It happens every October. On a brisk night late in the month, groups of talented, highly motivated, extremely competitive high school students
from across Oklahoma converge on a local football field to vie for an imposing trophy, a whole year's worth of bragging rights and the
coveted honor of being crowned the state champion.
No, we're not referring to football here. This is the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association (OBA) state marching contest. For the students involved,
along with their throngs of supporters who crowd the bleachers, it's every bit as intense as any gridiron championship match.
In case you've never experienced a high school marching band competition in Oklahoma, keep these things in mind: the local rivalries are longstanding
and intense, the shows are complex and entertaining, and emotions definitely run high at contests...both on the field and in the stands.
Why is this? Because these kids aren't messing around. Our state (especially the Tulsa area) is home to some of the absolute best marching programs in the U.S. When these students take the field, they're making art -- complex, moving, breathing, syncopated, polyrhythmic, leaping, bounding, sonic, competitive art -- that, at its best, transcends the confines of a floodlit, aluminum-and-concrete football stadium and breathes life into a crowd of spectators. For the local schools that feature evolved marching programs like these, the band's main purpose isn't just to strike up the fight song every time the football team scores...though they still do that as well. No, their major task each week is to bring ten minutes of pageantry and sound to the masses.
The Pride of Broken Arrow.
Since the inception of the OBA Championships in 1980, two local high schools, Broken Arrow and Union, have absolutely dominated the statewide competition. Amazingly, during that 32-year period these two bands have won 31 state championships between them--12 for Union's Renegade Regiment and 19 for The Pride of Broken Arrow. In fact, with this year's win Broken Arrow has now been crowned the state champion 10 years in a row. The only other school to ever win at OBA, The Pride of Owasso (another local powerhouse marching program) took home the trophy in 1996.
But local marching band success doesn't end there. Unlike high school sports teams, marching bands have the opportunity to compete on a regional and national level each year. Several Green Country schools regularly participate each October in the Bands of America (BOA) Super Regional Championship in St. Louis. In fact, when the dust had cleared at this year's battle -- featuring 54 bands from throughout the Midwest -- four of the top ten bands were from the Tulsa area. Broken Arrow finished in first place (their tenth win since 1997), Union came in second, Owasso third (virtually tying Union), and Jenks rounded out the field in tenth place.
As if all that weren't enough, Broken Arrow, Union and Owasso also regularly compete for the national title at the BOA Grand National Championship held each Nov. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. This year's competition, Nov. 9-12, will feature performances from all three schools.
In 2006, Broken Arrow was crowned the national champions with their graceful show Aqua, putting the school squarely on the map as one of the premier marching programs in the U.S. At last year's national competition they placed 2nd with an extravagant Wizard of Oz-inspired show titled ZO, featuring dozens of color guard and band members riding bicycles...and plenty of flying blue monkeys as well. Besides winning the High Visual Award and the Esprit de Corps Award, Broken Arrow also won the Fan Favorite Award, as voted on by tens of thousands of spectators watching from the stadium and across the nation on the BOA Fan Network live feed. Not to be left out, Union came in 11th place -- no small feat given the 90-band field featuring the very best of the best from across the country. Impressively, Union and BA have regularly been top 12 finalists at this hotly contested national event, and Owasso cracked the top 12 for the first time in 2005.
"People always knew there were some great bands here in Oklahoma," said Chris Harris, Owasso band director. "Then in 2006 Broken Arrow went and won it all. Now people are paying attention a little more. It's not all 'cowboy hats and tumbleweeds' out here."
OBA representative Dale Barnett said Oklahoma bands rank among the top 10 percent in the nation, in fact. "There are all kinds of invitational contests, and some are better than others, but the Bands of America contests have the most consistent rankings of competitive marching and concert bands in the nation," he said.
Winning streaks like this are the stuff of local legend. What's going on here? Is there something in the water out in the Tulsa suburbs? How are these kids pulling off such impressive accomplishments year after year?
Two words: hard work.
It all starts well before school is even in session. While most teenagers relax their summers away, students in competitive band programs focus on rehearsing. Broken Arrow's 2011 practice itinerary, for example, called for an audition camp during the month of May; three-hour rehearsals each week during June and July; and a band camp beginning two weeks before the first day of school for eight hours a day (Monday-Saturday). During the school year, band rehearsals run from 3:20pm-5:20pm or 6pm-9pm most days of the week (with occasional Saturday practices), plus additional weekly rehearsals devoted to students of particular sections (i.e. percussion, color guard, hornline, etc.). Union and Owasso have equally rigorous practice schedules which include early morning rehearsals. And on top of all that, students at all schools are required to maintain a passing grade level in all their courses to remain eligible to march.
"We let the students know way before this process starts that they can't have any schedule conflicts from August all the way to the middle of November," Harris said. "You can't just go off to dance class during our rehearsal time, for example. This has got to be a priority. If it's not, you don't have to be in the competition band. We don't have substitutes. We don't have our best 11 out there on the field with 75 on the sideline. They've all got to be there."
And yet, despite all the time, effort and sacrifice required, BA, Union and Owasso field large bands each year (around 230-250 students on average) full of teenagers who are more than eager to do whatever it takes to compete on a national level. This fervor is partly due to the sheer tradition of it all. These marching programs are well respected and lauded in their communities. Many of these kids grew up watching their older siblings compete, or listening to their parents talk about marching "back in the day." Now, it's their turn to go out and conquer the field.
Another big reason for their enthusiasm: performing at this level is simply a rush. For many of these kids, this is the closest thing to a "rock star" moment they'll ever experience.
"The thrill of performing and the feeling you get when you step on the field is something you'll never forget," said Jamon Davison, Broken Arrow saxophonist. "It drives you to take all this time and to practice, and to put all this effort in. I watched my sister win Grand Nationals in 2006. I was in 7th grade, and from then on I wanted to do this...I wanted to be on that field."
"The feeling we got when we competed in St. Louis this year was just one of pride," said Kyle Norris, drum major for Union Renegade Regiment. "We put on the absolute best show we could."
The lifelong benefits of this sort of intense training, camaraderie and commitment are certainly not lost on these students.
"Marching band is just such a positive experience for anyone who chooses to put in the effort to do it," said Sam Blachly, Union mellophonist. "There are so many things you can get out of it...time management skills, leadership skills, and just a feeling of perfection."
"I do it because it's fun, but also because band brings people together," said Malory Harwell, Broken Arrow flutist. "It teaches you about life. It teaches you discipline and responsibility. It's just so many good things wrapped into one organization."
This Ainít Your Fatherís Marching Band
To say modern high school marching band has simply gotten more challenging over the past 20 years is not only a vast understatement, it misses the point entirely.
The shows presented by nationally competitive schools have evolved into entirely new beasts. No longer are they merely a collection of tunes picked solely for their difficulty and entertainment value, which are then marched regimentally by the horns and drums while a uniformed color guard interacts with the band using rifles and flags.
Today's shows have themes and movements -- sometimes even original music penned specifically for that show. Props, set pieces and special effects are frequently involved. The front sideline ensemble populated by non-marching percussion players (also called the "pit") has expanded into a massive collection of xylophones, marimbas, vibes, chimes, tympanis, various stationary drums and electronic keyboards, among other things. The color guard has evolved into a sort of hybrid modern dance troupe: athletic and expressive, yet still maintaining the rigorous demands of precision rifle and flag work, among other items.
The role of marching horn players and drummers, meanwhile, has also evolved. Precision marching is still fundamental and judged by exacting standards at contests, but band members are nowadays frequently required to move in ways they never used to.
"The biggest thing is movement," Harris said. "Just marching and playing won't get it done anymore. You need to have some modern elements to your show. There are places in our show where we just stop and dance."
"Band students have to know how to move their feet way more than just left-right-left-right," said Union band director, Matt McReady. "We're teaching them dance steps these days. They're doing chassés, and coupé steps and pliés."
The ever more advanced footwork required to stay competitive on a national level is a challenge for local teaching staffs. "It gets us out of our comfort zones because we have to be able to teach our kids how to do that," said Broken Arrow director, Darrin Davis. "We either have to learn it ourselves or get people on the teaching team who can."
With all the extra emphasis on movement across the field comes a heightened physicality in today's marching that can definitely take a toll on the students in the form of dehydration, muscle strains, twisted ankles, bumps, lumps and bruises.
"We take more students to the hospital and the trainer than, almost, the football team does," McReady said. "The physical demands of marching our show -- on the knees, ankles and legs in general -- are through the roof. We took two of our students to the emergency room after our finals performance in St. Louis. One was a dehydration situation, and the other was from a student literally pushing so much air through their body that one of their lungs locked up. It's all because of effort. Our students are maxing out what they're capable of doing."
"It's definitely physical," agrees BA director Davis. "We keep a nurse on hand at every rehearsal. You gotta take care of the kids."
Putting the Show Together
BA Director, Darron Davis.
The creative decisions facing each band's staff of directors is every bit as challenging as their students' demanding marching drills. Generally speaking, ideas for the following year's show are already percolating during the current year's contest season. That means directors are now mulling over concepts for autumn 2012 even as they head into the most stressful, busy two month period of 2011. "It starts really early," Davis said of show development. "It's more than a 12 month process for sure."
By January, writing has usually begun in earnest on the new program, with directors, show designers, and color guard coaches all group-thinking the creative process into high gear. Everyone hopes for a quick turnaround...but that's not always the case.
"It's interesting, every year it's different for us," McReady said. "Sometimes the music is written by February and that's it...we're done. This year, we were still changing stuff well into the summer. Even this morning we were making changes out on the field."
Union's 2011 show, Juxtaposition, is an exploration of contrasting styles. Featuring an ultra diverse palette of music (from the "Lacrimosa" movement of Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor, Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci and Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Jesters" to the jazz/funk groove of Tower of Power's lively "Squib Cakes") the show, which utilizes large movable black screens on the field interwoven into the marching drill, is angular, intriguing and fun.
"The big musical juxtaposition of 'Lacrimosa' to Tower of Power music is completely different than what we've done in the past, stylistically," McReady said. "At one point, we have some band guys doing rifle work with the color guard...it turns into a kind of 'anything you can do I can do better' moment on the field. Then, in the second movement of the show, we layer happy, fast 'Dance of the Jesters' music against the sad, slower Pagliacci. The show isn't necessarily about opposites...it's more like putting different types of music side-by-side and comparing and contrasting them."
Owasso's show for this year, The Last Straw, features a scarecrow theme set to the music of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony as well as "Fix You" by Coldplay. It's an eclectic mix of music, admits Harris.
At the start of the performance, 26 scarecrows on posts dot the field. The color guard portrays black crows. "Over the course of the performance the scarecrows, one by one, little by little, start climbing off their posts and coming to life," Harris said. "By the end of the show they're fully engaged and participating. They're running around trying to scare people. So far, the show is coming off well...we're getting good reactions."
Harris said he's confident in Owasso's ability to adapt to the ever-evolving trends in state and national marching contests in order to stay competitive.
"Owasso's been called 'the concert band out on the field,'" Harris said. "Our kids have always been known for their ability to play really difficult literature. We've always got the most all-staters in our bands. Now we're adding more visual elements and dance to our shows to make us even more competitive at marching contests. We see ourselves as right on the edge of being one of those groups that could be a national finalist every time."
Broken Arrow's 2011 program, Destiny Leaves You No Choice, is a complete departure from 2010's show.
"Last year we were very script oriented portraying our version of The Wizard of Oz," Davis said. "This year we're producing a modern marching band ballet on the field."
Utilizing the dark, regal music of Richard Wagner blended with "My Immortal" by alternative rock group Evanescence, the show features a dancing ballet couple as central characters, which eventually expands to 40 ballet couples by the end of the show.
"The willingness of our students to trust us and buy into our concept for this show has been tremendous," Davis said. "Even though they may have been uncomfortable at first in the new direction we pushed them, they've really embraced the role and the concept."
Stylistic left turns and surprises are all par for the course at Broken Arrow, though.
"Our band is recognized nationally as a risk taker," Davis said. "We're unpredictable as far as what you'll see year-to-year. But we still have musical and visual elements that set us apart. Even if you can't see the logos on our chests, you can still tell it's us. At a certain level, it's the strength of our performers."
"In a state where football rules and sport is king, the real score is settled at halftime."
That's the tagline from a feature length documentary titled The Pride of Broken Arrow, shot over the course of the band's pivotal 2001 season. It accurately sums up the situation at schools in northeastern Oklahoma, specifically, and begs this question: How do esoteric, highly artistic, sometimes downright musically challenging programs like the ones fielded by BA, Owasso and Union go over with the halftime crowds at these big, football-obsessed, Oklahoma high school games?
The answer: surprisingly well.
"I think our crowd in Broken Arrow has been educated over the years," Davis said. "There's a culture here that is not like every school across America. We have a very supportive, respectful crowd."
Which brings up another question: Why is the Tulsa area such a hotbed for nationally recognized marching programs?
"It's due to the culture," McReady said. "There's an expectation here -- from the 1st grade teachers all the way to the superintendent -- that the band at Union is going to be great. There aren't too many places where that kind of support exists. The community here, the school district, the band parents, they all have an investment in the Renegade Regiment. They're proud of our achievements."
"We have a lot of support from our board of education," said Union mellophonist Blachly. "They give us all the funding we could possibly need. And we have an amazing band parents' association...they really take care of us."
These sentiments are echoed by the directors at Owasso and BA as well. As it turns out, the reason all these schools' marching programs are exceptional is mainly because supportive communities who expect excellence from their high school students yield -- surprise, surprise -- excellence.
Union's Renegade Regiment.
Do the band students in these programs feel pressure to achieve something great each year, given the decades of school tradition and community/school/peer expectations?
"I don't feel pressure, really," said Union drum major Norris. "It's more like motivation to see how much better we can be than last year."
"The pressure for me is just being a Pride member," said BA saxophonist Jamison. "It's being that person everybody in the band world has looked up to for so long because we aren't only great performers, we're great kids. We respect everyone around us and we're first class in everything we do."
"Being first class in everything we do is more important than being a first class performer," said BA flutist Harwell. "Off the field is more important than on the field."
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