Socially inept, athletically challenged, unattractive, klutzy, brace-faced, nerdy geeks with instrument fetishes, overalls and funny hats. This is the typical image that comes to mind when the words "marching band" are mentioned.
Pop culture has the unequivocal ability to reduce an entire world into one compact mental picture. Proof of this point is the stereotypical band geek portrayal as well as the misunderstood arena of marching bands and drum corps. Since 1999 these things have been associated with a girl who did something decidedly naughty with her flute during an extended rehearsal. Then came the film Drumline and the image of marching bands became even more skewed. All this begs the question: What actually does happen at band camp?
Calgary is host to the largest marching community in Canada. The city rarely associated with anything but cowboys and its 1988 Olympic glory days attracts teens and young adults from all over Alberta who want to blow their instruments and tap things on a weekly basis. Membership is drawn from many different demographics and social groups, creating a formidable mish-mash of good-looking kids and not so good-looking kids, jocks, nerds, those with and without social skills, along with many current and past victims of orthodontia, making it like any other typical group of people.
Despite its surprising diversity though, band is an odd social microcosm, a secret society outsiders rarely understand. The media's portrayal of the band world has done an amazingly good job of isolating it from conventional culture with such works as the American Pie movies and Drumline. Lyrics like, "she is prom queen, I'm in the marching band" from Saving Jane's "Girl Next Door" boldly highlight the intended dichotomy of these two stereo-
types. Band geeks also tend to segregate themselves because of the eclectic nature of their group. Why though, do band geeks endure mainstream societal embarrassment and figurative social suicide to be a part of this activity?
To its members, a marching ensemble is not simply a place to toot their own horns. It's a social group, a musical release, a safe haven, a stage, a workout regimen, a team, a school of thought, a family and a dating service. There is even a certain amount of elitism in marching band racks, stemming from the knowledge they are a part of something the general public cannot and probably will not ever do.
"People do things in band that they would never do anywhere else, that's for sure," says Tanis Fioritti, a drum major with the Calgary Stampede Showband and music minor at the University of Calgary. "You know you'll be accepted pretty much no matter what."
Band is more than a safe haven for young adults. The skills learned in a marching band actually help pump out more self-aware, well-rounded individuals who can do more than just walk while playing an instrument.
"Members are being held accountable on an individual basis," says Ian Hale, an accomplished percussionist and clinician in many musical disciplines. "These kids are learning skills that apply to a whole variety of things in life. They have more organization about themselves in all aspects of their lives."
While most stereotypes about marching band should be dispelled, some still apply on occasion. There are often few-sometimes, far too few-degrees of romantic separation between a lot of the members. There are cliques, dumb inside
jokes, the one drummer who's not quite with it, the melodramatic flautist and the cocky trumpet player. Perhaps it's because of these lingering stereotypes that band is often misunderstood in its purpose as an art form by the general public and other musicians alike.
"I would describe it as an art and a sport," explains Dwayne Engh, director of bands for Stampede Showband. "It is as physically demanding as dancing or football while still trying to create an artistic impression/message. It is a concert band that moves formation and dancers that also spin/toss various props. It is like combining the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra with Alberta Ballet-having everyone moving and/or dancing the entire time while either spinning something or playing a musical instrument."
Many members are very serious about band as a creative outlet for them and their peers. A lot of emphasis is placed on the importance of the performance and how much effort is put into it.
"Band is where I go to create something beautiful with other people," says Rob Siewert, a contra player in Stampede Showband. "I'm still there because I want to bring tears to people's eyes again. I want to see a crowd of people jump to their feet and cheer. I want to be able to know that me and my friends are responsible for giving people a huge emotional high."
Marching ensembles in Calgary begin their rehearsal and performance season in early September and participate in weekly practices and a band camp one weekend per month with many performances interjecting. This may sound like a lot of time devoted to learning to walk around while playing a corny band version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," but there's actually a lot more to it.
During a 10 to 11 month season, a marching ensemble takes on learning around four parade songs, a 15-minute routine called a field show where the band runs around a football field making huge connect-the-dot pictures for the pleasure of judges and band parents alike, a few extra songs for standstill performances, a mass band piece to play with other ensembles, several concert style pieces to play at festivals and around 10 choir songs. On top of all this, It's not uncommon for a band to spend hours learning how to properly turn a corner during a parade. Seriously.
A band's field show is its largest project of the year. Months upon months are taken deciding on a concept, music able to relate the concept to audiences and appropriate choreography to magnify the meaning of the music in a visual medium. The music finally chosen is altered by the band's staff to best fit the show, which adds additional time to the production.
Blocking out the show takes place over the course of several months. Each member of the band is given a set of coordinates corresponding to a grid created on a football field. The grid is divided by five-yard increments. For a section of music lasting two minutes, there can be upwards of 50 different spots on the field a member has to travel to.
Contrary to popular belief, marching a field show is hard. It takes a surprising amount of athletic prowess to jazz run across a field with a 40-pound instrument while still playing all the right notes at a fast tempo for 15 minutes.
"Marching band was the hardest thing I was ever a part of," says Crystal MacLean, a former Stampede Showband member and U of C music major. "You have to be multitasking, playing and remembering your dots. I marched the Pasadena Parade too, which was like five and a half miles."
The year and all the hard work culminates in a tour to some exotic and exciting place like Sandwich, Illinois. Joking aside, many Calgary ensembles have had the chance to travel to Germany, Korea, Japan, England, California and elsewhere in the last five years to perform and compete with other marching bands from around the world.
"Going on a big travel year is awesome," says Fioritti. "It makes everything really feel like it's worth all the work."
Devoting one's life to weekly rehearsals, band camps at least one weekend a month, multiple performances, and tours in the summer requires an endless amount of commitment. Members also need to
realize they are involved in something that isn't and may never be considered cool by non-band friends. For many though, it stops being a chore or something out of the ordinary and is simply a way of life. The world of band can be all-consuming and it's often too late to release it after spending the last six years telling other friends you can't come out and play because you have rehearsal.
Wait. Other friends? What other friends?