Music for All, which is the parent nonprofit behind the Bands of America circuit of marching bands, provided a showcase for bands from Illinois, Missouri, and, mostly, Arkansas via live stream Saturday.
First up this afternoon—and, for many, this school year—was the Ft Osage Marching Band from Independence, Missouri. After a few technical glitches, which delayed the performance by only about five minutes—as might be expected with school-based technology—the band presented its show entitled “Simple Gifts” with full pageantry on a gorgeous day that had only a few cotton ball clouds in the sky.
The Quaker tune, set for orchestra by American composer Aaron Copland in “Appalachian Spring,” may have been the theme of the first field show many viewers have seen from a marching band this school year.
Back in the BOA studio, Cam Stasa, Music for All’s director of participant relations, watched and couldn’t help but reflect, “As the live feed started, we were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a marching band.'” Ms Stasa, who is originally from Michigan, participated in the first summer championships for “Marching Bands of America” in Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1976, the circuit that later became Bands of America.
A few minutes later, we started watching the Power Band Classic Invitational, where 10 bands from Arkansas performed at Lake Hamilton High School in Pearcy, a suburb of Hot Springs. Although many schools have abandoned festivals and competitions this year across the country, Arkansas is enforcing social distancing and mask policies but still has live marching band shows.
First on the schedule at the Power Band Classic was the Malvern High School band, and they performed a jazzy suite featuring a sassy trombone.
For those accustomed to a quick 14-minute succession of bands, this was a little different. But what hasn’t been different in 2020? However, Ms Stasa explained that the invitational in Arkansas provides an educational clinic for each band immediately following their performance, which makes the additional time in between performances necessary.
So about a half hour later, following some Bands of America commercials and a question from an announcer not shown on the screen (“When do we go back to Arkansas? How does this work?”), Gurdon High School took the field at the Arkansas invitational. But because of technical difficulties, viewers only saw the closing seconds of the show.
The live stream format does not allow rewinds or repeats of any of the performances, so we are unable to comment on the show from Gurdon, except to say that their show was entitled “Phobias.”
Minutes of commercial messages and sponsors’ logos followed, but for the viewers longing to see marching bands take the field, it was worth the wait.
Horatio High School took the field next, with the drum major, percussionists, and flags wearing big, black masks, clearly visible from the eagle’s eye view of the video feed. The Class 3A group also had no trombone players on the field, notable this year because the social distancing requirements for trombones, at least in Arkansas, are a little greater at nine feet than the six-foot separation required for musicians playing other instruments.
Horatio was followed by De Queen High School’s marching band, with its show entitled “Nostalgia,” which started with a recording of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” as the musicians ran into place from the front sideline. That was followed by a live performance of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and other classic rock.
As with Zoom classrooms for students this school year, there was a slight lag between what viewers saw and what they heard: it came to about one beat in the band’s reprise of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
The band from Lakeside High School in Hot Springs took the field next, and the band from Castle High School in Newburgh, Indiana, was scheduled to perform after that but did not appear.
During a break in the Power Band Classic, the live stream feed shifted to Tinley Park, Illinois, where the Marching Thunderbolts from Victor J Andrew High School presented a dynamic show entitled “Mothership,” a three-minute interlude.
Emphatic chords punctuated a countdown from 10 to open the show, and the energy kept growing after that to the conclusion.
According to an announcer at the high school, the band squeezed in its last concert on March 10, just a few days before Illinois residents had to stay in their homes.
Since then, students have been recording band videos, he said, “to make things as normal as possible for students. They look forward to getting back to doing what they love in the way they remember doing it.”
From there, we went back to Arkansas for the final bands in the Power Band Classic, starting with Van Buren Senior High School. Their show, entitled “Ah Via Musicom,” showcased dazzling individual musicianship, not only with a mellophone soloist and a trumpeter who joined in, but also with the ensemble backing them up.
The visuals weren’t too bad, either. Their short show, lasting a little more than four minutes, had flags twirling in the finale in perfect unison, which is probably not the most common occurrence in a mid-season performance, especially during a pandemic.
Paragould High School
Next up was the Paragould High School PRIDE Marching Band. To get to the Power Band Classic, students and staff had more than a three-hour drive from near the Missouri border, said band director Richie Williams, through the “middle of nowhere Arkansas.”
The band performed at the 2015 Bands of America Grand National Championships and missed the semifinals cut by just a point and a half.
“We were heartbroken,” Mr Williams told me. “We thought we were going to make it. That was our first year to do Grand Nationals, too.”
Even with a close call like that, 2015 wasn’t nearly as heartbreaking as 2020 has been with the pandemic, though.
“This has been a different year, to say the least,” he said. “But Arkansas and Texas are still going forward with marching band state championships.” (Bands have the option during the pandemic to send in recordings instead of competing in person, but bands that do that aren’t eligible to be named Arkansas state champions.)
The pandemic has also cut the number of bands lining up to compete for a state title dramatically: a little more than 30 bands are participating in the state series this year, Mr Williams estimated, compared to more than 80 last year.
In addition, “a lot of bands went to a much easier show, with everybody being in quarantine,” he said. But not Paragould. “We decided we were going to go full steam ahead on the show that we were going to do,” he said.
The show, entitled “Alpha,” is based on an Arctic wolf pack, he explained. “You’re going to see props like you’ve always seen and a color guard that’s dressed up in wolf costumes. You’re going to see a show like you would see if you went to a BOA competition—a full-out show just like that.”
The show depicts various ways in which wolves interact with each other and with the nature around them. The ballad, for instance, depicts the way packs protect elderly wolves from other animals that try to attack the weakest in the group. Parts are more aggressive, while other parts are more playful.
For example, one section, with some amazingly fast mallet work in the pit, features a dancer; another features a soloist being encircled by the color guard.
Because Paragould wasn’t able to start playing their instruments until August 5—they could rehearse the visuals and marching, but not the music—the development of the show is “a little behind” where it would be, given a state championship series in early November.
On top of the delay, the band also had to cope with rules for playing wind instruments, including staying in one room for only 30 minutes before moving to a different room to let the air clear out of the first room.
The rehearsal schedule doesn’t fit into every student’s current life in the same way, though, so Paragould’s numbers are down a bit.
“We have about 115 students in the band this year,” Mr Williams said. “In a non-Covid year, we’re usually about 160 or 170. A lot of students maybe just didn’t want to do it, or they got lazy, or they got a job and didn’t want to let their job go.
“But I’m going to tell you what,” he went on. “The kids that we have that are doing it, I mean, they are on fire. They’re great kids. We’re going to keep on doing what we love.”
The night’s finale
Bands from Cabot High School and Bryant High School were next, followed by the host school.
Lake Hamilton, which is hosting the Power Band Classic Invitational, was named the 2019 Class 6A state champion and has been invited to march in London’s New Year’s Day Parade on January 1. As of today, that parade is still on. The band continues to paint the field with a show entitled “Our Voice.”
With all the enthusiasm of youth, an announcer declared during the pre-show that people want to make the world right. But, “with all that is going on today, that seems like an impossible task.” Once the show began, the theme continued with an ethereal sax solo soaring over a rhythm section before a full band swell.
“How do we make a change?” the announcer wondered. “Will life ever return to normal? Are we going to destroy the world?”
Yet the band left us with the idea that, “like all those before us, we will change the world.”
The night ended with that message of hope amid a pandemic that has changed so much so quickly in our world. Music for All will present showcases like this one on October 17 and October 24. Virtual tickets cost $5 (available from Music for All).