Under the Friday night lights of the high school football fields, everything is on the line.
Score the highest. Be the best. Win the victory.
The football players on the field push themselves to represent their school, to stand out to recruiters and display their passion to play. But they aren’t the only ones with something to prove.
You hear them before you see them coming — the drums, the flutes, the sousaphone, the chants and the synchronized steps — it’s the marching band.
It’s football and marching band season and from the stands to the field, the students are fighting to put their best foot forward.
“This is very much a team sport, and it sets kids up for the future because they have to learn leadership skills, interactive skills, be responsible for themselves so the group can be successful,” said Mark Minton, band director at Parkway High School in Bossier City. “It’s a great training for life.”
The band director is responsible for bringing the whole picture together, but it takes a united front to make it happen. From Bossier City to Shreveport, the band community is preparing students for success on and off the field.
Each day marching band directors work with anywhere between 60 to 200 young performers who come with their own personalities, varying levels of skills, talents and challenges.
“Essentially what we’re doing in a band is putting together 60 kids who have nothing in common except they play instruments and go to the same school and asking them to mark their feet and instruments at the same angle, breathe and articulate at the same time, play with the same dynamic, stay in tune and look the same all at the same time and not look nervous doing it,” said Chris Hand, director at Bossier High School.
It’s the directors’ responsibility to teach the students how to play their instruments, learn new music and move in synchronized formations and dance choreography. It’s a lot of responsibility for one person to handle. But it’s why the high school band directors rely on the students to step up to the plate.
The chain of command goes from the director to the drum majors to the section leaders. Depending on the school, the director may have an part-time or full-time adult assistant, but more often it is former or current students helping to manage the large class of musicians.
“I couldn’t do it without them,” Hand said.
The leaders’ work with students will improve music skills, but if all goes to plan the band becomes more than a music class. It’s also a classroom for instilling life lessons into the students.
At Bossier High School, some of the drum majors and section leaders attend leadership camps, Hand said. They are given responsibilities and work with their peers under Hand’s guidance. In turn, they learn how to handle conflict and improve communication skills.
It has helped Jonathan Castillo, a junior and drum major at Bossier High School, address attitudes and issues among his peers.
“People come with negativity, but it’s not always that,” Castillo said. “I find a way to get around that. We spread a lot of positivity throughout the band so it’s not a problem most of the time.”
Whether or not a student continues toward a music education or career, Hand and other directors take the opportunity to teach more than what is on a sheet of music.
“From the band experience we want them to be quality citizens,” said James Willett, director at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport. “We want them to know what hard work and team work is and what it takes in life to make things happen. And with all the work and time they put in I think that happens.”
Antionette Van, a drum major, clarinetist and senior at C.E. Byrd High School, fell in love with music at an early age and her passion to play will continue even when she joins the U.S. Marines after graduation.
“Since freshman year I’ve definitely gained a lot of good leadership qualities from band,” Van said. “Sophomore year I was a clarinet section leader and junior year I got assistant drum major. Going to the camps and having to help the band staff manage a group of almost 100 students has definitely helped me to become a better leader.”
Taylor Cooksey, drum major, saxophonist and senior at Byrd, can play more than 10 instruments, yet plans to continue her education in medical school.
“I started in orchestra and started band in middle school and it became this passion for me and I kind of became addicted to learning to play new instruments,” Cooksey said. “I want to be a doctor, but I want to keep it there but do some things with it throughout my life.”
But for those wanting to pursue a life in music, the directors are working to make those dreams come true.
“I tell them no matter whether they go to college, military or trade school they’ll be prepared to get a band scholarship,” said Emmanuel Hudson, director at Booker T. Washington High School. “Every year we have more than $200,000 of band scholarships offered to the band members.”
Then there are those who plan to do it all, like Roderick Barnes, head drum major and senior at Bossier High School, who plans to major in music and minor in computer engineering at Northwestern State University.
“This is what I plan to do. I would like to teach music and become a professional musician,” Barnes said. “I would like to continue to teach under Mr. Hand because he’s a role model to me.”
It takes time and dedication to rehearse with the band — a minimum of three hours a day, four days a week before, during and after school hours. That doesn’t include the hours spent at night and weekend performances.
Many students are often involved with other multiple student organizations outside of the band, have at-home responsibilities and work schedules to consider.
The easy part, Hand said, is playing the instruments. The challenge is finding the time to do it.
“Really the challenge is splitting time,” he said. “What we’re asking them to do it very extensive and whenever they miss a day they miss three hours of progress, so they have to catch up. But they’ve done a good job with working with me on that.”
The experience put in is worth the time.
Willett sees this as a chance to teach students how to prioritize and manage their time.
What the students do varies, but the consensus as to why they do it is generally the same. They love it — from the family bond to the joy of music to the opportunity to display showmanship.
“Everyone here is a like a big family. It’s a little more than a team. I’ve played in soccer and it was a team, but this is like better as a family.” Castillo said. “I love we’re all taking a part in the music and if we all do our part everything turns out great.”
The band room is where to make long-lasting memories and it makes getting through high school that much easier.
Sometimes it takes strategic thinking to get results.
Beginning high school is hard enough, but when the freshman students are handed music sheets more advance than they’re used to the older students step in to guide them to the next skill level. The “trick” Hand says they use is not allowing the new students to make it all look easy so they have the confidence to learn the skills.
“The juniors and seniors are not going to tell them they can’t do something because we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Hand said. “Whenever the freshman come in and they’re handed all of these crazy black dots on a page, they think it’s hard but they have a whole lot of people telling them it’s not. They tend to believe it so the skill level just jumps up just that fast.”
Since adopting the tactic two years ago, Hand said he’s witnessed improvement in the young musicians’ technical skills.
Since marching band rehearsal requires an extensive amount of time, some may cancel a practice, delay start time or allow a student to sit out for a day if he sees the students needing more time on homework.
“You’re at the school two or three hours practicing but also still held accountable for your homework,” Holden said. “During football season, I take at least one day out of the way to do tutoring or catch up on their work and tell them this is the one day you can catch up. I also have a personal relationship with their teachers and sometimes teachers will help tutor them before school.”
Older students often become mentors during this time, Minton said, and offer guidance on how to manage their responsibilities and tutor younger students in the classwork.
“You create a culture. Older kids teach the younger kids and the program just molds them because you build the culture,” Minton said. “The older kids talk to the younger kids and mentor them through the process.”
The overall academic skills also have improved for marching band students, said Minton, who tracks his students’ academic performance each year and researches national reports on the subject.
“In Silicon Valley 95 percent of engineers are musicians,” he said. “They did some studies around the country at many medical centers and some of the highest acceptance rates are people who majored or minored in music going into medical school.”
The skills used to learn to play an instrument and memorize the music, he said aids students to achieve higher scoring.
“Our G.P.A. and ACT score for the band is pretty high,” he said. “Statistically, music students do way better on standardized testing scores due to that fact that music exercises both sides of the brain.”
Playing an instrument is no easy task. Add thousands of eyes watching every step and listening to every note and it’s enough to rattle the nerves more than a little bit.
Everything seems to get slower, adrenaline is coursing through the body and the heart seems to thump louder than the drumline — just a few nervous symptoms directors see happen to student at the start of each year.
But when it’s time to put on a show, the performers become warriors.
“I think of success and who’s watching me — other than God — and I always have my game face on. I’m always prepared. I stay ready so I don’t have to get ready,” Barnes said. “Let’s go out here and kill it.”
Marching bands are often linked first to sporting events, but the Super Bowl of high school marching bands are the competitions where they can really battle it out with other schools.
“Our half time performances are basically dress rehearsals for the competition coming up,” Willett said.
Students learn how to work for a long term goal as they practice and improve and compete in about four or five contests each season.
The competitions are where the band can really show their skill and get the full impact of what they can do, he said.
“At the contests everyone is the stands are more quiet and attentive and we do more at the contest than we can at a game,” Willett said.
Each school has their cases and walls lined with trophies marking their growth and achievements and aim higher with each performance and year.
“When we get to our last couple of competitions around the end of October and early November, by that time the kids feel very secure, solid, very excited and they just want to get out there and show everybody what we can do,” Willett said.
Performances are a chance to demonstrate their skills, but on game night they set the tone for the fans in the stands and for the players on the field. An added bonus for the musicians and color guard team — it’s a time to let loose and have fun.
“It’s very hype,” Wilson said. “We have a good school and band and you have that Byrd pride you’re feeling. It’s really a happy and joyful thing you’re feeling when you’re out on the field.”