Marching band is a transformation at Ben Davis

INDIANAPOLIS (Oct. 1) — Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis hosted its 36th annual “Preview of Champions” today, inviting 32 other marching bands, all from Indiana, to take the field on this fall day that was interrupted by intermittent rain.

The show was an invitational and, as such, not a qualifying event for the Indiana State School Music Association’s marching band championships, but expert adjudicators were on hand to provide feedback to the bands all the same.

Ben Davis High School’s show opened with a French horn duet and then exploded with energy. (Voxitatis)

Ben Davis High School is a public high school, located on the west side of Indianapolis. The marching band, directed by David Cole, Ken Karlin, Shawn McNabb, and Gary Rudolph, once again brings a long and storied history to its field show entitled “Luna Mysteria.” The music includes works by 19th-century composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Claude Debussy, but the arrangements of these composers’ music take on a unique spin.

The band has quite a past, including a performance last March at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida and perennial semifinal appearances at the Bands of America Grand National Championships. Since 2000, the band has even accumulated seven BOA trophies, including a third-place finish overall and a first-place finish in Class 4A at the regional competition in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2012. The performance four years ago, entitled “The Thin Line Between Love & Hate,” also brought back the trophy for outstanding general effect, indicating a very effective performance.

Draft photos from the 32 other bands

Other appearances and awards in Ben Davis’s 98-year history include 14 Indiana state marching championships; nine field show championships, most recently in 1993; and seven appearances in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, between 1963 and 2012.

“Luna Mysteria” opens with band members wearing fur as part of their uniform, a costume of sorts that at the beginning keeps up the suspense. “We’re just sort of dancing around, and there’s some animalistic movement, but not too much,” said Carissa Atherton, a senior and one of the band’s four drum majors.

“In the middle of the third movement, which is our ballad, the two moon props come together and have an eclipse. At this point, the band transforms. Even our sound transforms, and we have kind of a hip-hop section. We added a modern sound, a little voice-over, and it’s like we’re becoming animals, like werewolves.”

Other visuals are just as important as those moon props that make an eclipse during Ben Davis’s show.

“It’s called marching band for a good reason,” said Collin Hawes, a junior and the section leader for the percussion pit that stands in front of the band for the show.

“People are focused on everyone on the field, so it’s really imperative that we show with our faces the aggression, the energy, the mysterious look. We have to show that—not just play the notes, but focus on how we move, our faces.”

Color guard member Bethany Habegger, a senior, said she agreed.

“Obviously catching the equipment is pretty important,” she said, acknowledging that, like notes for the musicians, the execution is part of the show. “But during practice, we focus a lot on our character, on what we look like—not just the work but how our faces look, our body language, and how we perform it with our emotions and expressions too.”

She said she tends to “feel it in the music”: “Like, if it sounds kind of aggressive, I try to look aggressive. Or, if it’s mysterious, I just don’t have too much expression. I just kind of feel it.”

Ms Atherton said she almost attended a nearby school with an illustrious marching band history of its own: Avon. But all six students I talked to said they were very pleased with the music program at Ben Davis. Avon’s schools might start instrumental music ensemble work before seventh grade, which is when it starts for Ben Davis students, but other connections to Ben Davis made the choice clear.

For example, the Area 31 Career Center, which serves several high schools—Avon, Ben Davis, Brownsburg, Cascade, Danville, Decatur Central, Monrovia, Mooresville, Plainfield, Speedway, and Tri-West—is located at Ben Davis High School.

“Ben Davis, this is home. I would never want to go anywhere else,” Mia Pennington, a junior and clarinetist in the band, said. “I can’t even imagine going anywhere else. It hurts me to think about it. Like, there was a point in time when my mom wanted us to move to a different state, and we were like, what band would we be in? How would I do anything else?”

Plus, “My families went here,” added Virginia Johnson, a freshman trumpeter. “I have two family members in band right now.”

Most of the students in the band are thinking about college, all six students agreed. Music stands a good chance of playing an important role in their college lives and beyond.

“I’m planning to continue with band,” said Jessica Goodman, one of the pianists in the percussion pit for this show based entirely on 19th-century works for piano. “A lot of colleges, like the one I want to go to, just don’t have pits. But I’m definitely going to continue with concert band, and I’m definitely going to continue to try to grow as a musician outside of band with private lessons, and that sort of thing.”

Little does one suspect a marching band could include Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” in such a high-energy show. The third movement of a suite of four, it’s a rather impressionistic and foggy work. Debussy originally titled the movement “Promenade Sentimentale” to mean a sentimental or reflective walk. That gives one the understanding that the work doesn’t exactly make for an exciting role in a marching band show.

But the Ben Davis band turns it on its head, as Ms Atherton explained, and execution helps.

“The part they usually rip didn’t rip; I’m very happy about that,” she said after the performance. She also liked the band’s energy. “The energy in that performance was incredible!”

Voxitatis updated this story on Wednesday, October 5, based on interviews we conducted with six students from the marching band at Ben Davis, with the permission of Mr Cole and Mr Rudolph, two directors of the band.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.