MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- In the final seconds before taking the field, the squad heard these words from the coach: "Do what you know how to do."
After the competition, they gathered around for a short talk. "That was an excellent, excellent performance," the coach said. "It was not perfect by any means, but it was great."
And with that, the team members packed up their tubas, flutes, trumpets and drumsticks for another day.
At first blush, high school football teams and marching bands don't have much in common other than 100 yards of lined, green grass on Friday nights. If you've seen a halftime show or a parade, you think you've seen a band.
But there is more. It's the secret life of marching bands.
They meet and compete on a weekend circuit that has the look of championship athletic competition, with a few major differences: 1) there is no booing; 2) everybody goes home smiling; 3) publicity and recognition are minimal.
And that's too bad, because marching band is one of the many out-of-the-classroom activities that can make high school so memorable, so sweet.
When bands gather for field shows, the stadiums usually are overflowing with people (mostly band parents). The bands are grouped into two or three divisions -- depending on the size of the school, the size of the band and its experience level -- and receive scores from judges in categories such as general effect, music execution, marching and maneuvering, percussion and color guard.
The scores are totaled, team standings are announced and trophies distributed.
"It's very much like a sport, with one exception," said Bill Sucha, director of the Marching Knights of Irondale High School in New Brighton. "In band, no one can do anyone else's job. If a quarterback is having a bad day, you can put in another quarterback. We have no substitutions."
And everyone is a first-string member of the varsity. At Irondale, one of Minnesota's traditional band powerhouses, 40 percent of this year's musicians are ninth-graders. The Marching Knights, 140 strong, were champions of the Class AAA division at the Champlin Park Rebel Classic on Sept. 13. That competition attracted 18 bands, large and small, from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas.
Rehearsals for Irondale's 2003 show, which is based on George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," began way back in early May. The band took five weeks off after school let out, then resumed in July. (Football teams began practicing in mid-August.)
"The kids' work ethic is remarkable," said Sucha, whose band rehearsed for seven hours before boarding buses to Champlin Park for a recent evening performance. Once the competition begins, there is no more coaching and there are no timeouts. Whether a drummer drops a stick or a color guard member fails to catch a spinning rifle -- no, they are not real rifles -- the show must go on.
"We start with nothing, and we put so much into our show," said Irondale senior drum major Kevin Whalen. "We sweat, we bleed, and believe it or not, people cry over this."
Field shows combine elements of military precision, dance, Broadway theater and slapstick comedy. Among this year's themes are "The Rise and Fall of Rome" (South St. Paul), "Ireland: Of Legend and Lore (Coon Rapids), and "Moulin Rouge" (Eastview, in Apple Valley).
At the Champlin Park event, Dowling Catholic of West Des Moines, Iowa, marched around several 12-foot-high Roman columns during its show, which, according to the program notes, "depicts the struggle of Christians against persecution from history's tyranny." In the finale, a giant white cross was raised on the 50-yard line.
Rosemount High School's 2003 theme is a bit more lighthearted. The music is derived from "Cirque Du Soleil" and the performance includes giant yellow puzzle pieces, some costume trickery and a flash of unabashed, un-band-like dancing by all 157 musicians. Rosemount received the "Crowd Pleaser" award at the Rebel Classic.
(Rosemount band director Steve Olson makes it a point to watch the Eastview band perform. He isn't scouting the competition; his daughter, Kendra, is an Eastview drum major.)
The Grand Rapids band uses plastic pipe to erect a geodesic dome during its show. The band from Marshall includes 15 girls wearing shaggy "Medusa" wigs. The Ankeny (Iowa) Marching Hawks use their knuckles to play washboards during their show, which is based on Civil War-era music.
Parents make marching bands go. Volunteer moms and dads from each school pull wagon trains of percussion equipment on and off the field, while parents from the host schools sell tickets, direct traffic, handle crowd control and dozens of other tasks.
At Champlin Park, the available souvenirs included a T-shirt that read, "Band Geek ... and proud of it!"
Whalen, the Irondale drum major (who also is a varsity baseball player), said, "We get a little bit of a bad rap. People will call us dweebs, dorks, geeks, all that good stuff. But we work really hard at this and we are proud of what we accomplish."
Loud and proud. Rock on, band geeks.
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