November 12, 2009
The kids in the Marian Catholic band look as if they're about to collapse.
They came to class at 7:45 a.m., performed a full-dress show in the afternoon and took a jerky, four-hour ride bound for Indianapolis in crowded school buses after dark.
At 10 p.m., they're wondering when they'll get to turn in for the night -- not in a luxury hotel, or even a shabby one, but on the floor at Center Grove Middle School Central in Greenwood, Ind., a half-hour south of Indy. No beds, no cable, no room service.
Unfortunately, Greg Bimm, band director at Marian Catholic High School, calls a rehearsal. Though the school's marching band recently pulled off an improbable win at the state championship, the students are about to face off against 29 ensembles from Arkansas to Ohio in regional competition.
For Marian, this will be a kind of dry run for the ultimate event in the fiercely competitive world of marching bands: the upcoming Grand National Championships, where they are to perform Friday. Marian has won seven times -- no other band comes close -- but it hasn't taken the top honor since 2000. So the Marian students are about to be tested, not just by their competitors, but by the weight of their history and the vicissitudes of life on the road.
They pour into the middle school's gymnasium -- which, in a couple of hours, will become makeshift sleeping quarters for the girls -- and begin stretching and warming up. The horns echo like crazy in the wide-open gym; the drum corps unleashes thunder; the color guard tosses its flags in the air, creating a near-constant whoosh.
As the instrumentalists practice, they march softly in place.
While the students practice, Bimm studies his score and his assistants prowl the floor, hunting for errant steps and out-of-tune pitches, and something more.
"It's about how much of your soul you're putting into each note," says Bimm, imploring the students from high in the bleachers.
Though the competition doesn't officially start until the next day, the kids know the contest already has begun.
"At these moments, that's where true bands are made," says senior Jordan Billups, 18, a burly alto saxophonist. "Exhaustion might be a body thing, but tired is a state of mind. ...
"You put that aside, you stop being a high school student and become a performer. That's what makes a championship band."
Outside the school, the Marian road crew, staffed entirely by parents and other volunteers, unloads three rental trucks stuffed with more than 1,000 pieces of luggage for 240-plus band members, from air mattresses to sousaphones.
"It's like Napoleon invading Russia," says Gary Vander Hye, one of the parents hauling the load.
After an hour-and-a-half, Bimm mercifully lets the kids go to sleep, but for the boys, at least, there will be no peace. After they crawl into sleeping bags and flop onto inflatable mattresses scattered on another floor of the school, a security alarm in their wing of the building shatters the silence. Every hour. Five times to daylight.
So much for that night of sleep. And the hard part is yet to come.
A musical obsessionWhy do they do it? Why do high schoolers who could be playing video games or loading up their iPods spend their days and nights trying to master the peculiar art of playing Stravinsky and Bartok while marching in circuitous patterns on a football field?
"The emotion you get performing on that field you can't get anywhere else in life," says senior Kathryn Wolske, 17, a commanding figure who leads the clarinet section. "It's such a high. Where else are you going to find that?"
Says senior Briana Engelbert, 18, the band's hard-driving president: "It's healing. Music does a lot for you."
Take it away, even briefly, and pain ensues. When Darius Lang, 16, a brawny tuba player, recently injured himself on the field and was sidelined on crutches, "It hurt so bad," he says, not referring to his wounded ankle. "Even watching practice, I had to put my headphones on my ears -- I couldn't bear to listen."
Marian's music and marching, and even the grueling practices, have a grip on these youngsters.
"I'm not going to go into marching band in college, because I know it will never be the same," says Billups, the alto saxophonist, echoing a sentiment expressed by many peers.
Friends looking in from the outside don't understand music without hip-hop beats and rap lyrics. They don't get the fancy uniforms, or why text messages go unanswered for hours, parties unattended, the whole thing.
"Rap, hip-hop, dance music -- we all listen to the same stuff," says Wolske. "But they don't find the emotions we do in this music."
'Here, you become connected'Perhaps no one believes more deeply in this band than those who struggle to participate, despite serious illness.
Alana Carr, a petite, 15-year-old flutist, had a liver, small bowel and pancreas transplant when she was 4. She has suffered nerve damage that necessitated surgeries on her legs.
So this season, she can't march -- ankles are too weak. Instead, she works in the band's electronics crew on the sidelines, dressed in full black-and-gold regalia during competitions, while hundreds of others get to take the field.
Despite these restrictions, being a part of the band is "life changing," she says. Before marching band, "I always kept away from everyone, to myself," Carr says. "Here, you become connected."
"I want to march really bad," she adds. "Maybe next year."
Andrew Quinlan, a 15-year-old bass drum player who developed diabetes before he was 2 years old, wears an insulin pump and has to have his blood sugar checked every 30 to 120 minutes by the band's volunteer medical personnel.
"He doesn't really care about anything else than band," says Cindy Quinlan, his mom. "But at this time of the year, because of all the stress and everything that goes on with his body, it is hard. They (the medical team) need to be on him."
Indeed, throughout the competition weekend, Brian Johnson, a nurse and Marian parent who volunteers in the medical crew, makes a game of checking Andrew Quinlan's blood sugar.
"Who can guess Drew's number?" Johnson shouts out to a group of boys putting on their uniforms.
"At first, when I used to check Drew's blood, he'd want to do it privately, quietly. 'Don't let the kids see,' he'd say," Johnson recalls.
"And I said, 'To heck with that. Let's be open. Let the kids learn something. ... Now they kind of protect him."
A surprising resultThe Marian Catholic High School marching band takes the field Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis (where the NFL's Colts play) for the preliminary round of the regionals and performs its complex show, "The Nightingale: A Parable of Gilded Cages." Though everyone's a little nervous, or at least adrenaline-charged, "You let the music take you," says Engelbert, the band president.
The piece unfolds more beautifully than ever.
"If there are 10 bands that are better than that, I want to see it," assistant band director Bobby Lambert tells the exhilarated players in the parking lot outside the stadium, in effect predicting that Marian will make it into the finals.
"I feel the emergence of young people becoming artists."
The band indeed not only takes first prize in its class but also highest honors in music performance, visual performance and general effect -- everything on the books.
Everyone's riding high going into the finals at night, where the top bands again perform for the judges. But when the results are announced, Marian places fourth, with Avon High School, of Avon, Ind., triumphant.
Marian's exuberance instantly turns to dismay, or something close to it. Still standing on the field, in quiet disbelief, the musicians immediately start diagnosing the problem.
"You can't make an impact if you don't push your limits," says Wolske, the lead clarinetist, disappointed in herself and her peers, notwithstanding the obstacles they've endured to get this far.
Once the band returns to its impromptu dorm, in the small hours of Sunday morning, director Bimm reminds the kids that after the Grand Nationals it all will be over. Win or lose, the performance they give in the same stadium will forever shape their memory of what happened this season, what they achieved -- or didn't.
"That really hit me hard," says senior Joe Johnson, a horn player and the son of medical volunteer Brian Johnson.
He and his friends soon will find out what kind of artists they are, and whether they finally can nail this show to Bimm's satisfaction -- and their own.
Marching to glory
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