What it takes to make a high school marching band show
Aug 16, 2023, 10:51 AM
(American Fork High School Marching Band/Facebook)
SALT LAKE CITY — High school marching band students spend about 2,600 hours preparing their fall competition show. Those hours are meant to enrich students’ lives beyond developing their musical skills.
Orien Landis, the band director at American Fork High School said the activity provides numerous benefits for students, such as teaching them valuable life skills and helping them build lasting connections with their peers.
On average, according to Landis, the American Fork High School Marching Band’s students spend about 10 hours per week in rehearsals once school starts. In the summer, the schedule varies, but students are still hard at work.
“We have three solid weeks of what we would call camp,” he said. “[During camp,] the students are rehearsing from seven to four every day, and then a few hours in the morning on a couple of different weeks.”
This schedule is typical for the marching bands across the state.
John Miller, the marching band chair and coordinator for the Utah Music Educators Association, UMEA, said that during the school year, most bands have a three-day-per-week rehearsal schedule.
Most bands rehearse outside of normal school hours, according to Miller. During band camp and cleaning camps, many bands will rehearse all day long. During these days, students learn a lot of their music and drill.
Drill is the movement around the field that includes a set of “precise pinpoint spots on that particular field,” according to Landis.
“All the bands in Utah are just finishing up band camp,” said Miller. During camp, students focus on learning their fall competition show, and their directors and band staff guide them through the process.
Dana Slabaugh, the percussion director at American Fork High School, said that rehearsals last for about six months. The bands participate in parades during the summer months, and in the fall they compete.
Preparing a show
“When people see the finished product that we have for either a halftime show or at a competition… what they’re seeing is a product that was planned a year in advance,” said Landis.
At the end of the marching band season, directors and their show’s design team may already be planning the next one.
Additionally, Miller said that marching bands are expensive to run, but many school districts have become more willing due to the benefits. Utah County is a region with a large focus on the activity, and Alpine School District has really supported it.
Most, if not all, rehearsal time takes place outside of school hours. During these rehearsals, the instructional staff helps the students learn and refine their skills and their fall competition show.
Miller said “It’s a time commitment,” and often students will get together outside of rehearsal to work things with their section.
“The percussion seems to work more than any of them,” said Miller. “They just have so much to deal with, and the color guard works like crazy.”
Differences between each program
Depending on the size of the marching band, the size of the show’s design team may vary. Landis said he used to be the band director at Tooele High School, which has a much smaller marching band than American Fork High School does.
“We didn’t have the ability to be able to start planning things out way in advance,” he said, adding that the work had to be done by a much smaller team.
“I had a percussion arranger and I picked all the music and I designed the show and with my drill writer and percussion arranger, and, you know, it’s kind of like how we did it everything.”
Landis said they had about six months of planning for shows, opposed to the usual year. Tooele High School Marching Band had around 60 students when he was the director.
American Fork High School has a large marching band and is well-known across the state. The band has roughly 220 members. Their program hires several writers to prepare all the elements of the show for the students each season.
Who judges a show?
Marching bands of all sizes are eligible for the fall competition circuit. During the competition season, high school marching band students will perform their show for judges, who will give them recorded feedback.
According to Miller, there are six competitions that bands can participate in before state finals, which are held in St. George, Utah each year. The competitions are held during the autumn months, between September and early November.
Participating marching bands have the option to perform for a score, or they can opt to play in an exhibition. If a marching band chooses to perform in an exhibition, it will still receive comments from the judges, however, it will not be given a final score, according to the UMEA Marching Band Policy Manual.
The competitions are judged by music education professionals from across the country, allowing students and their band directors to gain different perspectives.
According to Miller, UMEA made a decision about 20 years ago that it would not hire judges from within the state of Utah.
“We wanted to keep it purely as clean as we possibly could, so we decided to do it all out of state,” said Miller.
The judges are hired to focus on one category, and they are given a set of criteria to work with.
Miller said that UMEA established this criteria based upon those of Bands of America and the Western Band Association. Both are leading music education organizations.
Last year, 50 high school marching bands competed.
“Last year… we marched 4,845 kids,” said Miller. “That includes two or three out-of-state bands.”
Slabaugh said that marching band teaches students to keep trying, and not to give up on tasks that are difficult.
“It’s a skill that you can use for the rest of your life in a lot of different ways,” said Slabaugh. “Like, just because you’re not good at it now, you may have to just go at it and go at it and go at it. But eventually, you’ll get good at stuff.”
Students learn skills such as leadership, hard work and dedication. They will take these skills with them for the rest of their lives, according to the band directors.
“They have to be leaders and work together on a team that has 220 people on it… It’s a team where everybody’s the quarterback,” said Landis. “If one person isn’t achieving to a level that everybody else is, then that’s a problem [because] we can’t score as well, or we can’t achieve with the kind of success that we want to.”
Miller said studies have shown that marching band has a profound benefit on students’ physical development. He added that nowadays, students are faced with a lot of emotional issues and stress. Marching band has helped many students cope.
“It can save people’s lives. It really can… So it’s just an amazing, amazing program,” said Miller.
Spectators can visit UMEA’s website to view the upcoming high school marching band competition schedule. At the time of writing, it has not yet been published as performance times are being finalized.