its voice only when players understand and capture the emotions a composer meant to call up with those scratchy notes on the sheet music page. Joy, despair, contemplation, love. In the words of one of my characters (who typically speak better for me), Peggy (of HAMILTON AND PEGGY) says about music: “Music is air made rapturous, achieving the sublime, catching the harmony of the spheres for a fleeting moment so we can hear it. It is the closest we get to God. So, therefore, it is pure brilliance of the soul.”
For sheer showmanship, camaraderie, and plain old fun, nothing beats being in a really good high school marching band. Seriously. As far as I’m concerned a football game is all about the pre-game and halftime shows. (I am smiling at all you football fans knowing you might argue that point.) And during a parade, sure the floats and the celebrities are nice, but wait until you hear those bands coming up the street, right for you—flags waving, drum majors prancing, instruments swinging as those musicians strut and play. Watch children smile, see toes start tapping, hands clapping, and even the surliest of bystanders stop for a moment and maybe even give a little butt-wiggle in time to the music’s beat.
Two of my favorite minor characters in STORM DOG embody all this: Ariel’s big brother, George—who is the coolest of cool, a jazz-loving, high school drum major and saxophonist—and the father of her sister’s discarded boyfriend—a piccolo-toting, Hercules-sized, Revolutionary War re-enactor who comes to her rescue and mesmerizes a pack of pooches with a well-played tune.
All this proves that no experience is wasted in a writer’s life. We are always “saving string,” keeping little threads of our own experiences, people we’ve met, and scenes we’ve witnessed in our proverbial hip pocket to toss into the cauldron of a story we’re trying to brew. So let me confess: I marched in the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival parade in high school and I was a field conductor of a marching band during college (at my beloved Wake Forest University). Once upon a time I dreamed of being a concert flautist or an orchestra conductor. (I was lucky enough to also write, all through school on student publications and stringing for local papers. When close to two hundred incredibly talented flutists—and I—signed up to audition for a single chair with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, I realized I had more of a chance with my writing!)
So, from personal experience, I can tell you a marching band’s precision, unity, harmony, dramatic flash and flare are much harder to achieve than an audience might imagine. For instance, each step must be a precise 22 ½-inch stride to match 8-to-five on a football field—the arch of each musician’s foot touching the five-yard line at the same moment his or her squad’s does—not the toe, not the heel, the arch. Only then are the human diagonals and rows perfectly flush, as crisp as geometric figures. All music must be memorized. Musicians may have to march backwards or in oblique as they play. There are prance steps, glide steps. Choreography can include waves, floating intact formations, brass sections creating gauntlets in which they weave their instruments over and under each other as they play. (These things can be dangerous, BTW! I was hit in the head once as I came through two rows of girls exchanging their rifles in a domino-ripple toss. )
When all this works—after hours and hours of individual and group practice—it’s nothing short of magic. For the musicians and for their audience.
I will leave you with some Youtube selections of marching bands—in parades, competitions, in the stands, and in halftime shows. And with this thought from Ariel: “If you’ve never seen a parade live—felt the street throb and your heart pulse in rhythm with a passing band’s drum cadence, been swept up in all the colors and confetti and celebration—promise yourself to do it before you die. Better yet, march in one.”
Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade Marching Bands 2020
broken out individually: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcCFJbzcaG0jLdKqYIc9Ip9tHKerHkjc5
The heartbeat of any marching band, its drumline:
Marching Band Competition:
high school bands in the stands:
And in love of piccolos: