Marching and pep bands of McHenry County help kids reach musical excellence individually and as a group. The result of their hard work is enjoyed by spectators all over.
Music to Our Ears Featured
We’ve all heard them and appreciate their skill, yet have your ever wondered about a deeper meaning behind high school marching bands?
Well, here is a glimpse: The musical experience is meaningful in that they allow participants to take a look at themselves personally and as a group to become more successful from a musical standpoint.
Initially Johnsburg High School had a non-competitive marching band, primarily responsible for performances with the pep band. They did march, but they were basically there to support the athletics and create the environment for enthusiasm at those types of events.
According to Steven Riley, Johnsburg High School band director, “We now, however, have a competitive marching program that provides an opportunity to explore the marching band medium as an artistic outlet for the kids.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
The training is rigorous and physically demanding. Young women and men work as hard as other sports team participants. “Our band program starts with a summer camp where there are two music rehearsals and two marching rehearsals per day; it’s really grueling,” Riley said.
Those situations, however, build a big social environment — one of biggest components to the success of any cohesive team. The students experience the joy of performing music, have a great time with their friends and develop a camaraderie that supports the success of the program (while also supporting each other).
It’s one thing to know how to play a musical instrument well and it is another to learn how to march and play, sometimes in difficult environments like a long parade on a hot day or at a football game on a cold, snowy night.
“It’s pretty demanding,” Riley said. “We have to keep telling them to dig deep and find whatever energy they have to maintain the horn angles, the correct posture, the step size; and they always find a way to do it.”
Many of these students go on to play in college. “One of our students is at Northwestern University with the Wildcats’ marching band now,” Riley added. “Two other students are marching at Northern Illinois University with the Huskies. There are plenty of other students who have enrolled in band programs, whether it is marching or concert.”
A Big Step
Not all high schools have marching bands. Woodstock High School, for example, has only a pep band. It is an enormous step when you make the commitment to have a marching band versus a pep band. There are vast financial responsibilities as well as to the community itself.
Many considerations go into the creation and maintenance of a marching band program. What quality of instruments? Can the budget support new drills, buses, equipment or color guards? Does it fit into the school schedule? Will it be extra-curricular or co-curricular? “Every program and every director has a different philosophy on how it should be done,” Riley said. “And we are so fortunate that we have communities who are willing to support us.”
Each school band has its own configuration of instruments based on the number of the students playing them and school history. Take the show-stopping drum line, for example. “There is a lot of pride within the drum lines, that’s for sure … even within their own sections,” Riley said. “They have a lot of fun and they always inspire the crowd.”
Crystal Lake Central High School Band Director Keith Levine has been with the school for 12 years. The band’s evolution has been substantial. “When I first started we were at about 60 members and now we are at 110,” Levine said. “The performance quality has increased over time, too.”
Engaging new members into the band takes planning. The student leaders plan activities to encourage new members to be part of the band family. Only then is making cohesive music a lot easier.
“We have a band buddy system where we match the freshmen up with upper classmen who can be there to help guide them,” Levine said. “We arrange a band picnic so the families and parents feel that they are a part of the program, too.”
The culture of the band evolves over time in relation to the kids involved and popular culture. “We try to make our show music as well as our music that we play in the stands recognizable by our audience,” Levine explained. “We perform songs where the audience will sing along with our program, like ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Hey Baby.’
“This year we are playing ‘Sweet Caroline’ as part of our show,” he continued. “The first time we performed it the audience was singing right along with us. We definitely work hard to develop an engagement with our audience and our program.”
Audience engagement varies from school to school. At Crystal Lake Central High School the band sits with the crowd. At Prairie Ridge High School the band is down on the field. According to a Levine, “We like being integrated and because of the size of our bleachers and the size of our student body we are able to do that. We are lucky that we can be right up there in the middle of the action.”
Some schools like to participate in the competitive arena. For those, there are opportunities to participate with other bands and compare themselves to schools from around the area and sometimes, if they’re highly talented, on a regional or national level.
“We don’t compete,” Levine said, “but my band does participate in marching festivals that we use for educational purposes to help us improve our own musicianship.”
Sometimes the competitive aspect is not in line with the band director’s educational philosophy. “I have a direction that I want the band to be in, a specific mind set that I want the kids to be in,” Levine said. “So we stopped doing competitions and went to the festival approach.”
Perhaps it should not be about which band is the best. It is all about sharing the music and enjoying the marching band experience. Certainly, this is all to the point of helping the kids reach musical excellence. Which is the way it should be.