A cluster of black socks paired with knobby knees, sneakers, and baggy shorts is a dead giveaway that you are in the general vicinity of a high school marching band competition. It’s not a Cosmo fashion “don’t.” Think of it more as Geek Chic.
My son, who is a freshman, joined his high school marching band this year, and before long, his after-school activity pretty well consumed our family’s entire fall. We had no idea what we were getting into. Nor did he. About halfway through the summer, I started reading the emails about summer band camp. Band camp? Clearly I didn’t read critical spring emails from band organizers, which meant we missed the critical parent orientation meeting. That meeting undoubtedly covered the band camp commitment.
Breaking the News
I’ll never forget the look on my son’s face when I told him he’d be spending 12 of the last 14 days before the first day of high school on the football field, marching right, left, forward, backward, and diagonally.
“Whaaaat?! You have to be kidding me,” he said.
“Um. No. But it only goes from 8:45 a.m. till 4 p.m. Every day. Hey, how about this weather?”
Seriously, we all went into this thing eyes sealed shut. Total rookies.
The beauty of having a child in band camp, of course, is that my husband and I can now make references to “This one time at band camp…” with impunity. The kids don’t get it, but we think we are very funny, indeed.
I am a violin player, so the whole idea of band is terra incognito. Based on my secondhand experience (two of my brothers played trumpet in band in the late 1970s and early ‘80s), band is a class you take 5th period and maybe (just maybe) practice a little at home. Turns out marching band in the 21st century is a 300-hour commitment in a few short months. Our high school principal is known to say, “If marching band were any easier, they’d call it football.”
Teenaged Energizer Bunnies
Band kids march and march. And then they march some more. They get sock tans on their legs and—for reasons unexplained—get sunburns on the left side of their necks. They come home with turf from the football field in their sneakers. Those little turf pellets—which look remarkably like mouse turds—even come out of my son’s trumpet when we give it a bath. (Who knew you had to give a trumpet a bath? Violins don’t need baths.)
Once school started, my son practiced with the band all day Saturday and two nights a week from 5 till 9 p.m. (That’s 15 hours a week, not counting 5th period band class.) My son would ride his bike home in the dark at 10 p.m. and then dig in on geometry.
PS: They say the time with the band is rehearsal. Practice is what you do at home (you know, on your own time, pal). Which means on top of the organized time with the band, my son took weekly lessons and practiced at home. And I won’t even go into all the volunteering that band parents do. That’s a whole different blog post.
People who live near the football field know all the tunes by heart. That sound carries. The band also has this industrial strength metronome that can be heard for blocks. My neighbor said he can hear the “clonk, clonk, clonk” keeping time in his head even when it’s not playing.
The Good News
Okay, so we were totally unprepared for the experience, but let me say it’s been truly awesome. My son has found a tribe of kids to hang with at a high school with upwards of 2,000 kids. He has learned time management skills and perseverance. It has boosted his self-confidence and reduced stress. And when the kids all put on their uniforms (think life-sized nutcrackers in tuxedos), they look very sharp indeed.
The outfit includes black pants and a jacket with a crest on the chest, gauntlets at the forearms, and shakos (band speak for top hats with big fluffy feather plumes that the band moms call “chickens”). And black socks. I’ve mentioned the black socks.
The band takes to the field at halftime during football games and then they rally in the stands and play pep band music. When people ask which team we are rooting for at the football game, we say, “The Band.” Naturally.
In the fall, there are a series of marching band competitions held on Saturdays. Arguably, competitions are the raison d’être of high school marching band. Competition days usually meant 7:30 a.m. call times and 11 p.m. arrivals back home. These were long days, but I never heard a moment of complaint from my son. In fact, this is the first time my son has ever been motivated to get to something on time.
The marching band competition shows are downright fabulous. Initially, we thought it would be something we would suffer through (like 2nd grade Little League). I imagined marching band shows meant everybody marched forward, backward and—if they were getting really tricky about it—maybe left and right.
But high school marching band performances are half music and half choreography and all spectacular. They play and dance; they bust moves; they swing their feather plumes about. They do jazz runs (that’s a thing) and execute complex configurations all around giant props, like a replica of Atlantis complete with ivy covered columns. There is pageantry, goose-bump inducing high notes, and screaming fans.
The dancers of the color guard maneuver between the instrumental players, twirling giant flags and tossing wooden guns high in the air and catching them with great dramatic flair. They drop them only sometimes. In front of the band, members of “The Pit,” keep in time with a range of percussion instruments from xylophones to gongs.
It is all very, very cool.
Had we known what the commitment was ahead of time, I’m not sure my son would have joined up. But now we know this: Sometimes the best way to get into the pool is to do a giant cannonball with your eyes squeezed shut.
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