The other night as the Ottumwa Bulldogs prepared to open their season, I could hear the sounds of another group preparing for their first night of the season. It was the Ottumwa marching band.
As I watched them warm up for the game, I thought about what hard work being a member of the marching band really is. I played trumpet in high school, and being in the band provided some of my favorite high school memories. What a lot of people may not realize, though, is that it takes a lot of work. Those kids work just as hard of the athletes and don't get nearly as much recognition for it.
There is so much that goes into putting a halftime show together. What some may not know (and I didn't until I got into high school) is that game night actually serves as more of a dress rehearsal for marching band contests that are held throughout the fall. It gives the band a chance to perform its set on the field, with an audience and in uniform.
When I was in high school, we started training early. We started practicing about two weeks before the school year started, just the same as the fall sports teams. We were in "band camp," (stop thinking "American Pie") for two or three hours a day. There were some days we even had a second practice. Much like athletic teams, we ran drills. Our drills consisted of snapping to attention and parade rest as one, practicing the "eight to five" (meaning eight steps every five yards), different types of turns and nailing the rolling heel-to-toe foot movement. Oh, and no slouching allowed. We also worked on memorizing the music for our field set as well as parade music. We usually got a head start on this during weekly summer lessons, as we had to be ready for the Celebration Days parade every Labor Day. Once the school year began, we had to be at school at 7:30 a.m., an hour before the school day actually began, and practice ran through until the end of first period, 9:12 a.m.
A lot of hard work goes into preparing a 15-minute marching band set. Not only did we have to memorize the music, we had to memorize the movements that went along with the music and carry it out precisely. We did this by using charts to determine where each member needed to be by spray-painting the positions in different numbers and colors. (We tried golf tees one year, and it was an epic failure.) And just like a sports team, each band member had a number assigned to them to find their location on the charts. If you didn't move through the positions at just the right angle and pace, disaster could strike. And by disaster, I mean there was a chance you could get hit in the head by a passing member of the flag corp.
Practice wasn't canceled for weather, either. If it was raining, we headed to the gym and marched in place. There was also the year that we were selected to play for the state football championships. This meant our season lasted several weeks longer than the football team's did. Even though it was freezing outside, we headed out to the field to practice our routine, and we stayed out there until the keys on the trumpets and tubas and slides on the trombones got frozen into place. Even then, we mimed our way through the steps.
A 15-minute set requires more athleticism than "band geeks" are given credit for. As I mentioned above, it takes a lot of precision. Then there's the challenge of keeping a metal instrument (at least for me) parallel to the ground or even higher through the entire set while keeping your posture ram-rod straight while your torso twisted to constantly aim at the press box (judges). Stamina becomes a factor, too, as much of your breath is used to play your instrument while being on the move, sometimes at a high pace. My sophomore year, during our "Little Shop of Horrors" set, I had to hightail about 30 yards in about 16-20 (very fast) beats. I dreaded that part of the show every time.
Being a member of the marching band provided unique opportunities to persevere through adversity. My freshman year, in my first-ever marching band contest, we were coming off the field. As we were paired off, the girl next to me whispered, "Tracy, I lost my shoe in the middle of the first song. I did the whole set in one shoe." Despite the shoe malfunction, we were awarded first place in our division. Then came State Marching Band Contest. That was on our home field, but the day was so windy that due to our feather plumes, our hats ended up on the sides of our faces. That didn't stop us, though. We still received a Division I rating and one of the highest scores of the day.
The Monday after a contest, we often remained in the band room studying tape. Yes, you heard right, studying tape. Our director would take us through video of our performance and point out what looked good and what needed worked on. We also listened to the audio of judges making their comments as the walked around us through our show and studied forms they filled out with advice on how to improve.
Much like a football team, we had several "trick plays" up our sleeves. We had several bright yellow banners pulled out of the middle of the field at the end of "Jesus Christ, Superstar." It created a great visual affect from above. My freshman year, with our "Phantom of the Opera" set, our routine ended with the final soloist doing a disappearing act. Then there was the disappearing act when we played a "Star Wars" medley. The entire band knelt down at the end while the flag corp pulled a giant black tarp with silver stars over us for another stunning visual effect.
So the next time halftime comes and the marching band takes the field, remember that it's more than just filler and give them some appreciation for what they do. These are students who put in a lot of heart, soul and work into their craft — just like the football team (or any other athlete).