Success at a Small School. When Jeff Neavor’s marching band at Morton High School just outside Peoria finished next-to-last at the St. Louis super-regional competition for Bands of America on Oct. 12, 2002, he and his assistant directors made a five- to eight-year plan to build a top-class marching program at the high school. Our snapshot of how that’s going came in the form of an interview with the band’s three drum majors, the student leaders on the marching field. Their words were recorded and published on these pages on Oct. 23, 2008. We welcome your comments to this article (link).
MORTON, Ill. (Oct. 21, 2008)—Six years ago, when Jeff Neavor’s marching band at Morton High School just outside Peoria finished next-to-last at the Bands of America Super-regional in St. Louis, he and his assistant directors came up with a five- to eight-year plan to build a top-class marching program at the high school. Last Saturday at that same competition in St. Louis, the group joined a short list of about 20 Illinois high schools in being selected for the finals at a Bands of America regional competition.
Of course, there’s a lot more to marching bands and music programs in general than just the scores—and the Bands of America organization, now known as “Music For All,” has its fair share of detractors in the marching community—but it cannot be denied that performing in NFL dome stadiums, in front of the same, large audience as some of the top music programs in the country, provides an experience that students carry with them for the rest of their lives.
We present here our snapshot of Morton’s progress, not as a photograph or score sheet, which have their place in our schools’ fine arts programs, I suppose, but rather, in the form of an interview with the band’s three drum majors: Krissi Gashaw, Nathan Myers, and Ashlie Antrim.
Q: When did you all start working on this year’s show?
Ashlie Antrim, sophomore: Us as drum majors, we started practicing last year, but we didn’t know Nathan and I would be drum majors at the time.
Krissi Gashaw, senior: We started tryouts and stuff like that, we got the music, back in January. In February, we started working with the music, listening to it.
Nathan Myers, junior: I think we had our first group sectional around March or April.
Ms. Antrim: Yeah, once Nathan and I learned we were going to be the drum majors.
Mr. Myers: We just had a basic sectional to start talking about basic things, because neither of us had ever been drum majors…
Ms. Antrim: Well, I did it in junior high, but that doesn’t count.
Q: Yeah, I suppose it’s a little different from the Edward Jones Dome and Bands of America, huh? So how did your tryout process work?
Mr. Myers: Generally, they find out if different people are interested. Then they decide from some of the things they’ve seen from those people. So there’s not really an auditioning process for it. It’s more like who they think has the leadership ability and can keep the tempo, someone who has some ability to be friends with everybody, and just kind of relate towards everybody. That’s usually what they look for, especially because with freshmen, who are incoming, you have to be kind of nice, and pick them up whenever you can. Just tell them to keep going and wait until we get into the season.
Q: And all of this work culminated last Saturday in St. Louis, when they announced your name as a finalist on the loudspeaker in the Edward Jones Dome, right? Except first you heard your name for coming in third place in Class AA. What was that like?
Ms. Antrim: There was a lot of screaming involved on the bus ride home. A lot of sleeping as well. I don’t remember many conversations, because I was asleep a lot of the way.
Q: It was a long day, then?
Ms. Antrim: It was a fairly long day, yeah. I didn’t even get a chance to change out of my uniform.
Q: Did you see any of the other bands, like Broken Arrow from Broken Arrow, Okla., which won grand champion?
Ms. Antrim: We were actually lined up, getting ready to do the awards ceremony by the time they played, but we could still hear them a little bit. I was impressed with just listening to the tidbits of what I heard. And I’ve heard all the kids talk about how amazing they are. I wish I could’ve seen it, but from the tiny bit I heard, they’re very impressive.
Q: So as you’re walking out on the field for the awards ceremony with 56 bands total, how was that?
Ms. Antrim: Yeah, that was exciting.
Q: And then they called your name for the finals.
Ms. Gashaw: I was closer to Ashlie, and we were both like, there was a sharp intake of breath. We were just like, we wanted to jump up and down so much, and just scream. We were so happy.
Q: You don’t really have to do anything when they announce your name for the finals, do you?
Ms. Gashaw: No, we just had to listen. I was almost in tears. In fact, I was in tears. It was just amazing that they actually did call our name. It was just shocking. It was awesome.
Q: What’s your show about? Is there a theme?
Ms. Antrim: Our show can make me cry every time. It’s got a storyline that’ll just rip my heart out. The soloist, the girl soloist, is my best friend, so just to watch her dance every day breaks my heart. I love her.
Ms. Gashaw: I also believe our show is like a love story. Everyone can relate to what’s going on. And it’s not just the show, but the music intertwines with the show, and all the parts work together to create those emotions. It’s just so powerful, to see everything happen, you know, like the intense ending. It’s really moving to be able to portray something like that.
Q: It’s an intense ending, but it’s kind of a downer. I mean, the girl dies.
Mr. Myers: It’s definitely intense. Like, there are times, you know, when you can just feel the intensity building, when you’re conducting and your patterns just get bigger and bigger and bigger, and you just feel the emotion. I physically got angry before, once in the last part. You just feel the anger building inside, and then just on that last note, with that big cutoff, it just sends chills down your spine.
Ms. Antrim: I got so into it one day they started calling me Ashlie Tantrum, because I got all red in the face, and like really mad. I just got so full of emotion.
Mr. Myers: In the show, the soloist is the one that can feel the emotion, and she’s the savage in this society of all these genetically engineered people. They all have these roles in life to do these specific things. So, none of them have emotion. And she gets stuck into this society where nobody has any feeling about anything, and then, it’s just her.
Ms. Gashaw: She feels trapped, and they try to pull her to be like everyone else. And they finally tell her, if you’re not going to be like us, then you can’t be here at all.
Mr. Myers: And the soloist, he finally understands like, I don’t want to be a part of this society.
Ms. Gashaw: He throws his gloves off and leaves.
Mr. Myers: It’s just him leaving his life behind, basically, and that’s how the book ends too.
Ms. Gashaw: I think it leaves people wondering, like, wow, she’s dead. Like, whoa! And it kind of leaves them thinking. It leaves an imprint on them. I mean, that’s what we hope to portray, is that it leaves something with them, like, wow.
Mr. Myers: Sometimes, when you’re on the ladder, you can just hear people in the crowd at the end almost giving this sigh, like, I can’t believe what just happened. At ISU, I don’t know if it was a staff member or somebody, but you could hear on the video, just somebody goes, “Oh … my … God.”
Ms. Antrim: It sends chills down my spine.
Mr. Myers: I remember standing on the ladder, thinking we just made them feel that way. Like, just to make somebody feel that intense passion, like to understand what’s going on.
Q: Ashlie, you mentioned having some prior experience as a “drum major” in junior high. What’s that about?
Ms. Antrim: Yeah, I started playing flute in sixth grade, and I met these two really early. And Krissi taught me how to direct when I was in eighth grade. She came over and helped me, and then, well, actually it was during a play, but that’s beside the point.
Ms. Gashaw: This year, our freshmen are doing amazingly well.
Ms. Antrim: We immediately came in and were ready to work and ready to go. Like, for me, when I was a freshman, I knew we had won a lot of things, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. I just didn’t want to be that freshman who didn’t work hard enough.
Ms. Gashaw: And I think another thing that contributes to our freshmen is, we try really hard, for the junior high marching band, to get as many high schoolers to help. We usually have about half the high school band help with the junior highers, and so they are already accustomed to the high schoolers. And they’re like, oh, we want to be like them. We even play for them at the end of the junior high band camp, so it gives them a sense of, they know what’s going on, and so they want to be a part of that. And so they work hard, and they already know that they want to be a part of it.
Mr. Myers: I pair up with the junior highs third hour during the day. So I go over there [just across the street] every day and work with them. And every hour of the day that they have band, and even some hours that they don’t, there’s band kids over there helping Mrs. F., who’s the junior high band director, helping to get music together, and stuff like that. Or the hours that they do have band, we’re helping them learn the music or working with them in sectionals.
And another thing is also just kind of talking to them, you know, saying how this is something that you really should do or at least try when you get to high school. We try to reduce the drop-offs that we used to have between junior high and high school. I remember, that’s one of the reasons I did band when I got to high school: because of seniors that were there, that had talked me into, you know, just like try it and you’ll really like it. And now I’m glad that all those people were there, pushing me to do it.
Q: I even noticed on the sign out front that the orchestra is combining with the junior high orchestra for a joint concert this week.
Ms. Gashaw: They do that. They just try to combine them as much as they can, to try to make them feel more confident about just being with the high school, so they mold into it better.
Mr. Myers: And just to get that in their head, wow, that’s really cool, I want to do that in the future. It’s that whole thing, just setting, kind of like a dream for them. That way, when they come from junior high to high school, they seem to mix in with the high school better. They’ve spent the whole summer with high school kids, and they’ve got friends that are in high school. That just helps the process.
Q: I also noticed all the parents sitting out on the bleachers watching your rehearsal. That seems unusual for a high school marching band practice on a Tuesday night.
Mr. Myers: And that was a small group, because it’s cold out. Usually, like when we come back from camp and throughout the summer, almost everybody’s parents are out there. Out of about 130 kids in the band, there’s probably 90 of their parents out there.
Ms. Gashaw: Yeah, especially on Tuesday nights, because since we have all the bleachers, they all just come to watch.
Ms. Antrim: We go on that field on Tuesdays, but on Thursdays we’re on a smaller field, without bleachers.
Mr. Myers: And some of them are parents whose kids have graduated, but they just want to come back, because they want to see part of the program. Or, kids who have graduated, like the alumni, come back all the time.
Ms. Antrim: It’s fun to catch up to see what your band is doing.
Mr. Myers: And they just want to see the program grow. They want to see how the program started where they did, that the work they put in has gone somewhere, that it’s taken the program somewhere that excites. Like, I have friends that graduated, you know, a year ago, or two years ago, they’re just excited to see the program keep moving on.
Q: Morton is such a small town, what else can we say?
Ms. Gashaw: I think that because we’re from the central Illinois area, it’s so inspirational, I guess, because everyone when they talk about Illinois, they think Chicago, you know, or maybe St. Louis, but mostly they think Chicago.
And being such a small band, from a small town, we don’t have a big funding program. It’s nice to know that we can go from such a small band that had about 40 members not even eight years ago, to a band that’s thriving, you know, a band that made BOA finalist. It’s wonderful to see that you can make a difference. You can do it. It’s really cool.
Mr. Myers: I was also going to say, I really don’t think there’s anything different about us. It just goes to show that anybody can do this. Any band that thinks, we can’t do this, if you start to push yourselves, maybe it won’t be when you’re there, but eventually one day, your program will be there.
And you’ll know, I had a part in this program. That’s why it’s where it is. I really don’t think there’s anything different about us. Anybody could do this. It just takes time.
Q: I would be remiss not to mention the adults who surround your program. I think that’s a big part of it too, because somebody has to pick you up after our interview here, somebody has to pay for the buses, other stuff, …
Ms. Antrim: … and the food! I saw the bill. When we walked into Cici’s Pizza and watched the cash register, it was over one thousand.
Q: There’s a lot of support there, and you’re part of the reason why people invest that much. I mean, the huge bands like Broken Arrow, with their two semis, let’s face it, that costs some serious money. How do you guys feel about that?
Ms. Gashaw: I think they worked up from a certain stage too, just like us. They came from somewhere. I mean, we’re very fortunate to have the stuff we have, but there’s nothing really different about it.
Mr. Myers: They have those big budgets because of where they are, and where they worked to get. So maybe someday, we’ll have one of those big budgets.
Q: What kinds of things have meant a lot to you in marching band?
Ms. Gashaw: One thing for me was L.D. Bell [High School]. Their trilogy was so intense. I can remember physically being sick because their show gave that intense emotion.
Mr. Myers: I think that was 2006, my freshman year, I remember at Grand Nationals, saying to myself, you know, I want to do a show like that. I want to make people feel that way, like that feeling of almost hopelessness, almost like sickness, like you’re all alone.
Ms. Gashaw: It’s just a marching band show, but like, the emotion was so intense.
Q: Yeah, you only have about eight minutes to do that.
Mr. Myers: It was like watching a really good, scary horror movie that in the end, just made you sick. It’s still so good, though, like you want to see it over and over again. That show still, out of all the other shows that year, it still sends chills down my spine every time I watch it.
Ms. Antrim: I just wish I was old enough to see it.
Mr. Myers: And even if it’s a happy show, you just want to leave people with that emotion at the end, just like that happy feeling. But it just happens that we have a dark ending, with an angry, morbid ending.
Ms. Antrim: As I watch my best friend die.
Q: What do you all want to be, where do you want to go to school?
Ms. Antrim: I want to go to ISU, secretly it’s for acting, but I’m looking into interior design. Acting would be amazing.
Mr. Myers: Yeah, I know where I want to go to school, I know what I want to do. I want to go to Iowa, the Hawkeyes, and I want to go into either architecture or some type of design. And if that doesn’t work out, politics, hopefully as well. It would be exciting, and hopefully wherever I go, it’ll have a good, strong music program that I could participate in. But music’s not necessarily my goal in college, but definitely, I like fine arts type things.
Ms. Gashaw: Actually, I am hoping to apply to ISU. I want to be a part of their music program, but I don’t think I’m going to go into music.
Q: Definitely a good school for a lot of things. Any idea what you want to go into?
Ms. Gashaw: I want to go into either special education or early elementary. I want to make an imprint on people’s lives. And people with special needs need your help, and I just want to be there. And I think a leadership role is a big part of that: I think it’s helped me a lot with my leadership skills. It’s a tough field, but one of my best friends growing up had Down’s Syndrome. So it has something there for me, and I feel like I can be there for them. I feel I can relate to them.
And it’s not just like I’m mindlessly going into it or I don’t have any feeling for it. I think you have to have a love for what you’re going to do. I think you have to have compassion, and something there to deal with people, and to lead somebody. You can’t just lead someone mindlessly. You have to have feeling, and you have to love what you do.