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A Gift from the Band
We practice every day, sweating like mad, and tripping over our own feet from exhaustion. Two hours per session, eight hours a week, not including game day. We learn the moves, memorize the music, ingrain the steps into our heads so deeply that they become muscle memory, like writing three-letter words over and over again.
There are the trumpets and the clarinets, who battle for supremacy in numbers. The flutes stay in third, waiting patiently for their chance to jump into the fray. And there are the saxophones, the class clowns of the marching band, who screw around with each other when they think no one’s looking. The trombones and the baritones with their stupid but surprisingly funny jokes hang out in the back corner of the band room. The percussionists will pound on anything stationary, just for the sake of “practice.”
And then there’s me, my section. We call them mellophones. “Trumpets on steroids,” if you will. They have bells the size of dinner plates, and sound like French horns, but louder, and more obnoxious when played so. I’ve been playing the French horn—our Concert season instruments—for five years now, the Mello for three. Some people are in the band for the friends, or the grade, or the honors diploma, but me? I’m in it for the music.
There’s nothing quite like performing for a football crowd. There’s nothing quite like going to a contest and getting a standing ovation. It’s like an adrenaline high. I love the feeling of someone cheering for us, the feeling of giving someone shivers down their spine.
But guess what? It takes a lot of work.
Every Friday, for three months straight, we leave school at two forty-five PM, and head home, only to return again at about four-thirty. We’re all dressed in the same clothes: gray shirts emblazoned with the school mascot, and horrible, baggy black shorts. These aren’t our performance uniforms, because we have an hour’s worth of practice before pregame starts at seven.
We march over to the football stadium on a percussion cadence. It’s not too far away, only on the other end of the school, but it’s long enough to get in a few Break-It-Down dances before we reach the gates, which, half the time, we have to go around because they’re locked.
Once inside, astro-turf immediately teleports itself into our shoes. It must, because you don’t even have to step onto the green, plastic grass before you feel the tiny bits of rubber digging uncomfortably into your heels.
We line up at the Away end of the field, and get into our pregame formation for stretches. Yeah, even band geeks need to get into shape sometimes. When it’s really hot, we’ll sing Christmas carols. Sarcasm can be a powerful force when used for good, after all.
Finally, the field commanders—the ones who conduct—finish us out, and sprint over at top speed to their stands. They climb up, and the band director gives the one in the middle the tempo on the Dr. Beat, an enormous metronome program that comes out of a long-range speaker across from the home stands. Every practice, we all think the same thing:
“Maybe this time it’ll fall over and break!”
It’s shrill and piercing and murder on the ears, but I figure that since we haven’t lost the tempo too badly yet, it can’t be all that bad.
Running through our steps, we sing our parts (loudly and off-key) once while marching, and then play and march again. On the fight song, we spell inspiring words on the field, and then even more inspiring block letters on other school songs. The best performances are the ones where the band plays stand cheers during pregame, because we all have our special dances that we do while standing still. My favorite move is a classic one that, in my opinion, all Brass should know. You arch your back backwards, and then swoop forward, like you’re doing the Worm upright. Can you imagine how that looks, the entire brass section at once, their horns flashing in the stadium lights?
Anyways, so we run pregame a couple of times. Once The Director deems it acceptable, we take a water break, which involves all of the following:
Drinking water. Harder than it seems, because the water coolers are mounted on the field commanders’ stands, and you have to twist around and double over in order to reach the spout without getting drenched. But we don’t like choosing the easy way out in Marching Band.
Throwing turf at each other. It’s really funny to do this to people who are uber-ticklish, because if you can manage it when they’re not looking, they think they’re being attacked by mosquitos or sweat bees…OR they’ll catch on and be really ticked and will start throwing turf at you, which will somehow, IMPOSSIBLY find its way back into your tennis shoes. Who loves band karma?!?!
Trying to sleep by collapsing on the turf. I have not, for the life of me, been able to figure out why people think this will work. I suppose it helps if you have sunglasses, and can find a spot in the meager shade, but this is rare, and I have yet to hear of a successful attempt at sleeping on the field. Must try harder.
Once the water break has ended, we start our halftime run-throughs.
Halftime. The Show to End All Shows. The Piece de Resistance (in my defense, I take Spanish.). This year, it’s an action movie soundtrack, something that I’m sure everyone knows, and would recognize if I wrote it. It’s amazing. The first part is the familiar themes, from the most daring heroes to the dastardly-iest villains. The second is the romantic “ballad.” The third is the villains’ claim to fame, as well as the drum corps feature. And the final, fourth part, is the “End-It-With-A-Bash.”
I like the second part because it’s pretty, but if you ask me, the third part sounds the coolest. It has a lot of Low Brass moments, but when the Mellos (yes!) and trumpets come in, they sort of highlight the whole thing. It’s very rhythmic, and makes you want to do something crazy and heroic, like fight off zombies and skeletons. This is, however, difficult to do when your only weapons are musical instruments and a single long-range speaker-on-a-stick. Never mind the noticeable lack of undead pirates coming to get at you.
A good halftime show has spot-on marching, killer pictures, and music so amazing that the fortes resonate in your chest, and the pianissimos make you weep. The music has to be recognizable, but it has to mean something to the performers, because if it doesn’t, how can it ever reach the stands? A lot of people don’t realize that marching is an art, and that it takes skill, precision, timing, and utter dedication to the performance of a lifetime, even if that performance is every week. The good bands distinguish themselves from the bad because they know this. Are we a good band? Are we a bad band?
I think it changes weekly. But that’s high school, yes? Lecture over.
Once practice is finished, we get another hour of free time. Most people hang out in the school cafeteria and eat dinner. Some of the upperclassmen will go out and get food for their freshmen. Some, if they’re smart, will try and take a shower in a bathroom sink. No sense impounding sweat on more sweat.
We change into our uniforms, and take our instruments out, polishing them with a fervor that no football player can match. Everyone secretly loves the uniform suspenders, make no mistake. The band jackets are a little hot. But… we have CAPES! WE, THE MARCHING BAND, WEAR CAPES!
If you’re not having a band-geek, performance-adrenaline high by now, there’s something wrong with you.
This time, when we march down to the stadium, there’s an entirely new electricity to the air. People sitting in the top row of bleachers peek over the edge to watch us approach. Our horns flash in time to the drummers’ cadence, and our dancing would blow away even the football coach, were he not giving some inspiring speech to the school team in the locker rooms.
Entering the stadium, we go over a few stand cheers—“Temptation,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” or “Apache.” But in a few minutes, it’s time to line up for pregame. We run down to the other end of the field, and line up in parade rest. Then the field commanders call us to attention, the percussion cadence starts, and we’re off. Once all things inspiring have been spelled, we play the fight song for the school team, and then let them have the field and the glory for the time.
First and second quarters pass in a blur. They’re filled with stand cheers, yelling and screaming, cries of dismay and victory alike. I’ll never be able to understand football entirely, but I know enough to make me jump and scream when the receiver snatches the ball out of the air and makes a mad dash for the home goalposts. But then, out of nowhere, The Director, and The Assistant Director blast the metronome of death in our faces one last time to get our attention.
“All right! Halftime! Go do your thing and line up by the field.”
The mellophones, like the rest of the band, retreat behind the stands. We huddle together, just our section, putting our arms around each others’ shoulders.
I think of something to say, but keep quiet. The other leaders have this under control. “Good luck, don’t suck,” they say. “Let’s be great this time!”
I would say something else, had I found my voice.
“This is the chance of a lifetime. We’re performing, showing the world what we can do. I’m proud of this band. I’ve seen what we can do. I believe that every step will be great, every note in tune, because that is who we are. We are the marching band. There is no one quite like us in the entire school, no one who can do what it is that we do. We are unique, and if you ask me, THAT is something to be proud of.”
My heart pounding in exhilaration, we enter the field on drum taps. Even though I can hear the buzz and hum of the crowd in the home bleachers, everything seems to fall silent. My eyes fix on the field commanders, my ears on the drum core.
The haunting music seems to rise up out of the ground to my far, far right. The entrances of the mellophones and clarinets only add to the effect. Then, out of nowhere, the trumpets come soaring in, and we race across the field. There are several careful, choreographed near-collisions before the part is over, the pictures snapping into place like a dance.
I’m almost sad to play the final, earth-shattering chord. But when I raise my eyes past the silver, shining bell of my mellophone, my Thousand-Yard Stare is lost in an instant as my focus turns to the home stands. I want to pump the air in victory, but settle for a quiet smile instead.
What do I see?
A standing ovation.