When members of the West Seneca High School marching band won the silver state championship cup this season – for the fourth time in five years, no less – they reveled in the unexpected rewards of their “sport of the arts.”
And this time, it means they’ll be going to Jacksonville, Fla., to march in the halftime show of the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“It only gets better every time,” said Nathan Lanning, the drum major for the 60-member band.
This year, his high school joined Lancaster and Medina in winning first-place trophies from their respective divisions of the State Field Band Conference Championships held in Syracuse last month. Those victories have been further sweetened by invitations, won by audition, to play out of town on New Year’s Day.
Lancaster will head to Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to parade at the Magic Kingdom.
Performing pageant-style shows on football fields with choreographed marches and brassy soundtracks, color guard dancers and flag handlers takes hours of practice every week. It also leads to a love of music, a sense of community and some grown-up life lessons, according to students and band directors.
Nathan, a senior, isn’t the timid kid he was when he started.
“I learned to push forward no matter what obstacles were in front of me,” he said. “If you slow down, everybody else slows down. … Perseverance is what you need in marching band. … Contentment isn’t an option.”
With a season that starts in August and continues through the fall, marching bands are musical athletes and, like the football teams they share fields with, a source of community pride. They rely on booster club parents to pitch in with driving, chaperoning and raising thousands of dollars for travel and dry cleaning of uniforms. After the field championship victories, teams get celebrity treatment and escorts home by the flashing lights of the police and fire departments.
“It’s a sport of the arts. Our kids are out there physically competing at the same level as any other athlete. … There are no bench-riders,” said John Blickwedehl, director of the band with students from both West Seneca West and East high schools. “It’s the ultimate team sport because everyone’s out there all the time.”
Bands compete by performing shows with specially arranged music and choreography. This year, Orchard Park’s Quaker Marching Band put on “Kaleidoscope.” West Seneca won with three acts about an escape. Lancaster’s 140 Marching Redskins got first place with original music and choreography about a soldier going to war and coming home.
The tale, crafted after a band alum who became an ROTC college cadet suggested the Army’s “Soldier’s Creed” as inspiration, moved band members to a winning performance.
When the student playing the soldier, who lost a comrade in combat, came back from war, there was a triumphant trumpet fanfare with sousaphone and drums, and, said senior band leader Nathaniel Watt, “tears of joy on the field.”
For the finale, Watt stopped conducting to play taps on the trumpet.
“All the emotion in the show is put in that 16 measures of taps,” he said.
Abby Fridmann, a junior and section leader, was amazed by how well her 45 student rookies did. “It was kind of scarey,” she said.
But during the part of competition when everyone had to spin rifles, there wasn’t a single drop. “The audience completely went wild for it,” she said.
The band experience, she said, has “taught me to be a leader.”
“I’ve made so many friends. So many people that I’d never forget,” Abby said. “One lesson: You should never give up. … I was so proud of everybody.”
At this year’s Field Band Conference Championships, 52 marching bands from across the state competed at Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. The three local school champions joined two others that placed lower in the rankings – Orchard Park and Le Roy.
Judges’ score for six divisions, set according to school district size and skill. Medina won first place in the top tier “Small School 1” category with a story about an athlete’s quest for gold. Le Roy, which was new to the same category this year, placed last with its story about an apocalypse.
This was West Seneca’s fourth time coming in first in its division: Since “Large School 3” is a starter class for large schools, West Seneca’s winning streak is likely to get the school bumped up next year to the more competitive “Large School 2,” the division that Lancaster won.
Orchard Park, which competes at the top “national” class for large schools, placed near the bottom. But winning is not the point, said band director Christopher Revett. While his team’s championship in 2007 left him with a “very warm feeling inside,” he was philosophic about finishing seventh out of eight teams this year.
“We always say, there’s no losers,” Revett said. “We’re about teaching kids to love music.”
The legacy of the school’s Quaker Marching Band, founded by Revett in 1987, backs that up. Two of his alums were behind the this year’s champions. Blickwedehl, Class of ’97, directs West Seneca, and Cheri Wopperer Pritchard, ’07, co-directs Medina, with Jimmy Steele. “We’re pretty proud of them,” Revett said. “They went on to music school, and they still like this crazy marching band thing.”
Members of the West Seneca band paused after a recent rehearsal to describe what the marching band means to them.
For senior tuba player Dave Young, winning isn’t really the best part. “Most of us don’t care about the score,” he said. “We come to have fun.”
To step out before a stadium audience feels cool. It is as if the football field belongs to the band.
Clarinetist Ashley Hoppe likes the way her soft instrument gets to sound loud. “Playing with the band is a chance to be part of something and actually be heard,” she said.
It’s a good feeling at the end of the day to get off the field and know that everyone did the best they could, said Rebekah Denz, a junior flute player.
“It’s like we’re a family,” she said. “We all go out there together.”