Pick a high school football game in this area — any game, any Friday night — and the chances are you will witness the same phenomenon at halftime.
Most fans stay in their seats to watch the marching band.
“There’s a hotbed of bands in this part of New Jersey that the whole country is paying attention to,” said Bridgewater-Raritan High School band director Larry Markiewicz, who travels the country judging competitions and instructing drum and bugle corps. “South Brunswick, Immaculata, us, J.P. Stevens, Hillsborough — there are a lot of great programs that people (outside New Jersey) recognize.”
So there were plenty of quality options when it came for MyCentralJersey.com readers to choose the best marching band in the Courier News area. They selected Immaculata with 63 percent of the vote. Bridgewater-Raritan checked in second with 32 percent.
Immaculata and Bridgewater-Raritan routinely finish among the top three bands at the state championship. Immaculata arguably has the longer-running tradition, however. Like the football team they support, the Marching Spartans have been winning titles and setting high standards for more than 30 years.
That’s a brand Dunellen native Ed Webber has continued during his 10 years as Immaculata’s band director.
The 120-strong band is built like any athletic team, person-by-person, instrument-by-instrument with the success reliant on team-wide dedication. The effort is seen weekly on the playing fields of a region that is stocked with talented and deep bands like Bridgewater-Raritan, Hunterdon Central, Hillsborough and North Hunterdon — the Route 22 corridor to use Webber’s phrase.
“It comes down to expectations and our kids meet them,” said Webber
Webber picked up a euphonium (baby tuba) when he was in the fourth grade at St. John School in Dunellen. He went on to play play baritone trumpet at Immaculata band and then at Rutgers. The switch was suggested by current Hillsborough band director Julie Haran when she worked in Dunellen.
Some students arrive in high school with the kind of experience Webber had; Immaculata senior Ray Gatchalian is an example of one who didn’t. He is also an example of why the Spartans’ band has had a significant section of bleachers reserved and filled from weekend to weekend over the years.
Gatchalian, a Hillsborough resident, had taken some piano lessons as an elementary school student, lessons suggested by his mother. He didn’t take to it, but as he prepared to enter his freshman year of high school, he picked up the tuba taught to him by Webber, learned with hard work through private lessons. The fact that his sister Stef was a senior in the band was also a motivator.
“To see the home crowd go crazy, to have an encore performance and seeing everybody yelling for you is special,” said Gatchalian, who foresees a future in music.
“We’re not the biggest school, but we have one of the biggest bands in the area,” he added.
The thrills have been many, the trips like the one took to play for the “America’s Got Talent” television show this year at PNC Center in Newark. Last year, the band played with the Rutgers University band during a football game where longtime Immaculata coach Pierce Frauenheim was honored with the unbeaten Scarlet Knights team of 1961. The link to Immaculata and Rutgers is strong; Webber played in the brass section for Prof. Tim Smith, whose son, Wyatt, now plays in the Immaculata band.
New Jersey’s marching band calendar peaks Nov. 4 with the state championships at Rutgers’ High Point Solutions Stadium. All the local powers will be there, and while the competition will be great, the camaraderie will be even greater.
“It’s a healthy thing,” Bridgewater-Raritan’s Markiewicz said. “The kids hang out together and the band directors do to. We really have a healthy respect for each other, which is nice because there are many other parts of the country where that does not happen.”
The pulse of the bands is with their schools and the band directors are quick to point that out. Band members aren’t just musicians, but schoolmates of those on the field, hoping to play for a winning team.
“We’re still playing for every first down, the end of quarter stuff; the defensie cadences,” Webber said.
For Immaculata, this is a milestone fall. The school is celebrating its 50th season and the band is performing a tribute to Spartans through the ages.
Drum majors and color guard captains Daniel Eckels, Ryan Gorman, Gatchalian, Darby Casey, Caileigh Idell and Kathy Mendoza will help keep the Spartans in step as their game night begins with the traditional parade walk from Immaculata to Somerville’s Brooks Field where the Spartans play their home games.
At 6:15 p.m., they’ll be in place, ready to perform.