High-school bands go Broadway as competition grows
Elkhart, Indiana — It's no longer just the football and basketball teams which are bringing their high schools fame and glory these days.
For many communities, the high school marching band is right up there next to athletics in the pride department.
In the past, most such bands served largely as supporting casts at half time. They struck up new formations and tunes at each game.
But now many high school marching bands, taking a cue from Broadway, pay as much as $1,500 for a professional drill design, begin learning choreographed steps and music in summer camps, and practice to perfection one production during the entire fall season. That program is often performed not just at athletic events but in regional and national contests with other bands as well.
''There is more competition going on now than you can shake a stick at, and there are big bucks in it,'' confirms James J. Hewett, president of the American School Band Directors Association and a band teacher in Otsego, Mich.
Indiana happens to be one of the nation's top school-band states. Many of its student marching bands are strong competitors. Chesterton High School's Trojan Guard recently won a national championship in the Tropicana Contest in Miami's Orange Bowl. And Wapahani High School's Imperial Raiders recently won the Indiana State Fair high-school marching-band contest for the third time in seven years.
''Students just love the competition,'' observes Gene Wortsman, editor of Marching Bands and Corps, a new Florida-based magazine catering to what its editors see as a fresh surge of national interest in its title subject. ''We have some pictures showing band members going into absolute hysterics when they win - they love it.''
Like many competitive, school marching bands, the Crimson Charger Command here at Elkhart's Memorial High School videotapes performances of its fall shows so that weak points can be improved. Though band members were disappointed when they came in seventh in a recent regional conference in Chicago, the Command's movement patterns are considered to be among the best of any band in the state.
Band director Donald Litherland, who designed the drills, and whose gym-coach wife choreographed the movements, monitors the motion and sound as he replays the tape in a machine near the school gym. He notes changes needed as band members in bright red-and-white outfits form a star, then a cross, and finally two Cs.
He is a staunch advocate of the merits of producing one marching band program rather than several. One show allows students to play more difficult, higher quality music, he says, such as the march from Tchaikovsky's ''Pathetique,'' which is part of this season's Command's show.
''It sure beats the old-fashioned approach of just making a circle and playing 'Blue Moon,' '' he says. ''Now we change the show almost daily to make it better, and the crowds get very involved in the changes.''
Many high-school marching bands such as the Crimson Charger Command are deep in competition, but manage to keep it all in balance by putting equal emphasis on concert programs and a limit on rehearsal time. But a few school bands have become almost totally immersed in the competitive push and spend all year practicing.
''Some bands have gone in for overemphasizing the perfection of one idea,'' notes John Paynter, director of bands at Northwestern University, ''so that accomplishments that last a moment can take the place of teaching techniques that will last a lifetime.''
Mr. Litherland, who is the only band director in Elkhart and who also teaches orchestra, agrees that competition can go too far. The number of props and time spent rehearsing, he says, keep escalating.
''We stick to one night a week, but some school bands rehearse all day Saturday, Sunday night, and several nights a week,'' he says. ''Some will spend anything to win.''
But he says the advantages of competition usually outweigh drawbacks. ''Kids are learning things that used to be confined largely to sports - like the need for team cooperation and sportsmanship,'' he says.
''In music you used to be able to be pretty cocky. Now we win and we lose. It makes you start appreciating what others do.''