Friday, August 14, 2015

Marching Bands Deserve Better Hoosier Support

A few days ago, The Indianapolis Star had front page story about the high school marching band competition at the State Fair. The Star website actually has several articles about the 2015 State Fair band competition (including a gallery of photos of bands performing). And that’s great.

But here’s the problem: If you search the Star website for “marching band” you will find a tiny handful of articles from the past few years. There are two articles about the 2014 and 2013 state championships; there are two articles about Carmel High School’s band playing in the Rose Parade in 2014, there are a smattering of other articles about the Bands of America competitions and about local band projects and directors, and there are bunch of articles which, on their face, don’t seem to have anything to do with marching band. By comparison, a search for “Warren Central football” (just by way of example) yields literally dozens of articles, including many about individual players. That is on top of the massive amount of pre- and post-game coverage devoted to high school football (not to mention basketball and the other sports) each week.

Now, I’m not suggesting that high school football or basketball merit less coverage than they’re getting. I really enjoy high school football games (I even sat through some in the rain and snow last fall). So let me frame things a bit differently. If you go to most American cities and pick up the sports page, how much coverage does auto racing get? With the exception of a handful of cities right around the time of a local race, I suspect that the racing coverage would be minimal. But here in Indianapolis, we get extensive race coverage much of the year. Why? Could it be because we like to consider ourselves the capitol of motorsports? Could it be because we understand and recognize the important of motorsports to our local communities, economy, and psyche? Could it be because many auto racing teams are based in Indianapolis?

Guess what? Central Indiana is also one of the capitols of the world of competitive marching bands. And yet, I suppose few Hoosiers have any awareness whatsoever of just how strong the region is when it comes to marching bands. The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest single day sporting event. But how many of you knew that Indianapolis is also host to the biggest, most important marching band competition each year (the Bands of America Grand Nationals, at which 94 bands from about 20 states competed in November 2014)? That competition has been won by Carmel (2005, 2012), Avon (2008-2010), Lawrence Central (2001, 2004), and Center Grove (1995). So of the last twenty Bands of America Grand Nationals champions, eight (40%) have been from Central Indiana! Of the twelve bands to make it to the Bands of America Grand Nationals finals in 2014, four (Avon, Carmel, Homestead, and Lawrence Township) were from Indiana, with Avon finishing third and Carmel fourth; of the 35 bands to make the 2014 semi-finals, eight were from Indiana (including Castle, Lake Central, Center Grove, and Ben Davis). And I learned, from speaking to parents of kids in bands from across the rest of the country who were in Indianapolis for the competition, that Indiana’s marching band programs are both well-known and well-respected throughout the nation-wide marching band community. Say the names “Avon” or “Carmel” to parents from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and elsewhere, and they are very familiar with the schools you’re talking about.

Now I can hear some of you saying, “Yeah, but it’s just band and besides, how many people really care?” Well, I might have been one of the people with that attitude until my son became a member of the Carmel High School Marching Greyhounds and I saw how hard he and the rest of the band really worked. Or how seriously they take their performances and the competitions. Or just how much they cared. Really cared. These kids put in extremely long days (from 10am to 9pm during the late summer “band camp”). They practice for an hour before school four days each week, after school for three hours four days each week, and all day on Saturday. They don’t even take off for Fall Break. They stay at school and practice and practice and practice. And rarely do they talk about anything other than marching band.

This isn’t the marching band that some of us may remember from our own high school days many years ago. This isn’t a few dozen kids marching in pretty lines or forming a big square while they play some John Philip Sousa march. Nope. First, many of these bands are huge. Most of the top bands in last year’s Bands of America Grand Nationals had well over 200 members. Unless I’m mistaken, that is bigger than most big school’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, track, cross country, and swimming teams … combined.

They march amidst props that parents spend seemingly endless hours designing, building, and painting. They battle inclement weather (have you ever seen what happens when you throw a flag in a 20 mile per hour wind?) and both extreme heat and extreme cold. Just imagine the degree of fatigue that you get from blowing into your brass instrument over and over or carrying drums weighing over forty pounds, hour after hour, day after day.

Moreover, these kids are playing intricate arrangements of often complicated music while marching and dancing in extremely complex patterns all to help tell a story or engender a particular emotional response from the audience. And trust me: They get an emotional response.

Unfortunately, at too many of the competitions leading up to the major finals, there are too few people in the stands. Oh, sure, most kids are represented by parents and siblings, but not enough of the communities at large come out to cheer on the kids. Given the effort and hard work they put into it, these kids and these bands deserve much, much better support from their friends and neighbors, from their communities at large, and especially from the cities and state that they represent on a national (or even international) stage.

And though you may not believe it, the marching bands have rivalries just as intense as those you’ll find on a football field or basketball court. Don’t believe me? Ask a member of the Avon marching band about Carmel. Ask a Lawrence Central parent if beating Avon in a competition is a big deal. Ask any of those bands about The Woodlands (Texas), Broken Arrow (Oklahoma), Marian Catholic (Illinois), or Tarpon Springs (Florida).

Yet most Hoosiers are oblivious to all of this. We have a reputation for packing the stands for basketball games all winter long. Many of our schools have built enormous football stadiums to support loud, raucous crowds that come out each Friday night to cheer on their football team. Our local television stations have special programs to cover the games and even send helicopters to the games! We know the names of the star quarterbacks and point guards, know which college is recruiting the speedy running back or the 7-foot tall center, and seemingly every coaching change is a major news story.

And the marching bands perform, week after week, all in virtual anonymity and obscurity.

So here is my challenge to our local newspapers and other media outlets: Please recognize the effort that these kids put into their performances. Please recognize the importance that the arts play in our communities and the lives of these kids. Please recognize that marching band is a major activity for literally thousands (tens of thousands?) of Hoosier students. Please recognize the high regard in which Indiana’s marching bands, and Central Indiana bands in particular, are held on the national stage. How? By giving these marching bands (and the kids and staff that direct them) some recognition. Don’t just wait for the state finals or Bands of America Grand Nationals to write a few hundred words. Cover these bands throughout their competition season this fall. Tell your readers about their programs, from the music to the visual designs. Give a few seconds of your newscast to show viewers a snippet of a top performance (a “play of the week” if you will…).

And if your local high school has a marching band, take some time and go watch them perform at a local competition (halftime routines are often vastly different or simply abbreviated versions of the real competition routines). And watch all of the bands that compete, not just the band from your school. The artistry that you’ll see will likely be a very pleasant surprise. Who knows, you might just become a fan.

Bring these marching bands into Hoosier homes and Hoosier hearts.

They deserve it.

Carmel High School Marching Band’s 2014 show “In the Cards” from the Bands of America Grand Nationals Finals

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