Portrait of the writer as a band geek

As the air becomes more brisk and the scent of burnt new-fallen leaves permeates, I find myself reminiscing about the most formative experience of my teenage years (and maybe even my life): Marching Band.

I spent five years in high school marching bands (one as an eighth grader) and two years in drum and bugle corps.  Some of my longest-lasting friendships began in the band room and on the practice field.  Some of my favorite stories of my past have to do with marching band. I was and still am a certified band geek.

I realized recently that it has been 15 years since my last significant marching band season. At that time, it seemed like marching band would be an constant in my life — I was actually student teaching at a high school in Pennsylvania with the intention of becoming a high school band director for a career. I had no idea the radically different direction that my life would take in the next five years, and it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t. Otherwise it would have been impossible to enjoy what was going to be my last year as an active certified band geek.

One of my favorite things about marching band has nothing to do with marching, music, or actual performance. It has more to do with the relationships built between the students and staff over the course of a season. Through the task of learning, memorizing, and polishing a field show you see individuals learn the value of chasing a collective goal and sacrificing what you might want in the moment for the betterment of the group. And then, there’s the silliness.

Band students, in my experience, excel at creative ways to have fun. Almost every band program I’ve been around in my life has some kind of weird inside joke, crazy tradition, or other nuttiness. Some even take that creative insanity to epic and vaguely dangerous proportions.

In the spring of 1989, my band was performing in the West Virginia Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon, WV. We were staying on the bucolic campus of West Virginia Wesleyan University, which was overpopulated with wonderful brick dormitories with big columns in the front. My friends and I were hanging out during free time (which I later learned equalled “trouble making”) in one of our dorm rooms and we figured out that if you paired my friend Joe’s trombone slide with a standard thumbtack you could make a reasonably decent (and accurate) blowgun.

We had spent a little bit of time shooting thumbtacks into one of the columns (target practice, apparently) when a marching band came past our dorm in full uniform. Their marching style was a bit more flamboyant than ours, and it was hard to tell if the members of the band were dancing or marching. At the very back of the group was a LARGE sousaphone player, dipping his bell up and down and generally getting his tuba groove on. All of us looked at each other and knew that we had immediately thought the same thing without exchanging a word. We all kind of laughed and then most of the people in the room let go of the idea, except the person holding the trombone slide and the thumbtacks.

Before we could do anything, Joe aimed and blew mightily. There was a second’s pause, and then the sousaphonist grabbed his butt and LEAPT in the air, clearing a good foot to a foot-and-a-half. All of us looked at each other and knew that we had immediately thought the same thing without exchanging a word: “that guy could probably beat us all within an inch of our lives.” Immediately, we all hit the deck underneath the window and spent the rest of our free time hiding.

As I sweep up the leaves in my yard and drive past the football games at Howell High School, I often remember high school marching band and wonder if we could all look at each other have have the same thoughts the way we used to. I wonder what creative shenanigans kids get into now in marching band.  And I wonder if my kids will someday soon build their own trove of memories in band.

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