Hard work and play bond Delta High School Marching Band
Maybe this was it, pressed against the chain-link fence, fingers twined through the wire diamonds, waiting.
“In ninth place, with a score of 50.05, North Fork.”
The voice over the loudspeakers at Stocker Stadium confirmed what they hoped they already knew. They’d been in third place going into the state finals, yet a shimmer of relief passed through them anyway. They were one notch closer.
“In eighth place, with a score of 50.30, Trinidad High School.”
The drummers huddled in a tight circle and the clarinet players clutched each others’ hands, more than a few fingers surreptitiously crossed. Their drum majors, Kaci O’Brien and Josh Walker, stood at rigid attention on the football field, representing the band, representing the family.
“In seventh place, with a score of 50.60, Roosevelt High School.”
They couldn’t smile. It wasn’t bad sportsmanship, because they understood — really, really understood — how hard these other marching bands had worked, and they honored the bands’ success. But they were on the cusp of a deep breath, suspended in an anguish of anticipation.
“In sixth place, with a score of 52.35, Berthoud High School.”
Eighty teenagers, and they’d managed to mesh in a way that was almost superhuman. They’d sweated, cried and, honestly, they’d screwed around. And they’d worked, rolling heel-to-toe step after step, miles of them, in the swelter of summer, day after day through weeks and months, ushering in autumn through familiar patterns.
“In fifth place, with a score of 54.00, Bayfield High School.”
They cheered weakly, for Bayfield and for themselves. One of their major competitors now knew where they stood. But still the Delta High School Panther Pride Marching Band waited. In 2007, 2008 and 2009 they hadn’t heard their name called until very last — 2A state champions three years in a row. If they won this year, the seniors would have a championship every year of high school.
They’d worked so hard. Maybe that was enough, to know what they were capable of doing, regardless of what a handful of judges thought. They had every reason in the world to know, as they walked panting and sweating off the field after their state performance Oct. 25, they’d accomplished something tremendous.
The announcer took a light breath.
Don’t say Delta. Please don’t say Delta.
“In fourth place, with a score of 57.65, Estes Park High School.”
# # #
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment at which a random group of teenagers becomes a band. They each bring a particular love of music and variegated quirks of personality, but until they blend into a band, they’re just a cluster of kids clutching flutes and tubas, flags and folders of sheet music.
Maybe it’s the first time they hear director of bands Andrew Bruington preach the gospel of marching band, which he does with evangelical zeal. Beginning at Delta Middle School, he and co-director Ryan Bigley praise its joys: Join the marching band! It’s fun! It’s rewarding! You’ll love it! (And, OK, it’s really hard work.) Try it!
They introduce eighth-graders to the basics of marching, taking them through rudimentary patterns, guiding them into the particular difficulties of marching and playing at the same time.
And about that: Accelerate into a moderate jog and only exhale. That’s marching band. Take precise steps of exactly 22.5 inches, rolling from the heel down the entire sole of the foot, up the ankle and through the knee; then, take backward steps of exactly 22.5 inches on tip-toe. That’s marching band. Be aware of several dozen other people on the field, some of whom are twirling flags, while hitting a particular spot to create forms and patterns. That’s marching band.
Do all this while playing a complicated, 7 1/2-minute piece of music — matching notes to steps — and making it sound good. Or, in the case of the color guard, telling the story of the music through dance while navigating a constantly moving kaleidoscope of musicians.
Music at rest is one thing. Music in motion is quite another.
“I absolutely believe marching band is a sport,” Bruington said. “The program’s 7 1/2 minutes, and you march and then have this instrument you have to put lots of air through. It’s really tough. The school gives us a P.E. credit for marching band.”
But when can it be said that a group of students holding instruments and flags is a band? At band camp? At the uniform fitting? At the first football halftime performance? At the first competition?
Ask them when and they’ll just shrug. They were individual grains of sand until refining heat made them glass. It happened without them noticing.
# # #
This season was different, though. Respected director Josiah St. Peter went to Montrose High School after the 2009–2010 school year and Bruington, who’d been assistant band director at Delta for two years, became the director.
With St. Peter, the band had won three consecutive state championships and multiple other awards. Bruington was something of an unknown, peripheral the previous two years, and he was greeted at band camp July 28 with narrowed eyes and folded arms. Who was this guy? Did he know what he was doing? Could he be trusted?
By his own description, he’s the quintessential “band nerd.” He picked up drumsticks in sixth grade and that was it, that was love. Marching band at Central High School preceded marching band at Colorado State University, where he majored in music education.
“Just creating music is one of those things that has higher value,” he said. “It’s the performing side of it I love. I’m not competitive.”
But: “I’m extremely competitive,” said Bigley, a University of Northern Colorado graduate and alumnus of the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. “(Marching band) is a way to be competitive in the arts, so as soon as I got to high school and the competition factor was there, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
So, yin and yang were in charge of the band.
In late spring, after poring over dozens of musical scores, they chose music for a rhythmic, primal program called “Native Rituals,” which was divided into Sun Dance, Rain Dance and War Dance. They sent the music to Creative Solutions, an Idaho company that designs marching band routines, and by the July 28–31 band camp in Paonia they had a complete program for the students to begin learning.
If the students were willing to learn.
# # #
“We didn’t trust him at first,” drum major Kaci O’Brien admitted of Bruington. “We didn’t really know him, and it was hard losing St. Peter.”
So, about 80 students descended on the Delta High School band room July 28, a collage of blushes (freshmen), bravado (sophomores), swagger (juniors) and cool (seniors). In the group was the girl who’d be named homecoming queen and the captain of the cross country team, a handful of straight-A students, the future Wynton Marsalis, a loud-mouth, several smart alecks and a sousaphone den mother.
Reservations back-burnered for the moment, they boarded buses and disembarked in Paonia for 3 1/2 days of “first count, you should be here; second count, you should be here ...” Every member of the band and color guard had to learn where they should be and what they should be doing through every second, every note of the almost eight-minute program.
Measure by measure, they played, then marched, then played and marched in 4/4 time. The heat was unreal. They guzzled water and established a pattern of practice that would carry them through summer and beyond, including the first-day-of-school-eve practice on Aug. 24.
“Let’s go, guys, you’re late!” Bruington hollered that night, standing in the middle of the football field and eyeballing the stragglers wandering into position. “This is not what state champions do, starting seven minutes late!”
By now, they were used to forming lines and warming up. They knew the lingo.
“Mark time lock lock plus one forward,” Bruington told them. “How many steps forward are you taking?”
“Good. Please do not be the one who messes up.”
Trailing long shadows in the setting sun and fading heat, they warmed up by marching in tight squares, then got in place for “Native Rituals.” O’Brien and Josh Walker, co-drum majors, stood in place at the front of the group.
Sixteen counts at a time, they inched through the first movement.
“Get those horns up, people! I hear about three people playing over the top of you. Get some air through those horns!”
“Nice hustle, Brittany!”
“Devin, you have to make your spot if we’re dressing to you!”
“Guys, the only way to fix this is muscle memory. Do it over and over and over again so your feet know what to do.”
So over and over and over they did it. One, two, instruments up. Again. One, two, instruments up. Again. And again. And again.
# # #
Which isn’t to say it’s not fun. They’re teenagers. They wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.
“Just the marching part of it seemed fun,” said junior Robben Albee, 15, an alto saxophone player, of why he joined. “It’s kind of hard and you get overwhelmed, but I love it.”
“Cool movements,” added freshman Juan Gonzalez, 14, a tenor saxophone player.
“And everyone in band’s friendly, too,” Albee finished.
“This is a family, for all the good that entails, and all the bad that entails,” Bruington said.
There is laughter that careens toward cackling. There are pouting fits. There are pranks. There are couples who drift together and crash apart. There is gossip and innuendo. There are group grooves in the bleachers during football games. There are tears and hurt feelings. There are hugs. There are band room confessionals. There are group prayers. There are meandering stories that don’t necessarily go anywhere.
Overheard at the Sept. 7 practice: “One time, my brother-in-law caught a fly in between his fingers and he almost put it in my cousin’s mouth. Serious.”
At the Sept. 18 practice: (two girls sharing a water bottle) “You should not be chewing gum right now, young lady.”
“I’m not. I just put on ChapStick.”
“Ew. I can taste your ChapStick.”
At their Sept. 24 homecoming game: “Remember, for Halloween I’m going to be an ionic bond, so you’ll be covalent.” And, “The band wedgie! Yay!”
And on and on. Sophomore Jake Johnson, 15, an exceptional trumpet player, is genuinely mystified by the whole “band nerd” stereotype: “We’re probably the most cool kids in school.”
# # #
At some point, they realized they trusted Bruington and, more importantly, they trusted each other to work hard and do their best. Every day at last-period practice, every Tuesday night for two hours out on the football field they went over and over and over every movement, every step, every note.
Standing still, the music always sounded excellent, but adding movement added the possibility for squeaks, for blaring wrong notes, for wavy and uneven sound. They knew when they’d messed up. They tried again.
The Oct. 2 Colorado West Marching Invitational at Stocker Stadium was their first competition of the season, and they did OK. Not mind-blowing, and they didn’t win (though, they were competing against bands in bigger classes). But once off the field after performing, Bruington enthused, “You guys did awesome! I’m so proud of you, you have no idea. The marching looked great, the sound is coming. Once we lock those in, we’re going to be unstoppable.”
Back to the home field and the do it again, do it again, do it again that polishes rough spots. By the Oct. 14 Colorado Bandmasters Association (CBA) qualifying event at Stocker Stadium, they were ready to win. Which they did, despite some nerve-wracking competition from an excellent Bayfield band.
“I want you coming off that field going, ‘Hell, yeah!’ ” Bruington told them right before they performed. And they did.
Once again, back to the home field. They had less than two weeks to prepare for the Oct. 25 state competition. They added a few more visual flourishes and, at the Oct. 19 night practice, rehearsed taking a single backward step six times in a row.
After a full practice the night of Oct. 21, they returned to the band room and gathered in a big circle. The 20 seniors sat in the middle, each with a lit candle. One by one, they stood and shared their favorite memories of marching band.
McKaelynn Becker, 17, talked about learning to love music, O’Brien talked about being the low brass section leader her sophomore year. Others recalled practices, and winning state, and finding a haven and a home in marching band.
Then, they blew out their candles. But the underclassmen in the circle surrounding them rose and re-lit them, a vow to give everything they had in pursuit of the band’s goals.
During their last practice the Saturday before state, the clouds threatened rain and the students alternated between squirrely and laser-focused. At the end of it, tired and sweaty, they clustered around Bruington and Bigley.
“When you leave that field Monday,” Bruington said, “you should come off it going, ‘I have no idea what I could do differently.’ If God were to come down and go, ‘Hello, would you like to do that again?’ you’d say, ‘No, thanks.’
“We are fighting for a championship. We are fighting for the No. 1 spot. This is where the rubber hits the road. If we don’t get it, are we going to be sad? Absolutely. But you’re going to say, ‘I don’t know what I could have done differently.’ ”
# # #
The Monday morning of state, a deluge of Noah-and-the-ark proportions hit Grand Junction. In Delta, a steamy band room filled with nail-biting, jostling teenagers got the bad news that their 8:45 a.m. departure time was pushed back two hours.
“You’ll have to go to class,” Bruington told them.
“What?” wailed Becker. “I didn’t even bring my books!”
“And we have to warn you, this might mean you only get to perform once instead of twice,” Bigley added.
WHAT?!? They trudged to class in a bewildered fog, the band parent-provided breakfast burritos heavy in their stomachs.
A Facebook status was surreptitiously updated: “Rain, rain go away, I’ve got state to win today.”
At 10:45 a.m., they piled into two school buses and made the trek north. On one bus, they were unnaturally quiet until Becker and a few other seniors initiated a full program run-through consisting of “duh”: “Duh! Duh, duh duh duh duh.” Each student added his or her part, complete with crescendos.
Once at Stocker Stadium, they clambered off the buses and naturally drifted into their sections to don their black-and-green uniforms. The drummers had all corn-rowed their hair. The ensemble, or pit, players were joking and shoving, as usual. The color guard members were painting each others’ faces. The trumpets were Zen masters, the clarinetists (all girls) were holding onto each other for dear life.
Juan Gonzales chewed his thumbnail. Clare James, 17, gripped her drumsticks in white-knuckled hands. Dustin Houghton, 17, paced in small circles. John Halbert, 18, rubbed invisible smudges from the bell of his sousaphone.
Band parents — the heavy-lifting, money-raising, problem-solving unsung heroes of the band — heaved xylophones from the band trailer and handed out black-feathered plumes for students to stick in their hats. Students adjusted the gauntlets on their wrists, stuck reeds in their mouths, then marched to the baseball field to stretch.
Finally, it was their turn on the practice area. In silent rows, they marched through the parking lot, past the swimming pool, toward a grassy expanse beyond Lincoln Park Barn. People called, “Good luck, Delta!” as they walked by, but they kept their eyes front.
They were the 2010 2A regional winners and the defending 2A state champions. The eight other state-qualifying 2A bands were gunning for them.
Standing in concert arcs, they began with a concert F. The clouds overhead shifted. Then they played select portions of their performance while Bigley went around tuning the brass.
Bruington brought them to silence. He told them that, because of the rain, each band would get to perform only once, rather than the usual twice. He told them to keep air moving through their horns. He reminded them they were the local band at this competition. He asked them to gather closer.
“What can I say?” he told them. “It’s been an honor and a privilege. Seniors, remember this moment right now. Remember who you are. Remember what you can do.
“I want you to go out there and give the best show you’ve ever done. Ever. There’s nothing left after today. We’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna give them a show. This is your time.”
There were small, determined nods among the 80 solemn faces.
“Let’s do this, guys.”
In formation, they marched silently to the side of the Stocker Stadium football field. Englewood was performing its James Bond-themed show.
Becker turned her back and plugged her ears. Julianna Page, 15, glanced at Englewood then at the ground then back at Englewood. Taylor Vernon, 17, shifted from foot to foot.
The color guard, with their coach, Linda Dysart, huddled together for a prayer. The ensemble players were already on the track with some band parents, ready to push their instruments into place.
And then it was time. The clouds had drifted away, leaving milky sunlight and bitter wind as the Delta High School Panther Pride Marching Band marched in rows onto the field, stopping at their individual marks, putting their instruments on the FieldTurf and looking expectantly at O’Brien and Walker.
A lone voice in the 1,000-plus crowd called, “Go, Delta!” eliciting cheers.
O’Brien’s and Walker’s arms went up. One and two and one, two, three, four. A pistol crack from the snare drums and they were going, arms outstretched left then right in time to the music, picking up their instruments and snapping them into place.
They played a remarkable show — melodic, visually interesting, the best they’ve ever played it. With a final, two-count bow at the end — they’d added that just two days before — they snapped to rigid attention and marched off the field.
Once in the parking lot, they melted into puddles of gibbering relief. It was out of their hands now.
“Was that a good show, Bigley?” Albee asked.
“Yes,” Bigley answered cautiously. “I don’t want to jinx it, but that was a good show.”
As the last 2A band to play, they returned to the side of the field almost immediately to hear the results. They clustered at the chain-link fence, between the Bayfield and Estes Park bands, vibrating with nerves.
“Hey, our Sun Dance worked!” John Halberg joked as the sun emerged from behind a puff of clouds.
The announcer began giving results with the ninth-place band down the line to fourth place, Estes Park.
“And now, we would like to announce our caption award winners!”
They sagged with frustration, then perked up and cheered at hearing, “High visual award goes to Delta High School.” Englewood won for high music and high general effect.
And then …
Hands fluttered and hearts raced.
“In third place …”
The flute players hugged each other.
“... receiving bronze medals ...”
The mellophone players stared at the field.
“... with a score of 61.90 ...”
They forgot to breathe.
“... Delta High School.”
A split-second of silence, then weak cheers. They slumped and wilted. D’Evelyn High School was announced as second place and Englewood named the 2010 2A state champions. There were tears and sighs.
But then: “Hey, it’s better than nothing.”
They shuffled back to the parking lot, to the bleachers for an unsmiling group portrait. It hurt.
“I think if we had gotten another shot…”
“Yeah, if we could have done it one more time…”
“I think we could have done a lot better…”
The impulse was to second-guess what they’d done, what they’d accomplished. There would be no immediate fix for what they were feeling, no magic words.
Bruington knew this, but reminded them anyway: “I’ll say it again: I could not be more proud of you. What you accomplished is just phenomenal. You worked hard all season and you have every reason to hold your heads up high. I’m so proud of you.”
Then all hands in for a one, two, three cheer of, “Pride!” and “We are many, we are one!”
They are many, they are one. They are the Delta High School Panther Pride Marching Band.