The Gift of Marching Band

Joel Rodeback and his mellophone section
American Fork

I’m driving south to St. George, Utah, today for my middle son’s last two competitions as a member of the American Fork High School Marching Band. If my youngest son doesn’t change his mind in the next few years, this will be my last weekend with a child competing in the marching band.

Today is the Red Rocks Invitational, which is also the Utah state championship. Tomorrow is the Bands of America Western Regional, which draws fine bands from Utah and other western states, including California.

These are also John Miller’s last two marching band competitions before he retires next spring, after 30 years as Director of Bands at AFHS.

And last week at Pleasant Grove High School, the AFHS Marching Band hosted the final competition of the regular season, the Mt. Timpanogos Marching Band Competition, where over 3,000 students in 43 bands gathered from schools in Utah and Idaho.

All these lasts and possible lasts inspire some thoughts.

Psychosis

I find band parent Mark Standing on the highest row of the stands at Pleasant Grove High School’s football stadium. He and I work with a few others on the American Fork High School Band Booster Publicity Committee, feeding press releases, stories, and commentary to print and broadcast media. We’re at the Mt. Timpanogos Marching Band Competition, so we’re technically working, but it’s that rare sort of work they must mean when they say, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Regrettably, we can’t support our families at this; it pays exactly 100% less than our day jobs.

a band at Mt Timp Mark gestures toward the blanket next to him and says, “She’ll be back in a few minutes. She’s from Sky View, and she says she’s a psychotic band mom.”

I am not a mental health specialist, but I understand that psychosis is a disorder in which one becomes detached from external reality.

I look forward to her return for three reasons. Sky View is my second-favorite Utah high school marching band, after my own American Fork. Band moms are dizzyingly high on the coolness meter. And I have some long-standing grievances with reality generally.

Meanwhile, I get acquainted with the people next to me.

Neighbors Who Act Like It

The thing about marching band competitions – especially in Utah, I’m told – is that you can’t tell where people come from by noting for which band they cheer. They cheer for all of them. Sometimes, not always, they cheer their own band a little more loudly, or cheer for their own children by name when they take the field. Then you can tell.

Like parent, like child – or vice versa, maybe. The bands cheer for each other, too.

flags, mellophone, tromboneThe stands across the field are reserved this evening for band members, and they’re mostly full of students from bands which have already performed. By this time of the evening, that’s about three dozen bands, and only seven or eight remain on the schedule. A phenomenon which astonished me several years ago, when I started attending these things, is actually growing: these bands cheer loudly for their competitors. Every year I hear more of it. As a band enters the field for competition, dozens or hundreds of band members (usually one band at a time) yell, “Good luck, Sky View!” or “We love you, Davis!” It’s likely to happen again, when a show ends and a band leaves the field.

I occasionally hear of a band director railing on his students for cheering for a rival band, and even urging them to boo instead. Sometimes a few parents boo another band. But it’s not catching on. This cheering for your competition is infectious, and hardly anyone wants to be immune. If you’re looking for some strand of hope to which you might cling, where the future of humanity is concerned, ponder this one.

A Thousand Points of Light

And then there’s the thing with the flashlights – that is, our modern flashlights, smart phones. It’s new just this week.

A few nights ago at the Davis Cup, the stadium lights went out during Sky View’s show. Down on the field they didn’t stop marching and playing and twirling and tossing, and they didn’t collide with each other. They finished their show by the light of hundreds of smart phones held up by people in the stands. They took second in their division, one step above where they’ve been for most of the season. I wasn’t there to see it, but I saw the video and heard eyewitness accounts. Reportedly, their director was offered the chance to repeat the show with the stadium fully lit, once the lights came back on, but proudly let the first performance stand.

On this evening in Pleasant Grove, the stadium lights stay on – but a lot of people in the stands turn on their phone’s flashlights during Sky View’s performance anyway, in a conspicuous tribute to one of the best, most consistent, classiest bands around, and to what they did in Kaysville when the lights went out. I think there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing a bunch of little lights in the stands every time Sky View performs at night in years to come. It would be a delightful tradition.

Genesis

But back to this matter of cheering for other bands. I’ve been talking to people about it for a few years. Witnessing it makes grown men weep. Talking about it makes grown men weep, even crusty ex-military grown men. (I’m not a veteran, and I try not to be crusty, but . . .)

John Miller
John Miller, Director of Bands at American Fork High School

I understand that John Miller – himself a walking tradition – has had a lot to do with this phenomenon. “My drum majors are instructed, as any band comes on the field, they need to be giving them a cheer, and maybe give them a cheer when they leave the field,” he told me in an interview for a film a couple of years ago.

(Writers and would-be writers, note the use of the passive voice, “are instructed” – used here not with the common, slippery motive of avoiding responsibility, but in the modest mode of diverting credit from oneself. This small thing is completely compatible with greatness.)

It’s as AFHS band dad Mark Judkins said in an interview for the same film. “We want you to do your best,” he said. “You want us to do our best. Whoever wins, we’re all going to be happy. What an amazing concept for competition!”

This Must Not Die

The American Fork band takes their other-cheering on the road, to regional and national competitions in California and Indianapolis. “We did that in in California, and other bands thought we were crazy,” Mr. Miller said. “They had never heard that. Directors came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing? That’s so cool that you do that, because we hate each other down here.’”

“It’s come back to help us,” he explained. “Now other bands cheer for us.”

Which – to come full circle — is why I asked him about it in the first place.

Riverton at the awards ceremony
Riverton at the awards ceremony

At one of my first marching band competitions, I was sitting in the crowded stands, near one of American Fork’s rival bands. (And you have to understand, these rivals are very fine indeed – but American Fork almost always defeats them. I’m not saying they’re all happy about that. But they have class and a healthy sense of what really matters.) I overheard a drum major telling her band to take a break, but to be sure to be back at a certain time to cheer for American Fork, because “they always cheer for us.” They were back by the time American Fork entered the field, and, if I recall correctly, what they yelled in unison was, “We love American Fork!” It was a clean, robust unison, as you would expect from a marching band.

The elder statesman of Utah high school bands, Mr. Miller is retiring after this season, having won the state championship every year since before any of his present students and some of his band staff were born. I predict that the culture of cheering and supporting competitors will survive his retirement and keep growing. If it doesn’t, I will mourn a terrible loss.

Cheering

I was telling you about the people sitting near me.

The lady to my left cheers enthusiastically for every band, but I hear her say something that tells me she’s from Bingham High School. Bingham happens to be next, and she’s acting like a band mom, so I ask her whom she has in the band. “Oh, I don’t have any children in the band,” she says. “I was in that band 20 years ago, and I can’t stay away.”

Bingham
Bingham at the awards ceremony

She talks a bit, and I listen. Twenty years later, she still loves what her band does for the youth – what it did for her as a youth — and she enjoys helping that process a little by traveling to their competitions and cheering for them and everyone else.

The family to my right has a tuba player in the Sky View band. I tell them quite honestly that I always love their band’s shows and their sound. Davis usually takes second among the biggest bands in Utah these days, after American Fork, but the Sky View band has just taken second a few nights before at the unevenly illuminated Davis Cup. I express my delight at that. In the end they will place second on this night as well.

If they had managed to beat American Fork on this night, I’d have been sad for my son and about 230 of his closest friends, though I’d probably have thought it was a useful life lesson and might make American Fork better at state and regional competitions next week. I’d also have rejoiced for Sky View.

It’s an odd thing. In college football and basketball, I root for Utah when they’re not playing BYU, but I always root for BYU. When Utah beats BYU, I note Utah’s rejoicing, but I do not share it the least degree.

Earlier this same day, I rooted for Wagner to make some great plays – and to score once or twice and avoid serious injuries – in their foreordained college football drubbing at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Wagner had no chance of winning, but it was a good experience for their players to travel to the mountains (Wagner is a small, excellent Division 1 Lutheran university on Staten Island), to play in a huge stadium, and to pick up a tidy half-million dollars for their athletic program. (That’s $250 per student enrolled at Wagner.) It’s easy to wish them well, when you know they have no chance of beating you.

This is not that. The other Utah bands in American Fork’s division are very fine, especially Davis and Sky View. It’s entirely plausible, on any given day, that they could outscore American Fork. They’re creative. They look and sound great. And they work amazingly hard, just like American Fork. They’re an actual threat to walk away with the first place trophy – and still I find myself able to cheer for them and celebrate their excellence.

Sometimes, as a competing band enters the field, I don’t feel so well-disposed toward them. But that feeling doesn’t even survive until their show begins, because the quality and beauty of their effort is already obvious, and I know, generally speaking, the price they have paid to achieve it.

And I’ve heard them cheering for my son’s band.

Maybe I’m the one detached from reality. That would be bad, because I like this psychosis. When my senior graduates and moves on, and whether or not my ten year old decides to join the band, I don’t want to go back to reality, if that’s what this isn’t.

What They Said

Gina Jackson, a fellow writer and band parent, is collecting quotes on this day in Pleasant Grove from band members, parents, teachers, and others, for some of the band writing my Publicity Committee does for the media. The truth is, by now we could have written most of the quotations ourselves, because the story is almost always the same.

Timpview
Timpview

A student from Davis tells her, “Marching band provides an opportunity for so many kids. Like ten percent of our school is in marching band. Anybody who wants to can do it, if they practice and work.”

A saxophonist from Bear River says, “I think most of the sophomore class is in marching band.”

A Davis band dad with a drum major and a trumpet player there says he loves marching band because he gets to hang out with his kids – all 250 of them. “I was a sports guy in high school,” he reflects. “I thought only geeks were in marching band. Here I am, and I love it!”

An audience member from American Fork says, “I don’t have anyone who marches any more, and I’m having serious withdrawals. You just miss it, so we go to all the close competitions.”

A parent from the Alta band (which is the only marching band in its district, so it welcomes students from other schools), notes another miracle, citing band director Caleb Shabestari as the inspiration: “My son wants to practice all the time.” Parents understand that this wonder is nearly as stunning as competitors cheering for each other.

(If you’ll pardon a tangent, Mr. Shabestari’s mustache has its own Facebook page, which labels it a “fictional character.” I think that’s the wrong adjective. It looks real to me.)

Why They Do It

Two years ago, I was invited to help a pair of talented filmmakers and a fine narrator produce a feature-length documentary about the American Fork High School Marching Band’s 2013 season, which saw them win state and western regional championships on consecutive days in St. George and make the semifinals at Grand Nationals in Indianapolis.

(If you haven’t seen Champions of the West, let me help you with that. In any case, I’ve written many different things in my half-century, but I had never written for film before. Yes, it was loads of fun, and I’ve done more since Champions. And yes, I’d write some of our documentary differently now. And no, it didn’t start out feature-length; it was just too big a story for a shorter film. Now that we’re past the almost-shameless self-promotion, here’s my point . . .)

brass players rehearsing
AFHS brass players rehearsing their show

Over and over in interviews I asked band members why they were in marching band, and what it had done or was doing for them, and how they felt about not making the finals in Indianapolis.

Over and over they told me how band gave them friends and taught them that they could excel, if they only worked long enough and hard enough, and if they worked well enough with others. It taught them to persist, to do difficult things. They felt bad about not making the finals, and they really wanted to win, but they were in the band for other reasons: to have friends, to be a friend, to be on a team, to leave it all on the field.

Mr. Miller said that their semifinal performance that year was the best the American Fork High School Marching Band had ever done. They did leave it all on the field. They felt it. The audience felt it. Somehow that show – without relying on war heroes or puppies or Broadway tunes or childhood or romantic love – left audience members from other schools in tears.

I still don’t know how they do it.

Democracy

I’m not saying that marching band is a sport, but if it is, it is the most democratic of sports (and one of the most beautiful, but we’ve had enough tangents here already). Everyone is on the field for every minute of every performance. Every moment of everyone’s performance matters. No one sits on the bench, as I did in junior high basketball. You don’t go one-for-six from the foul line, as I did in one of my first starts in high school, and still win the game as we did that evening in Salmon, Idaho.

It’s not just that it resembles the fourth-grade basketball team I coached last year, in the sense that everyone plays about the same number of minutes. It’s that in Mr. Miller’s program and many others of which I know, everyone makes the team. No one who is willing to work and learn is turned away, as some of my best friends were after high school basketball tryouts.

Mr. Miller could probably have an even better band if he turned some students away. He’s told me that staff members encourage that from time to time. But for him and many others, marching band is not fundamentally about the trophies. It’s about the kids.

A Precious Gift

And it’s about performing.

After that Grand Nationals semifinal performance in Lucas Oil Stadium, and long before the finalists were announced, Mr. Miller asked the band how many of them thought that was the best performance of their life. I wasn’t there, but as far as I can tell from the video footage, they all agreed enthusiastically. He said he agreed. “That was off the planet,” he said.

Then he told them this: “Thank you, thank you, thank you. If that is our last show and we leave that, I hope you feel really, really good. If we get the gift of doing it one more time, it will be a pure, pure celebration of excellence.

“Did you hear the crowd?” he asked. “You know, beyond doing it for ourselves, we do it for those people.”

After his short post-game speech, Mr. Miller asked if anyone else had anything to say. No one volunteered, but the band started chanting for Ed Gobbel, the beloved consultant who works with them several times a year – and no, “beloved consultant” in not an oxymoron here.

American Fork
Front and center is mine. Author’s prerogative.

Ed told the band, “Getting to perform is a precious gift in this world – to make music with your friends, and to stand in front of other people, and to give that little bit away. Music is what makes us feel. It makes us human. Things that can’t be put into words, we can do through music. . . .

“Twenty years from now, thirty years from now, forty years from now, you’re not going to remember where you came in. You’re going to remember walking off the field and sitting in this room and feeling the way we felt about what we did together today. Those are the things that you get old thinking about.

“Medals are stupid. Trophies are dumb. Rings are ridiculous. It’s that opportunity and that precious gift we get to perform – that’s the thing you get to take with you forever. You guys earned that today.”

It’s Almost Over . . .

When I consider the gifts Ed listed that day, I think, That’s what everyone gets who shows up to prepare and to perform. Yes, the winners get some extra metal and plastic and glory. I spent my youth coveting those baubles and winning a few along the way. But everyone gets the really good stuff.

Snake River busI worked just as hard (with considerably less talent) to play basketball as I did to play trumpet, back in the previous century, when John Miller taught at Blackfoot High School in Idaho and his mentor, Vern Buffaloe, taught me at Snake River High School, across the river. And as much as I didn’t like to lose at basketball, as we often did, I loved the game itself, win or lose. I experienced just barely enough athletic success to know how wonderful it feels to know you did your best, to know you left it all on the court. And I look back and see that, even though I wasn’t great at either, both basketball and band (and two years in the Snake River High School Chamber Singers, another favorite chapter of my youth) blessed my future in similar ways.

(On this day in Pleasant Grove, bands from Snake River and Blackfoot High Schools have come from Idaho to perform. Small wonder that I’m remembering.)

So maybe marching band is a sport. Maybe it isn’t.

This much I know: It is a blessing. It is a miracle. It is a gift. And none of those things depends on whose shelf gets today’s trophies.

These days, this is just about my favorite reality of all.

Or psychosis. Whatever.

. . . But Not Quite

Speaking of which, I listen carefully to that self-diagnosed psychotic Sky View band mom. I detect an unfortunate detachment from reality on only one point. Her youngest child is a senior this year, and this is his last regular-season competition, and next week’s pair of events in St. George will be his last performances with his high school marching band. She is mourning the end of her years as a band mom.

American ForkIn American Fork, of all places, we know the cure for this psychotic break. I tell her about band moms and dads who are still going strong, decades after their youngest child graduated high school. I tell her about band moms and dads who retire when their last band student graduates, then stay away for a year or two or five or seven, then come back – because they miss the kids and because, technically, you don’t have to have children in the band to be a band parent to hundreds of amazing youth.

In fact, one of the American Fork Marching Band’s happiest and greatest supporters will tell you that she never had a child in the band at all. Her boys played football.

Perhaps this good soul from Sky View will need further therapy. But I leave thinking I might have helped, and I’m glad of that. Perhaps we’ll see each other again at a competition somewhere, after our children have moved on.

I wish all the bands safe journey (we think about that in American Fork) and their very best performances this weekend in St. George. I’ll be there, for once. Maybe my mellophone player’s band will win, and maybe they won’t. I hope they do. Either way, it won’t matter very much for very long.

So leave it all on the field. Again. While you can, whenever you can. That’s your gift. Then we will rejoice together that, when you’ve left it there, you get to take it home and keep it anyway.

That is reality.

Gina K. Jackson and Mark Standing contributed to this essay.


Postscript (Sunday Morning)

On Friday night in St. George, American Fork won the Red Rocks Invitational and the Utah state championship. A number of bands from California, Nevada, and Colorado competed for the Invitational awards, though not for the Utah state championship. I knew some of them by reputation.

American Fork High School Marching Band
American Fork at prelims: a flight and a flute

One such band, from Clovis West High School in Fresno, California, boarded its buses at 3:00 a.m. Friday morning, endured a thirteen-hour bus ride, and competed that same evening.

Yesterday (Saturday) afternoon, as I was watching the preliminary round of the regional championship, a number of Clovis West band members came and sat around me. A trumpet player and I began to chat, and I told him I hadn’t see his band’s prelim performance earlier that day but thought they looked and sounded great the previous evening.

He said prelims hadn’t gone as well as they had hoped — for him, he knew, or for his band as a whole, he thought. Others around him echoed the same sentiment. “We don’t even know if we’ll make the finals this year,” he said, though they often have in past years. “But I hope we do. We want a chance for redemption.”

Minutes later, Clovis West was announced as one of ten finalist bands, which meant they would perform once more in the evening. Their relief was almost palpable, and their joy was deafening. As we parted for the dinner break, I wished them well, and they wished American Fork well, and this trumpeter nodded with what looked like resolve and determination.

“We’re going to leave it all on the field tonight,” he said.

And they did. They weren’t the only ones; the whole evening was amazing. It was the most I’ve ever enjoyed watching marching band performances. In the end, American Fork won the regional championship. Sky View finished second. Clovis West took third.

American Fork High School Marching Band
AFHS: about half the band

After the awards ceremony and after part of the audience had left the packed stands at Dixie State’s stadium, American Fork performed its sh0w one more time, the traditional winners’ encore. This I watched from the field’s edge instead of the stands. In the first moments of the performance, I heard loud cheering behind me. Before long, I heard it again. I turned around.

They weren’t the only band in the stands, but the Clovis West band was sitting together — more than 140 of them — cheering for American Fork more loudly than any other section. And they kept doing it.

Clovis West High School Marching Band
Clovis West during the AFHS exhibition (I caught them between cheers)

What does it all mean? This, at least: People who have been involved in marching band more and longer than I have speak often of “the band family,” which transcends school boundaries and state lines. A skeptic by nature, I have sometimes thought that was a bit overblown. Lately it’s getting a lot harder for me to be skeptical.

Long live the band family.

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