Marching Beyond the Missteps

April 1, 2012
So this is what it was all about. The moment pounded into our heads by our directors for the last two months, reinforced with every whistle and drill and disdainful cry of “Go back!” The moment purchased with a week of grueling band camp, dozens of grueling practices, and lunches of what may possibly have been actual gruel. The moment of finding out what it truly meant to be a member of the marching band.

The half-time show of our first game.

We stood at the precipice of the field, shuffling around in our hot wool uniforms. The stadium lights shone into our eyes. The ground—damp from the previous day’s rain—had the texture of soggy pumpernickel. It sucked on our starchy soles with every step, leaving behind its thin saliva, its muddy residue. We were nervous and uncomfortable. My squad leader, Maddie, stood fretting.

“Zach!” She abruptly cried out. “Tell me: at what point do we turn to the right?”

“After six eights,” I responded.

“Good,” she said, and turned away. I let her faithlessness in me slide; she was understandably worried. All band camp, I had been the freshmen who had always turned the wrong way, played the wrong notes, and forgot to show up to breakfast (though that only happened once). The ugly duckling, essentially. But now was my time to fly. Now was my time to show the thousand-plus people in the crowd that I could, indeed, turn to the right when I was supposed to. Now was my time to do Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” justice. Now was...

“Zach!” Maddie’s cry interrupted my daydreaming. “What are you doing?! We’re lining up! Get over here right now!”

I looked ahead. She was already running off. The people who lined up nearest to the end zones were already in position, rigid as robots. It was go time. I jogged after her. My shoes squelched, kicking up little flecks of mud. Out of my peripherals, I saw the director, and behind him, the crowd. They were hungry for us.

This is what it was all about.

Deep inside of me, the butterflies started to pump their wings furiously. My head filled with adrenaline. I passed by row after row of band members snapping to attention. With our youth and discipline, we must have looked like some kind of ROTC unit. A musical battalion.

I finally got to my position, as did the other members of my squad. Our announcer came on the air, his voice swooning with dramatic flair.

“Ladies and gentleman, we proudly present the best band in the land, the only band that educates and entertains at the same time, the High School Marching Band!”

The crowd buzzed.

“Today we will be playing for you our Guitar Hero show, featuring tunes from the smash hit video game. So, get ready to rock, roll, rumble, and dance along to Alice Cooper’s SCHOOOOOOOOL’S OUT!”

Here it went. The director raised his whistle with the confidence and concentration of a maestro. He sounded off.

Tweet Tweet Tweet Tweet “Up!” we barked in response as our instruments snapped to our faces.

The next second was fueled entirely by reflexes. Out of the thousand or so times we had done this drill at band camp, we had grown used to not even thinking about our movements. We just went. Our instruments started to produce notes. Our knees lifted up and pushed forward. Our famous “wall of sound,” as some liked to call it, boomed forward in a big wave.

The band had awoken.

Our director sat down, satisfied. His work was done.

We kept churning, kept moving, the rhythm of the song notated by the snaps of our high-knees. One could almost hear Alice Cooper’s voice, crooning and thundering, through the blast of the trumpets. The time was coming to make that first big turn, the one after six eights and to the right. No way I was going to miss it.

Bam! There it was! Sharp as a razor! I did it, pivoting with just the right amount of oomph, slicing my mellophone through the air. I looked at my squad leader, hoping for some sort of recognition. She wasn’t looking back. I realized: we still had another three or so minutes of the song left. Any sort of compliment would have to wait until I finished the song correctly. And that’s when the anxiety set in.

I started to think too much about my actions. All band camp, I had just went, gone off of my muscle memory and practiced movements. The moment I started to consciously think about what I was to do next, everything got dark and confusing.

A turn to the left here, a turn to the rear there, wait am I supposed to mark time for eight or sixteen? Okay, clearly, it was sixteen, I started to turn but no one else moved, I covered it up well, now what is it? To the left or right? To the left, I’ll take a chance...I was right, here we go, all moving forward, we’re going to slant right soon, not now, right after this eight, okay now! Slant right successful, I’ll just look back to make sure we didn’t screw up and...


Just, wow.

We had screwed up. Big-time.

We had made that slant right a full 10 yards ahead of where we should have made it. I immediately turned to Maddie. The look in her eyes was heartbreaking. We had noticeably, severely, screwed up. The band had already started to push toward the home stands, and we had no idea where to go. We started running, desperate to find the pocket of empty space where our squad belonged.

The humiliation set in. My face flushed with embarrassment as I ran around the band. I—no, we—must have looked like such fools. Yet the sophomore in my squad, Kaila, saved us. She saw the opening, she dived in, and she yelled for us to follow. I felt like a fighter pilot, ducking and dodging trombone traps, narrowly evading walls of tubas, eventually screaming in to a crash-landing near the piccolos.

We were back in line. We were back in line! All that was left to do was do one last to the rear, slant right again, and turn to the home stands. That was it. The first drill—finished.

I was out of breath. I immediately looked at our director—if he had seen, it would be all over. His eyes would be smoldering, smoke would be coming out of his nose...okay, maybe not that dramatic. But he would be disappointed in us, and after all he had done for us, we didn’t want to let him down.

But he wasn’t disappointed. He was celebrating. He was cheering as loudly as the crowd was, standing on top of his chair and pumping his fist. I guess he hadn’t seen, or if he did, he didn’t care. He was busy reveling in how good our band had been as a whole.

We finished out the rest of the drills with no conspicuous mistakes. At the end of the show, our squad leader told us she was proud of all of us, even with the error that had occurred. She said the last three drills had gone so well that nobody would even remember our blunder.

After we had gotten off the field and the other band had went, our director gathered us up.

“You know,” he started. “I really want to say how proud I am of you guys. Sure, there were a few hiccups here and there, but overall, you all did a fantastic job. Someone came up to me while you guys were performing and asked me, ‘What are you going to be doing the rest of the season if your first show is this amazing?’ I told him, ‘It’s only going to get better.’ And it is. Now, take your hats and gloves off. As per custom, you have the third quarter off. Enjoy it—you deserved it. Be back before the clock hits zero!”

As I went into the stands and saw my family, my friends and my family friends, they all had nothing but praise. I started to realize that the mistake our squad had made might not have been as noticeable as we thought it was. People cared more about how good we were as a group, not our individual errors.

From that first game, I learned something monumental—how easy it is to move on past a mistake. I know now that the only people who cared that much about our error was our squad itself. Everyone else—my parents, my band directors, even my peers—remembered the positives of the show, not the negatives.

Our football team won that day, and our band kicked butt. The fumbles and the errors are forgiven in the wake of a victory. The only person who would give me a tough time about my squad’s mistake would be me. And I don’t want to do that. I want to be celebrating the victory with my team and my band.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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