Blood, sweat and tunes — the rigors behind Friday night’s musical entertainment
“Find Set 26. Chip it. Red,” barks Karns City high school senior Tyler Hiles, 17. He sounds like a quarterback shouting his cadence before snapping the ball.
Tyler is the drum major, a role that acts as a field commander for the rest of the marching band. As the drum major, he is responsible for conducting the band, making sure they are in rhythm (or keeping time), and giving out orders for how to move.
Standing on top of a podium placed at midfield of the Karns Football field, Tyler has full view and command of the field.
As the last syllable leaves Tyler mouth, the nearly 70 marching band students move in a synchronous fashion, marching to a different spot on the field like soldiers lining up in formation.
“Back to white,” Tyler commands. “Band attention. Forward. March band.”
It is midway through the first week of Karns City’s band camp and the students are familiarizing themselves with the new music, new steps and new faces.
“This is the hardest work of the season,” said Amanda Walters, Karns City band director.
Marching bands from all over the county are preparing for the upcoming season with their yearly camps. Students work all day to not only learn their music, but also the steps and movements that come with preforming in front of live crowds on Friday nights.
For Slippery Rock Area School District’s drum major Carol Synder, 16, band camp is about getting back to basics and team building.
“It’s essentially when we start learning the fundamentals of what it means to be in band and what we do when you’re in band,” Carol said. “That means marching techniques, that means learning the music and being able to memorize quickly and efficiently. And it’s about having fun and creating connections.”
For most schools, like Karns City, Slippery Rock Area School District and Mars, band camp is two weeks filled with eight-hour days where students start the day off practicing their music in the section and by the afternoon come together to practice their movements.
For co-captain of the color guard and majorette at Slippery Rock Area School District Ayana Borland, 17, band camp can be a “love/hate relationship” for the participants, she said.
“We love being here because we get to come back to see all of our friends and we get to work on something together,” Ayanna said. “But at the same time, it’s a lot of sweat.”
Megan Bencic, 17, co-captain for Slippery Rock Area School District’s color guard, looks forward to showcasing her and her fellow “Rock 'N-Ettes” skill at the Butler County Band Festival later this fall, an event where area marching bands come together to preform for one another.
“The football games, especially for color guard, is kind of like our practice,” Megan said. “Each game, we’re working on getting better and improving to lead up to band fest.”
And while football games are a major focus for area marching bands, many of the bands participate in other festivals, parades and competitions throughout the season.
“Band fest is like our peak moment,” Carol said. “And this year, we have two festivals and maybe a competition we’re going to.”
The Mars marching band is considered a competitive program, which competes not just regionally, but also nationally.
David Soose, the Mars marching band director, holds practices once a week in the summer leading up to camp to make for a smooth transition and allows the band more time to focus on competitions.
“We go and compete, locally and nationally, where judges will judge our show based off our music, our visual and our general effect, and how well the students achieve at those levels,” Soose said. “And we get a score based off how well we present our programs to them.”
Each instrument presents its own set of challenges. Memorizing music and playing in tune or in tempo is just one aspect that band players have to focus on while preforming.
“Every instrument has different things that are difficult,” Walters said. “For example, the flute needs to rest on your chin, it’s hard to keep it stable. The trumpet needs to be held high, your lips get tired. Percussion is obviously heavy. Sousaphone is heavy. They all have something that makes them difficult in their own right.”
Zander Kiser, 17, is the percussionist section leader at Karns City. He plays the “quads,” a set of four mobile drums that strap around the body. The set weighs about 60 pounds compared to Zander, who weights about 140 pounds.
“I definitely feel it,” Zander said. “After I get home, I like to ice down, sometimes I take a cold shower. Rest is the primary thing that will help with soreness.”
Charliese Roudybush, 16, a tenor saxophone player for Karns City sees band camp as an artistic outlet that lets her escape and focus on her craft.
“It’s been a place that I can go and just, be.” Charliese said. “I don’t have to worry bout anything.”
As much as music is intellectually challenging, Charliese said she thinks marching band is often overlooked for how much athleticism goes into marching.
“It’s a lot more physically demanding than most people like to believe,” Charliese said.
A 2013 study by the University of Rhode Island concluded that participation in marching band resulted in a “significant improvement in the cardio respiratory fitness.”
Another study conducted by the Department of Health, Physical Education and Dance found that band members took an average of 13,987 steps during game days, which can equate to over six miles.
“The positions that you have to be in when you’re marching, going side to side, going backward, you’re using bunch of muscles in your legs and your core muscles,” Charliese said. “I don’t think people understand how many muscles that you actually use marching.”
Soose understands how demanding marching band can be to the students so he incorporates a light conditioning routine so that band members can get acclimated to preforming.
“Sometimes we do jogging to get the heart rate going,” Soose said. “Sometimes we do relay sprints, and sometimes we’ll do something as simple as yoga just to make sure the kids get stretched out.”
Along with the physical aspect, there’s also a mental aspect that goes into marching band, Soose said.
“It’s why we start off in the summertime, because it takes a long time,” Soose said. “Playing an instrument is difficult in itself, and when you add in the visual element, you have to keep your feet in time, you have to set your body at certain angles at certain points. There’s a lot of multitasking going on.”
The color guard, who perform choreographed dances and routines, also require a level physical commitment that sometimes get overlooked, said Courtney Kovick, Mars’ color guard director.
“It’s such a different skill set than you're used to,” Kovick said. “You’re combining a lot of athletic skills, like running and coordination and dancing and gymnastics. And then you have to add in the musical skills of understanding musicality and choreography and blend that together.
Band camp is not just all work and no play. Team-building is an essential part of camp, and there are activities to encourage bringing the members of the band together.
“We try to make it fun,” Walters said. “We have band parents bringing in ice cream; sometimes they get Popsicles.”
Cassie Cannon, 17, the mellophone player for the Mars marching band, is a senior this year. She said she takes her position as a leader seriously and looks forward to mentoring the younger members of the band.
“It feels like we have a new responsibility to be a good role model for the younger kids,” Cassie said. “But it’s also fun knowing that we know everything going on and we know what to expect.”
Preparing for the upcoming marching band season happens months in advance. With some schools starting almost immediately after their current season ends. Other than the schools alma mater and the “Star Spangled Banner,” each year students must learn all new music and routines.
“Each (instrument) group has a packet of music that’s probably 10 pages thick,” Walters said.
The Karns City Marching Band starting working on its routine in November.
“We go online and we look at what’s available for the appropriate difficulty level of the students and go through,” Walters said. “We want to make sure that it’s a song that we feel is musically valuable to the students and there’s something to learn from it.”
Walter and her staff also have to determine what music fits the instrumentation for students. As seniors graduate, different areas and sections lose and gain depth.
“Last year, my student that is currently playing sousaphone was on the trombone, but this year he’s doing an amazing job at sousaphone,” Walters said. “So I picked a song that had a one measure sousaphone solo in it”
Soose and his staff began their music selection in February.
“With this, you have to stay six months ahead of the game,” said Aaron Wagner, assistant director for the Mars marching band. “We would rather be a year ahead. You have to stay really far ahead.”
Wagner cam up with this year’s theme of “Oh, what tangled webs we weave.”
“We use the metaphor of the spider and it talks about lies and deceit and how lies eventually catch up with you,” Soose said.
One of the more recognizable songs that the Mars marching band will preform will be “Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac.
Even with the long hours, the hard work and the physical and metal aspects that go into performing, band camp is much more than just learning how to perform for Friday nights.
“This is a place where you make some of the best friendships and friend groups,” Charliese said.