Words by Jonathan Hooper
Photography provided by Jennifer Asante-Wiredu and Jeff Meador, GISD
6:30 am, and all is quiet on the western front.
Not so fast there…
On the western side of Granbury, marching band rehearsal for the Pride of Granbury is underway at Granbury High School, and many of us are still asleep, or searching for the first cup of life-giving coffee.
Alex Inbody, Senior Clarinet:
“I like that we get to be Granbury’s alarm clock day in, day out, someone in Granbury wakes up hearing the Pride of Granbury making art.”
What compels nearly 200 otherwise sensible teenagers to arise before sunrise, exercise for 15 minutes, execute detailed movements to perfection while performing challenging music written for a professional symphony orchestra and carrying up to 40 pounds of musical instruments?
Some of their early morning dedication may be found in the compulsion from Granbury High School band director Mark Eastin, percussion director Tahlequah Kirk, guard instructor Maggie Meroney, and halftime assistant Andy Lahey. But that sort of consistent dedication comes from within, and does not show up suddenly at the age of 14. Rather it begins three years earlier in the band halls of Granbury and Acton Middle schools, and nurtured by band directors John Morgan, Stephanie Bosch, Michele Kahne, and Larry Moore.
Band parents know: that unpleasant racket coming from the basement or bedroom or garage or barn or shed—wherever it is to which their 6th grader is banished for 30 minutes every day to practice–can raise the dead and cause the living to perish. But through the constant molding of embouchures and air flow and hand positions and stick height and posture and rhythmic stability, and dozens of other endeavors, these middle school band directors turn that destructive racket into musical tones, and award-winning music ensembles all before high school.
“Band Kids” know the value of hard work. In this age, when young people are often maligned for their lack of motivation, these students are already aware that their success is built on the contributions of the entire ensemble. They are insistent about relationships and family ideals found in the marching band. They are adamant about the task at hand, and the next task, too. The many 20-hour days consist of a morning rehearsal followed by a full school day, a short rehearsal, travelling to and performing at a football game followed by a long ride home–not at all unusual for the band, even when they wake up five hours later and put in an additional 20 hours at a marching contest on Saturday.
Those regular weeks begin in the sweltering days of late July, preparing for even hotter days of hours of outside practice on a concrete parking lot painted with yard lines and hash marks, where the surface temperature can easily reach 120+ degrees. Every nuance is addressed for absolute uniformity: direction of instrument, step size, foot position on the yard-line, angle of a leg, toes up or up on toes, interval spacing, straight lines, curved lines, and much more.
After marching practice and a bit of time off for lunch and R&R, these students and directors move inside for music study. Many students spent at least part of their break time working on music individually. No one wants to let the others down due to lack of preparation. In smaller sections, the directors and drum majors work with the young musicians, improving every aspect of becoming performance-ready: dynamics, articulation, technique, rhythm, and tone quality. Eventually, all the smaller sections return for the “full band” rehearsal.
Once classes begin in the fall, and the temperature occasionally plunges a bit below 100 degrees, they rehearse before school, during band class, and add an evening rehearsal. This is where everything begins to come together: music, marching, choreography, and drill design sets. Consider these figures: 200 students marching 70 different drill design sets averaging 16 steps per set at 22” per step (carry the one, uh…hmm) comes out to nearly 80 miles per halftime show.
Melanie Boleng, senior Drum Major:
“As an incoming freshman, I was afraid of failure. I was terrified of not meeting the expectations of high standards. But the upperclassmen were so friendly and helpful. My fear of failure ceased to exist. We really are just one big family working towards a common goal.”
Blood, sweat and tears? These are involved in every single rehearsal, and in many performances. One miss-step moving backwards in with a sousaphone at a fast tempo on concrete, or a flag spinning too close to a trombone slide will guarantee all three to occur in an instant. And it often does.
When competition begins in late September, continuing through early November, rehearsals are slightly different. Now it is 40 degrees outside. The days and weeks of learning drills and music are long gone. By now, everyone knows their music and their spot. The production has reached such a high level of performance that any tiny detail gone astray becomes an enormous rift in the show. Standing at attention one inch too far to the left is unacceptable. A guard prop a split second behind is disastrous. A trombone slide sticking up one inch higher than the others is unimaginable. A smudge on a cymbal is unthinkable. You get the idea.
The show production of competitive marching bands today barely resembles marching band shows of the past. Gone are the days of straight lines moving up and down the field, or expanding and contracting circles, or symmetrical arcs and spirals. Today, the term “marching arts” is often used to recognize the addition of complex choreography, theatrical stories, electronic effects, theater-styled props and backdrops.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s up with all that dancing and stuff on the field?’ Today’s top marching arts designers come from Broadway, television, movies, fashion shows—they are designing for high school bands! This is different for me. I have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t 1987 any more, and if we want to compete, and to be successful, we have to adapt and evolve. It’s hard! But we do it.”
The same rings true for the drumline, directed by Mr. Kirk. They compete through the winter, and with their outstanding and award-winning performances have placed the name of Granbury firmly in the minds of the Percussive Arts Society in Texas. Meroney’s color guard is also extremely competitive in Winter Guard events that are held across Texas, separate from the band competitions.
Remember—some of these marching band kids are the same kids that often can’t pick up their dirty socks, and yet here they are, doing the nearly impossible. Some are valedictorians, athletes, club leaders, actors, honor students, work part-time jobs, and teach Sunday School.
From head director Mark Eastin:
“We are blessed with a lot of talent. Some of these kids are incredible All-State musicians. Others, honestly, just work very hard and love being a part of the band. They are all on the same page here in the Pride of Granbury marching band. It’s a big, messy clock we have to make tick. On a bad night we learn. On a good night, we make art.”
Eastin gives praise to GHS principal Jeremy Ross for his knowledgeable support of the band program. Ross was himself a band director in West Texas before he entered administration. Together, they both want the students to come to school to be involved, and to become successful.
“Band is also academic. It is a part of the academic TEKS-based education in Texas. Mr. Ross has been very supportive with schedules that allow students to be involved in multiple pursuits. They can do almost everything, including AP classes, dual credit, athletics, you name it, in addition to band. In fact, three of the last eight valedictorians have been band students!”
The Pride of Granbury marching band is an activity of passion: passion for the music, passion for the people, passion for the activity, and passion to succeed and excel. The season includes failures, to be sure, but these failures become the next step to success.
Their successes are rarely measured by accolades from the community, or newspaper articles praising their individual performance on Friday night, or the trophies that they earn every year. Rather, they measure their success by their relationships within the band family and the confidence they internalize from hard work. They know when they have conquered a difficult musical passage that no one will hear them play individually. They recognize they have a tiny, yet important role in the “big picture.” They know that the band is a better ensemble because they were in it, and that they are better people for their band experience.
“Sure, I like the trophies, they are the recognition for the enormous amount of work and pride the students have in themselves. I can better measure success by how many of them continue with band in college. It’s usually around 70%, with most of them receiving a band scholarship. Additionally, 3-4 students decide to major in Music in college. That is success.”
Marching band is not for the faint of heart. Rather, it is for the big hearts. These big-hearted students may not remember how to play saxophone in ten years. They may have forgotten the titles of the music they played on the field. But each of them will remember that senior that helped them learn how to march as a freshman. They will remember the long-distance bus rides, both the humorous and tragic events, the life-long relationships they made, and what it is to do something they loved, and to do it well.
They will remember their band family. They will remember the Pride of Granbury.