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Marching competition is a head fake at Kiski Area

INDIANAPOLIS (Nov. 14) — This is the second of a series of 35 stories about high school marching bands that performed at the Bands of America Grand National Championships on Thursday through Saturday, November 12–14, 2015.

Kiski Area High School is in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, about 35 or 40 minutes east of Pittsburgh, one of about six towns built by steel companies where their employees could reside along the Kiskiminetas River, a tributary of the Allegheny. About 1,250 students are enrolled, and 129 of them are in the marching band.


Kiski Area performs at Lucas Oil Stadium, November 13, 2015. (Voxitatis)

The band is directed by Robert Traugh and led on the field by drum majors Casey Maher, Elizabeth Postle, and Stephen Scassera. Their field show was entitled “Origins” and was loosely based on Ancient Aliens, a television series on the History Channel, which is itself based on the work of Swiss author Erich von Däniken. The author puts forth the hypothesis that space travelers from other planets visited Earth thousands of years ago and taught humans about technology and influenced ancient civilizations.

Support from the Earth-based community has always been strong, according to Mr Traugh, and it gets stronger even still, despite a stagnant local economy. This was the first Grand Nationals attended by three school officials from Kiski: the superintendent and the high school and middle school principals. Also, the town welcomed back the band late at night with a well-deserved mini-parade, including a police and fire escort for their charter buses.

Visually, the field show uses four large orange spheres, one for each soloist. And the list of soloists includes a bassoon, a real French horn, and a bass clarinet soloist, none of which are the most commonplace occurrence on the marching field.

The musical themes, based on the music of Michael Arnold Kamen, John Barnes Chance, and Frank Ticheli, aren’t atonal in their entirety but have stretches that sound atonal, giving the music an “other-worldly” flavor.

It’s intended to bring to mind an “ancient feel,” Mr Traugh said, and along with the somewhat eerie sounds of the bass clarinet and sharp trills on fifes toward the end of the show, the ancient alien feel is accomplished quite clearly. At the end, all the spheres come together—at the origin—and the soloists come front and center to bring the show to a climax.

The band is a regular participant in Bands of America events and has been since the mid-1980s. Participation was perhaps greatest in 1994, Mr Traugh recalled, when 156 students took the field. Today, that has changed somewhat. Like this year, the band’s quality usually puts them near the top in terms of total points on a recap sheet, but Kiski Area is by no means one of the biggest bands at BOA events anymore.

That doesn’t stop them from winning trophies, though. Marching band festivals are notorious for sending back lots of hardware to schools, and Kiski Area is no stranger to that. According to our incomplete count, Kiski Area has more than 100 trophies from Bands of America in their trophy case, including 18 regional championships and two Grand National class championships.

Nobody claims competition is the most valuable aspect at Bands of America events, but the presence of competition is undeniable in that champions are named based on scores given by subjective judges. The program booklet even has an essay that claims competition in itself is valuable in that students learn a lot when they lose and have to pick themselves up.

And being “the best” is indeed what kids seem to focus on as they work on their performance and come to Indianapolis or any other marching band competition, even if it means getting up before 5 AM to be at their best on the field by 8 AM for a semifinal performance.

It’s not really about the competition or the winning

But we’ve known for some time, the biggest value competition brings to the fine arts is that it serves as a sort of “head fake,” like one in basketball or the stock market. Or, to use an artistic example, like the Oscars, where even the non-winners are celebrated for the work they’ve done.

“Of course, we work all season to be competitive. That’s what kids are going for,” Mr Traugh said. “And everybody’s very proud of the work they put in. … But what they ultimately take away from this is the experience they have on the field. They remember that they are part of something greater than themselves.”

A head fake is a type of feint in which players move their head to fake a change in direction. More than 17 million people have viewed Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” on achieving childhood goals, in which he describes indirect learning brought about by head fakes:

I didn’t make it to the National Football League, but I probably got more from that dream and not accomplishing it than I got from any of the ones that I did accomplish. … When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care. … And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. … We send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, et cetera, et cetera.

Alice is a project that we worked on for a long, long time. It’s a novel way to teach computer programming. Kids make movies and games. The head fake, again, we’re back to the head fakes. The best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they’re learning something else. … The head fake here is that they’re learning to program but they just think they’re making movies and video games. … Millions of kids having fun while learning something hard. That’s pretty cool.

To paraphrase, we actually don’t want our kids to win grand champion. One band will win, but we send kids to marching festivals to learn more important things—things, like the universe to us earthlings, that are bigger than the trophies or scores.

The idea of using competition as a way to teach deeper lessons, such as cooperation, citizenship, and collaboration, is driven home at Kiski Area, as shown by the actions of their drum majors at a retreat for all bands making semifinals at Grand Nationals.

“All schools and students should take that approach of working together, even with people outside their own little bubble, to be a part of something bigger,” Mr Traugh said.

“I realize ‘commitment’ is a very broad and general word. Sometimes when parents hear that marching band takes a lot of commitment, they think it means students will have to give their lives to it.

“But the marching band program at Kiski gives back in many ways to reward that commitment. It’s like someone who’s committed to a career or to a marriage, so it takes a lot of dedication, but the rewards are great. I don’t think you get that in many other programs in the public schools—or even beyond. The citizenship this promotes is an invaluable lesson.”

Voxitatis is grateful to the Music For All organization, particularly to Eric Martin, president and CEO, and to Kathryn Reinhardt, marketing coordinator, for their assistance in developing this series of stories and for their hospitality while we were in Indianapolis covering what is, by far, the largest high school marching band event in the US.

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

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