Strike up the band!
High school band from Defiance, Ohio, gets its marching orders: the New Year's Rose Parade in California.
DEFIANCE, OHIO — Come New Year's Day, the wake-up calls at the Marriott Hotel in Manhattan Beach, Calif., will begin long before the sun rises - 3:30 a.m. to be precise.
Rousing a 266-member high school marching band takes time. You've got to get those groggy students in uniform. Get them and all of their instruments on eight buses between 5:45 and 6:15 a.m. for the 45-minute ride to the Rose Parade lineup area. Then the hard part really begins. Fully awake, ready to go, the band must wait two hours or more before starting down South Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena.
That wait will surely seem an eternity for the Defiance (Ohio) High School Marching Band of Class.
Anticipation has been building for a whole year - ever since they were invited to participate in the 110th annual Rose Parade. For the students and nearly everyone in the small town here at the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers in northwest Ohio, this is the big time: a worldwide TV audience of 325 million viewers, plus a million spectators lining the 5-1/2-mile parade route.
For those who didn't grow up in marching-band country, it may be hard to grasp the depth of pride - and the degree of status - associated with the band.
Participating in the Rose Parade is not only the fulfillment of these students' dreams, but also a huge affirmation of the community's efforts and values. "For the band to be in Pasadena or anywhere else," says Defiance High's principal, Obie Mouser, "people see it as a reflection of themselves. It's a center of their attention."
In Defiance, the man most responsible for that attention is band director Vince Polce - the Harold Hill of "Music Man" fame, without the scam. When Mr. Polce arrived at Defiance High School 32 years ago, there were only about 90 students in the band. Today, a quarter of the school's 975 students play in the band, and many of these have been playing in school since the fifth grade.
One measure of the band's integration into the town's cultural ethic: Christian Snavely, a star of the basketball team, plays trumpet while his girlfriend, Christen Heilshorn, is a cheerleader and majorette.
"With a lot of bands you hear about band geeks," says Molly Braker, the band's student field leader, "but with our band if you're a member you're not a geek. It's something that everybody is proud to be in." The honor, in fact, is acknowledged around town with wooden "bandie" cutouts stuck in lawns where band members live.
Through his 16-hour-a-day dedication and enthusiasm, Polce has made 17,000 townspeople here believe in the power of perseverance, teamwork, and the pursuit of individual and collective excellence.
Over time he has built the band into a civic treasure that has put this Ohio community on the map nationally with appearances in Miami, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York.
Polce realizes mutual blessings flow from being neighborly, even when it's not always convenient. If the local Chamber of Commerce should call belatedly to request a parade appearance by the band, Polce says, "the kids have to understand that that's part of community service. Our band is important. They want us there. These are the same business people who will give us $1,000 or $100 or $25 from their own till to help us get to California, so we have to help them."
Despite the shine Polce has put on the band, he says "getting kids to play in the band is not an automatic."
Today, the emphasis on core-curriculum studies makes it harder to attract students. "The English teacher has never had to recruit a day in his or her life. It's different for us. We have to show values," says Polce.
This latter point was critical during the late 1960s, a time of social unrest. In a community with 21 Protestant and two Roman Catholic churches, Polce figured parents would eagerly embrace a band that could teach discipline, responsibility, and respect for others. He was right.
"I can't say enough about what the program has done for my daughter," says Doug Shindler, a fund-raiser for the band whose daughter, Abby, plays saxophone. "It's not the music he teaches, it's what he does in training those kids, showing them discipline and how they can make band work with everything else in their academic arena."
Indeed, the band, which is introduced at football halftimes as "Your Defiance High School Band," has long been a magnet for the school's most well-rounded students, about 75 percent of whom are on the honor roll.
This is partly because of the band's tradition of excellence - it went to the Rose Parade in 1981, has marched in three Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades, and has accepted numerous other plum assignments.
Polce recognizes that getting the cream of the student crop involves give and take with other activities, especially now that so many girls are playing sports. The band has 15 members of the girls' volleyball team, for instance, and 12 members of the cross-country team.
"In 1981 when we went to the Rose Parade, we focused on the band" says Kristi Parsons, now the band's majorette instructor. "That was our extracurricular activity. Now students are in basketball, soccer, and so many other different activities they can't always give 100 percent to band. It takes a toll on the band, but they can still do a good job because of the discipline and character and the way Vince runs it."
How does he do it? For one thing, he conducts an intensive two-week summer band camp before school starts. This is when new recruits are broken in and the band learns the halftime shows it will perform throughout the football season.
"Band camp is tough, very rigorous," Braker says. "Coming in as a freshman, I was scared out of my mind. How can I learn the music? How can I march in time? I'm never going to be able to do this. But the way Mr. Polce does his routines and conducts his band camp, it's cake."
Fred Schultz, a chaperone on the Rose Parade trip, says Defiance parents and backers have a reputation for cheering on the students in all their endeavors, home and away, in impressive numbers. "Arts and athletics have a huge following," he says, calling the school and its excellent band and choir programs "our Lincoln Center."
A native of Defiance, Mr. Schultz finds the band helps bring a richness to the life of this "micro-politan" community, which takes its name from Fort Defiance, an 18th-century outpost built to subdue the Indian and British influence in the area.
Many parents are deeply involved in supporting the band, from Mike Meyer, president of the alumni band and the Rose Parade publicity chairman, to Jackie Jones, chairwoman of a busy Rose Parade fund-raising committee. Ms. Jones says she and other single mothers wonder what they will do for social lives once their children leave the band. It becomes an extended family for adults and teens living in the commercial and industrial hub of the six-county northwest Ohio area.
Despite some challenges associated with growth, life is good here, with new motels and restaurants popping up near the region's only enclosed shopping mall.
Surrounded by scenic farmland, Defiance is the big city for many living in nearby hamlets. General Motors Powertrain is the largest employee with 4,000 workers on the payroll. It and other industry has brought greater diversity to the mostly white population. "The band is pretty representative of the demographics of our town, and that ties a lot together," Polce says.
"I think Defiance is a great place to be from," says Braker. "I think a lot of times bigger cities maybe wouldn't appreciate a band like ours, but people here realize what they have."
It helps that this is marching-band country, about equidistant between Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, where halftime shows are must-see performances. On television, though, marching bands are seldom shown, bumped by studio scoreboard shows. And this fall, one TV ad even compounded the problem by showing a quarterback practicing his passing marksmanship by throwing at marching musicians. The National Association for Music Education lodged a protest.
In Defiance, an annual Band Spectacular casts a very positive light on marching bands. The event, which plays to a capacity crowd of 5,000 at the football stadium, showcases Defiance High's Band of Class, other quality high school bands, and a first-rate college band.
At this year's event, the University of Michigan provided the role models for younger marchers. "They were awesome," says Lisa Menendez, an assistant field leader for Defiance. "They played just the most beautiful music. In the back of our minds, it makes us want to be more like them."
The show is just another example of the incredible planning that undergirds every aspect of the music program, from the huge end-of-year awards banquet that fills the high school gym to the 68-page Rose Parade handbook, which covers virtually every detail of the band's trip. Polce came up with fun names for the five planes used to fly to California: Air Force 1, Starship Enterprise, Voyager, Spirit of Defiance, and Apollo 13.
This guy - and his band - just doesn't miss a beat.
Those who'll be marching this year
Twenty-one marching bands will participate in the 1999 Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., including 16 high school bands.
The selection process is handled by the Tournament of Roses Music Committee, which tracks the best and biggest high school bands by region. These blue-ribbon units are encouraged to submit applications. They send in videotapes plus a trip financing plan, since the parade does not pay expenses.
Here are the communities that will be represented by high school bands in Friday's parade:
Blue Springs, Mo.
Johnson City, Tenn.
Thousand Oaks, Calif.