A high school band opts for collision over precision

Busy extracurricular schedules force a marching band to adopt improvisation, scramble-style.

When the Elk Grove High School band took the football field at halftime one recent evening, something unexpected happened: The crowd of hundreds went wild – over the band.

Director Brian White was ecstatic. Just months before, he'd been ready to cancel marching band, discouraged by low turnout in a student body crunched for time. But the crowd's cheers confirmed his own conversion to "scramble band."

"They were yelling and screaming when we came off the field," he says. "Usually, that doesn't happen."

The instruments are the same as always: tubas, trombones, and drums. But in scramble bands, skipping, handsprings, and even collisions replace precision goose steps. The music draws on Black Sabbath, Jimmy Buffett, and heavy-metal romps from Quiet Riot. Brocaded jackets and plumed hats give way to striped rugby jerseys and visors worn any which way.

Popularized by a handful of Ivy League colleges, scramble bands are one part Al Hirt, one part Blue Man Group. And they're a stressed-out teenager's dream: While most high school bands opened the school year with complex, precisely stepped routines that took sweaty hours to memorize, Elk Grove's musicians leapt from formation to formation with wild abandon.

The switch is slowly spreading, as schools try to engage time-strapped students, putting more value on trying new things than on the quest for awards and trophies.

But Mr. White, in his third year at the suburban Chicago school, wasn't trying to make a statement about over-scheduling. He was simply responding after a mere 38 of the school's 136 musicians signed up for marching band. He'd discovered scramble bands last spring, when a student – who had no time for marching – directed him to a scramble-band website. When White suggested the idea to his musicians, membership soared from 38 to 65.

Eliminating the intricate marching shortens practices from opus length to a comparative rock ditty. Where some school bands were practicing 12 hours a day all week long last summer, White's group practiced for a jolly two hours, five mornings, one week. And then – time to scramble.

As fans and school boards press for winning extracurricular programs, students' quest for free time often seems like homework in itself. And at area schools striving for championships, already-demanding practice times are rising: The Illinois High Schools Association (IHSA) this year loosened restrictions on practice time, so football teams could prepare in early August.

Mirroring that intensity, some band directors scoff at the idea of cutting back. "I don't think you attract the type of students I want by making the requirements less," says Randy Kummer, a former band director who is now executive director of the Illinois Music Educators Association.

But others say stress-diminishing tactics may get more attention, as tales of scrambling high jinx spread. "It's a backburner thing, but many of us in IHSA talk about when the upwards spiral will relax. I do see many of my colleagues backing off from the competition thing," says Dan Dietrich, a high school band director who handles contests for the IHSA.

The scramble band's time factor kept senior Ben Jarosch, a trombone player, from dropping out: "I am in cross country, and last year ... It was too much. Scramble band came along with no night rehearsals, so now I can still play music and run cross-country."

On top of liberated schedules, many students cheer the shedding of military rigidity.

"Last year, we sat by the band and had a good time with them," recalls senior Katy George of the old-school band that played at touchdowns and put on a staid, disciplined halftime show. But this year's scrambling "brings the fun we had in the stands down onto the field."

The student body was equally boisterous for touchdowns. And with good reason: The Elk Grove Grenadiers won their home opener handily, 35-7.

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