School bands practice to be pitch perfect

Logan Atkins is a Marching Sheep redemption story.

As a freshman at Jamestown High School in 2013, Atkins received the dubious honor of being named that year’s “Marching Sheep” — an annual award given to a member of the school marching band who meanders more than he marches.

“I just kind of wandered,” Atkins said, describing his freshman self.

“There is always a freshman who, no matter how many times you tell him where to go, he just finds his own piece of grass,” explained Jamestown Drum Major Jenna Alcorn.

But this year, Atkins was one of the best marchers in the country. He was named to the U.S. Army All American Marching Band and will perform with 124 other students from across the country at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7.

Atkins’ evolution from sheep to stud speaks to his dedication to marching band, a pursuit that is often a mystery to outsiders. Those who have never spent their August afternoons standing at attention in a baking parking lot or their Friday nights marching through mud often have one question: Why?

It may be a stretch to call marching band a noble calling. But unlike their peers playing football or field hockey, thoughts of individual glory are unlikely.

There are no stars in marching band.

Regardless, each fall several hundred students in Williamsburg-James City County spend hundreds of hours lugging instruments through regimented steps in pursuit of group perfection.

Next Wednesday, Lafayette, Warhill and Jamestown will all perform at the Williamsburg-James City County Band Night. Each school’s marching band will perform a set they have been working on since August. And on Oct. 27, the bands will perform at the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association marching band assessments.

The students are preparing for their final performances of the season.

Striving for superiority

The seniors at Lafayette have a few weeks remaining in their marching band careers, and the goal is clear: A superior ranking at the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association marching band assessments on Oct. 27.

“We haven’t been a superior band in years past,” said Jesse Katz, 17. “We are still hoping to push down that wall. In the last four years we’ve gotten a little bit better every year.”

Several students mentioned that the last time Lafayette’s band earned a superior ranking it was during a rained-out competition and the band was judged only on sound, not marching.

“We want to get a real superior,” said Hannah Figgs, a 16-year-old drum major. “I think we have worked a lot harder this year.”

Figgs said one of the reasons for success was the dedication of Lafayette’s section leaders.

The structure of a marching band is militaristic. Each of the district’s bands rely on a structured hierarchy: from the band director, who typically stands at the highest point, to the drum majors up front who direct and keep tempo, to the section captains who lead their instrument group through warmups and provide feedback to the majors each day.

Katz said leadership in marching band is about positivity.

“You gotta establish the credibility and be friendly,” he said. “Make sure if anyone is looking discouraged you take them aside and pick them up.”

As Katz talked, LafayetteBand Director Jonathan Hargis oversaw the practice from a newly constructed band tower, built by the band’s booster club.

When a student stumbled, Hargis halted the run-through and chided him for having two left feet.

“If you learn this, you will get a girlfriend for your senior year,” Hargis said.

The students laughed. Hargis’ jokes were brought up by every student when speaking about what made Lafayette’s band unique.

“Hargis tells us jokes he says we can use later in life,” said Helena Nichols, 15.

“This morning, he told us to ‘put some purpose in our footwear’ instead of ‘pep in our step,” Figgs said.

“He has a lot of quirks, more than I can say,” Katz said.

No-nonsense affairs

Warhill Band Director Hunter Kopczynski has been dubbed “Most likely to be mistaken for a student,” said Amira Baker, a former Warhill student who volunteers with the band.

In spite of his youthful appearance, Kopczynski’s practices are no-nonsense affairs. Standing at the top of the Warhill band tower Wednesday afternoon, Kopczynski reminded the students they squandered half of their practice time the day before.

The Warhill band is 135 students strong, so halting rehearsal at an errant clarinet squeak or tuba player’s misstep requires a dedication to perfection.

The students practiced a tempo change several times, with Kopczynski stopping them a few seconds into the section each time they get it wrong.

“The tempo is determined by the space between two beats,” he said through a headset mic atop the tower. “So how many beats does it take to figure out the tempo?”

“Two,” the students called back.

Another time he stops them because the mellophones were sloppy turning a corner.

“True or false: There is a crescendo at the end,” he calls out.

“True,” most of the students called back.

“Well I’m not hearing it,” he said.

“He pushes the kids because he knows that they can do it,” said Warhill Band Booster President Ann Ohmann, watching practice on the sidelines. “He expects a lot out of them, but he is likable. They understand each other.”

Practice’s intensity, for many Warhill students, is a source of pride.

“Sometimes we will go over one section for 20 or 25 minutes,” said Drum Major Caecilia Armstrong√. “(Because of that) we are known for our sound and our music. Our marching sound is very good compared to some marching bands.”

Win competitions at practice

At Jamestown, Steve Turner is leading his 20th marching band. Having been the band director at the school since it opened in 1997, Turner has an arsenal of advice for his students.

Talk to Jamestown Drum Majors Jenna Alcorn and Andrew Handy, and you will hear the words of Turner peppering the conversation.

“You win competitions at practice; you don’t win competitions at competitions,” Alcorn said.

“You only perform at about 80 percent of what you practice, so you have to practice at 120 percent,” added Handy.

Despite his ascension through the ranks, when Handy was a freshman, he didn’t want to do marching band, but he said his father made him.

“Within the first week I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’ ” Handy said. “I saw some drum corps shows and I was like, ‘This is the best thing I have ever seen in my life.’”

Eric Handy, Andrew’s father, was a drum major himself in high school, and he said his son’s passion for band has bonded the two, giving them a common interest.

And while Eric Handy said he is grateful for the way marching band has forged the father-son relationship, he also credits it with nudging Andrew toward other relationships, namely with females.

“You look at him now, talking to the flag girls, twirling the flag, that would have never happened until he was forced in,” said Eric Handy, pointing to Andrew who was goofing around with one of the girls on color guard. “That’s one of the reasons why we encouraged him to do this.”

Joy in the tedium

Students throughout the district had different reasons for donning the plumed shakos (the tube-shaped hat), jackets and bibbed pants (which several said had the unique quality of feeling stifling in August yet threadbare in November).

“We are like a family” was the most common response from students, describing the band dynamic at each school. Several talked about leaving band camp in August knowing they had more than 100 friends going into the school year.

James Wallbank, 16, the lone male on Warhill’s Color Guard, said he enjoys the waving flags and flipping rifles because it is a unique art form. Warhill’s Brenden Berardi, 15, said his favorite part of marching band is eating Chic-fil-A before performances.

Many students talked about the feeling of accomplishment. When band camp starts in August, students do not hold instruments for the first few days. Instead, the directors teach students how to march, reteaching the basics of how to walk as a unit each year.

“It’s pretty tedious,” said Kopczynski.

By this time of the year, students have practiced the same set since August. Directors are now adding tweaks and perfecting the most complex movements, in preparation for the final performances of the season.

“We counted up the hours, and it is about 150 hours (of practice) to get that 8 minutes finished,” Turner said.

Alcorn said the end-of-year assessment carries serious weight.

“That is what all this work is for to see if we get superior or not,” she said.

But Abigail Culverhouse, a senior at Jamestown, said the magic of marching band goes beyond the friendships or the feeling of accomplishment or being dubbed superior.

“I’m going to remember the Friday night lights. Dancing and playing my instrument around these people with the same passion and excitement,” said Culverhouse. “Friday nights don’t feel right without getting into these bibs and jacket and this hat with a huge plum. There is something about it you can’t explain.”

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
75°