NORMAL, Ill. (Sept. 29) — A few places exist where you can count on consistent performance excellence in marching bands, and Illinois is one such place.
Every fall, high schools in the state send their marching bands to a wide array of festivals and showcases, most of which masquerade as competitions where a “grand champion” is named and trophies are handed out. Illinois Marching Online lists at least 53 such contests this year alone at which Illinois bands will perform. But the mission of our schools goes far beyond adding hardware to a trophy case in a school hallway or to a shelf in the band room.
Voxitatis spoke with Ryan Budzinski, the band director at Normal Community West High School and one of three directors this fall of the new Normal Marching Band, which hosted its invitational festival here at Illinois Wesleyan University. In addition to raising funds for the music programs at the two high schools that collaborate in the Normal Marching Band, the show entertained a crowd of more than a thousand marching band fans.
The Saturday evening event also provided feedback to directors and marching band students at the nine participating schools from experts in the marching arts, among them Steven Pyter, who has worked with several high school bands in Illinois and teaches marching band methods at the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, and Clifton Smith, who once served as assistant director of the marching band at the University of Michigan.
Collaboration in competitive marching band
Both Normal Community West and Normal Community had good—and good-sized, with between 100 and 120 students on average—marching bands in previous years. But directors, who essentially teach band and music classes at both high schools in Unit District 5 anyway, wanted to build on what Mr Budzinski described as the district “embracing a collaborative format over the past few years, with things like professional learning communities.”
He wanted to bring that same emphasis on collaboration to the marching band programs in the district, he said. “And I think that sort of gave birth to this in a way.
“So it’s been about the collaboration, and I don’t think that stops with the directors,” he continued, referring to only the occasional logistics hurdle students gladly jumped over—evening rehearsals are most commonly conducted at a middle school in between the two high schools—to avail themselves to this unique opportunity. “It’s been about the collaboration with the students, building their maturity, developing their leadership skills.”
In some cases, section leaders work with those from the other school; in some cases, section leaders come from the same school. “But the added leadership opportunities, and just all the knowledge everybody brings to the table—when they’re drawing on twice as much basis of knowledge and skill—we found that to be really important for the students as well.”
Other efforts to combine forces in marching band can be found, most notably in Illinois, with Lincoln-Way West, Central, and East high schools; and in Indianapolis in the Lawrence Township Metropolitan School District with Lawrence Central and North high schools. In all three cases, counting now Normal, the schools are all working within the same school district. But there is also tremendous inter-district collaboration in Illinois marching bands.
For example, students from Normal participated with those from about six other high schools, Mr Budzinski estimated, at a leadership session last spring at Morton High School, which is a few districts and counties to the west of Normal.
From leadership to an entertaining show
The conference started with students from all the schools in a session with Scott Lang, which Normal’s directors carried into sessions applying the ideas students learned there to their own specific program. It “was kind of a neat way to start to get the kids involved,” Mr Budzinski said. The Normal-only sessions were conducted over the course of a couple months, with student leaders meeting for a few hours at a time.
“It wasn’t an intensive, ‘let’s do this for a week and get it done’ situation,” he explained. “It was, ‘let’s dabble in this, and let’s dabble in that.’ We felt this was a good opportunity for us to see [students] at their best—obviously you had your most enthusiastic students there—so it was a neat group of test subjects as we were experimenting with things, trying things. It helped us gauge what transitions would translate instantly and what things might take a little more time.”
The approach also gave students a chance to let what they were learning sink in and a chance to bounce new ideas off of others who weren’t at the sessions.
“It really allowed them to take a step away from it and process it on their own in their own time, and even talk to their peers who weren’t there,” he said. “So the direction we were headed really started to spread through the band students at both schools.”
That meant there might have been less of a learning curve when the entire band had to put the learning into practice on the marching field. “They heard enough of what was going on that when people walked in the door for the first day of rehearsals or the first week of camp, there was some understanding of what the expectation would be.”
Hope for an eternal spring in marching band
Predominant among marching bands in central Illinois is the Morton High School Marching Band, under the direction of Jeff Neavor. The band was named grand champion at the Normal Invitational here, performing a show entitled “Through an Eternal Spring.”
“Our production dives into the depths of the eternal spring,” writes Jordan Lalama, Morton’s program coordinator and the designer of this year’s show. “Unique creatures that rule, majestically and magnificently, tempt the waters and the very nature of its mystic powers. Starving for its influence, many seek the magic of a single touch, a glimpse of their eternal fortune, life, and entity.”
As directors and teachers share what they have learned at these interscholastic conferences and explore new opportunities for learning—like an eternal spring, a fountain of youth, which has been written about in literature for thousands of years—they might hope their teaching keeps bringing forth new ideas in the marching arts.
“As you look into the spring, a mysterious reflection glances back, agonizing and shocking,” Mr Lalama continues. “[The show] captivates all of the senses with its panoramic narrative, coordination of all elements, and synergistic effort to mesmerize the masses.”
And as mesmerizing as Morton’s show was, the synergy of collaboration that blossomed behind the scenes, over the summer at band camps, and in the board rooms and superintendents’ offices of these school districts is the stuff that brings these shows to our stage, year after year, in school after school across America.
Normal’s show this year is entitled “We the People,” a direct reference to the preamble of the Constitution.
“It goes all the way back to the principles that the Founding Fathers considered when they were establishing a democracy,” Mr Budzinski said. “It’s based on the preamble but also on other ideas in our democracy, like liberty and justice for all, we’re all created equal, and stuff like that. It’s a statement about the evolution of what that’s looked like over time, and maybe a statement of where we are now relative to those principles.”
Some elements in the show are explicit, such as the musical use of “Amazing Grace” as a spiritual, a reference to the hymn’s prominent use during times of slavery. The hymn morphs into a piece called “A Movement for Rosa,” which is a musical homage of sorts to Rosa Parks and follows her struggles with outright racism, her stand on the bus, and the changes she helped bring about. The work ends on a sour note because, even today, not everything is all right.
Other elements are more open to interpretation. “Maybe there are moments where inequity is a central theme,” Mr Budzinski added, “or where hate is a central theme. But it also has moments where a country comes together as well.”
In that sense, maybe these bands, these marching units who entertain us for eight minutes at a time, with new material every fall, are a microcosm of this democracy, of this nation. We have seen hate, and we have seen unity. We have seen racism, and we have seen love. We don’t know what the outcome may be, but we have now seen a few instances where bringing bands together, even those from rival schools within a district, can yield a spring of learning and create richer opportunities for maturity, leadership, and collaboration in our schools.