I’m With the Band: 29 Days With a Texas High School Marching Band

Courtesy of Flickr

I have known band teachers to be a particular breed of chain-smoking, middle-aged men with terrible posture, potbellies, and a certain endearing sweetness outdone only by their ability to silence a whole section of clarinets with a withering gaze. So when I walk in the Lyndon Baines Johnson High School band room, the first thing that strikes me about Don Haynes, LBJ’s head band director, is that he has a really good haircut. He also looks like he jogs ten miles and lifts weights every morning, and dresses with purpose rather than embarrassment. Yet the haircut really gets me, because I played in public school bands for over a decade toward the end of the last century, and in all of those years I never saw a band director with a decent haircut.

The band room is a familiar clutter of old musical scores, black horn cases, 1970s-era posters and a peculiar but inoffensive smell that is a cross between a tuba mouthpiece and moist plywood. Under cavernous ceilings, the band practices “Sonoran Desert Holiday” by Ron Nelson.

Don suddenly stops the brass. “Just think about what you played. Was that beautiful?” he asks.

“No way,” a trumpet player calls out, and a slight laugh ripples through the band.

“I want you to think about the Cleveland Symphony Brass. I want to express your spirit in music the way Shakespeare did in his writing,” Don says.

They begin. I am not sure if the piece evokes feelings of being on a holiday in a desert in Sonora, but they sound pretty good. Suddenly I realize that this is one of the only times that I have ever, in an American public school, heard someone ask very seriously, “Was that beautiful?”

Anyone who has ever played in band knows that when you shove fifty to a hundred kids in a cramped room and give them instruments, the potential for chaos is limitless. Yet these kids are focused, attentive even. Perhaps it is because Don exudes more warmth and charm in an hour than some college professors display in a whole semester of lectures. What is the magical equation that makes kids care very much about something — even something that requires long hours and that dreaded word, practice? Even when the bell rings, no one bolts.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It’s 4:00 in the Walmart-sized school parking lot when the band members, along with the color guard, move into their places on the asphalt as if satellite radar directs them. BJ Allen, a twenty-three-year old fresh from a two year stint as University of Texas drum major, and Travis Ancelet, the assistant director, direct the half time show run-through from the high metal podium cemented to one side of the parking lot. In their impeccable shirt and ties and wraparound sunglasses, they look like FBI agents supervising a massive bust.

Travis is the second in command around here, which translates into the fact that he has been at LBJ for ten years to Don’s twenty-six. The first day I meet him he jokes that he hasn’t had a date in four months because a being band director is like one endless weekend date. By his easy laugh I think he might be kidding, and then I wonder if there are cute band directors all over the country who are sacrificing their social lives for the demands of high school football schedules. He is the kind of guy who, if he asked for your phone number, you would be flattered. He is the kind of guy who wouldn’t ask for your phone number.

Some Misconceptions

I played in the Wind Ensemble in high school, and once a year, at Homecoming, we were forced to march. There was great resistance. Everyone whined as the put on the scratchy orange wool “Go Tigers!” sweaters that smelled like cheese curls left in a locker in 1977. I remember marching on the field with the all enthusiasm and precision of a chain gang. But that was in Minneapolis, where many high schools lack the spectacle of color guards and baton twirlers.

LBJ used to have a twirler-in-residence. I ask Travis Ancelet why this glamorous position is no longer.

“It wasn’t a problem with the twirlers, it was a problem with their mothers.” He laughs and shakes his head painfully, and I imagine a long line of overbearing mothers who secretly dream of wearing short skirts and throwing weightless silver sticks into the air.

“They wanted to live vicariously through their daughters,” he sighs. “And they wouldn’t let us forget it.”

One of my other misconceptions about marching band is that the culmination of the year is a long dull bus trip to a competition in some place like Des Moines, where you bravely play for a bunch of nearly deaf judges in the parking lot of some second-rate amusement park. That was my experience, anyway, and while the illicit fun of trying to order Mai-Tais in the HoJo tiki lounge was memorable, it seems a childish field trip compared to, say, the LBJ band’s recent two-week excursion to London and Paris.

Bill Cox, a tall, genial father in a spotless baseball cap that he seems to wear at all times, tells me that it took them several years to earn money for the trip, which resulted in nearly 300 kids dispersed on 8 planes to London.

I ask how on earth they raised the money.

Bill tells me they “do everything: silent auctions, raffles, and picking up trash from the stadium after the University of Texas Home football games.”

“Wow,” I say, “Kids are willing to pick up trash?”

“Ha. Not just the kids,” he grins. “We’re out there too on Sunday mornings, getting on our hands and knees.”

This, then, is the last misconception I have about marching band. That instead of being just an after-school “activity” that might rack up extracurricular points on a college application, that this is a dirty, sweaty, joint effort that requires a lot of grunt work and a great deal of patience.

“I know it’s a cliché,” Don Haynes sighs in his office, where the walls are choked with old pictures of the bands he has directed in his 26 years at LBJ. “But we really are a family. The band has a life of its own.”

While it seems natural that many students use the word “family” to describe the band, it is the parents who surprise me more. The parent Booster Club is an official tax-exempt organization with its own constitution; the members seem nearly as tight-knit as the band itself. Take, for instance, Gail Capers, whom I met while she was working at the ticket table for the Capitol City Marching Festival.

Gail moved to Austin not too long before her son, Mark, now a senior, enrolled at LBJ. She was wistful about the fact that this was Mark’s last year in the band — and thus her last year. “Band gave me a change to meet other parents. It gave me a chance to feel like I was doing something positive… I’ve had a ball. This is my senior year and I’m really sad it’s going to end.”

Flickr photo by Howard Jefferson

The Tailgate Party

It is late on a Thursday afternoon before the LBJ vs. Johnston football game, and in the long shadows of the school a core group of parents makes dinner for the entire band, color guard, cheerleaders and football team. The precise number of hamburgers that Bill Cox and Jose Villareal flip in the steam of charcoal and the late afternoon sun is staggering.

“What’s the special occasion for the food?” I ask.

“We do this every week,” Jose laughs, tapping his spatula against the massive grill donated by Home Depot.

In the last rays of the sun, everyone eats together in the grass, and on the steps. A couple of football players toss a ball back and forth. In the distance, three cheerleaders practice a jump, their skirts making a purple blur against the oncoming dusk.

Are the kids glad that parents are here? I talk with Deborah Steadman, another band parent. “Kids this age would rather have their friends think they were hatched from an egg than that they have parents,” she says.

Jose interjects, “True. Yet even though your kid says he doesn’t want you here, if you don’t come, they say, Dad, where were you?”

Later, at the football game, I help haul the percussion equipment on the field. The scoreboard flashes silver against the dark Texas sky and I realize it is late, I am tired, and somehow I am at a high school football game, hauling an eighty pound xylophone onto wet grass.

“Do you ever get tired of this?” I whisper to Raoul Calderon, a lean man with a wry sense of humor.

He shrugs. “Family life has to revolve around something, right? You have the whole week. How bad is it to spend one day with other parents, enjoying the weather, the game if we win…. This brings you back to high school.”

“And let’s face it,” another mother nods. “High school’s the time of your life.”

At halftime, the color guard’s rifles are white as salt as they soar up and are caught again. In the last strains of “Sonoran Desert Holiday,” the male cheerleaders pick up the female cheerleaders and throw them weightlessly into the air. They wear bright white shirts, which read, on the front, “While you’re sitting in the stands…”

On they back, they read, “I’ll be picking up your girlfriend.”

Some things really don’t ever change.

The Pit Crew

At the next football game, one of the parents gives me a shirt in thanks for helping haul the stationary percussion — “everything that’s a real bitch to move,” he explains — at the halftime show. The shirt, which many of the parents wear, is a bright purple polo that proclaims on the back: The One. The Only. The LBJ Parent Pit Crew. Tonight is the first time I have ever worn article of clothing with the word “parent” on it. Whatever anxiety this instills in me I temporarily ignore.

The Pit Boss

It has taken me several weeks of hanging out with the pit crew to figure out who, if anyone, is the boss. Finally I ask.

“That would definitely be Randy,” says Bill.

Randy Baden, a compact, muscular sort of guy who looks like he would destroy you at arm-wrestling and then buy you dinner afterwards, is the father of a senior in the band and has been around long enough that he claims to possess “an accurate mental map of where every piece of percussion equipment goes in the pit.” Like all of the other parents I met while working with the pit crew, his child does not actually play percussion. At first this seems inconceivable to me: there are American parents who don’t mind volunteering nights and weekends helping someone else’s children lug a bunch of heavy metal stuff though fields in all kinds of inclement weather?

Randy explains to me that he actually enjoys this. “There is a great camaraderie among parents who help out with the band and the equipment,” he muses.

And Randy knows equipment: he’s the one who goes to pick up the Uhaul trucks that the band rents for each away football game and competition, which means that for the past several years he’s been the one to transport the cumbersome equipment all over Austin and beyond. When I ask how he decided to volunteer, he explodes with laughter.

“Volunteer?” he says. “I never volunteered. The torch was passed to me, and I accidentally accepted it.”

Apparently, a few years back there was a father of a band senior couldn’t make it to pick up the truck one day, and Randy stepped in to pick up the slack. That was four years ago and now Randy’s daughter is a senior. “And soon some innocent parent is going to start helping out, and I’m going to hand them the keys just the same way they were handed to me. The torch will be passed on again,” Randy tells me.

Back in the Pit Crew

After making it to the final rounds of the Westlake Marching Competition, one of Austin’s major fall band events, the Jaguars are psyched for the region competition. Tonight the kids wear their full marching regalia: sparkly purple sashes, regal caps with plumes, patent leather shoes and crisp white shirts that look less and less crisp the longer rain pours from the unrelenting sky.

I ask Gordon Bennett, an LBJ pit crewmember in a rain slicker that is doing him no good, if it took a lot of dedication to work in these kinds of conditions.

“That’s one word for stupidity,” he says.

Thirty minutes before the band is supposed to march on the field, I go with the pit crew and the percussion section to wait at the gates of the stadium. Ken and Deborah and I joke about the weather and tread lightly around politics; a snare drummer jokes that his shoulder are about to detach from his body. The rain courses over our faces, we are lost in the middle of a vast parking lot, and suddenly I am having fun.

I feel like I’ve given up some anxiety — the need to be productive, the need to have a constant purpose — and that I can stand here in the rain with these kids and their parents and just enjoy waiting around. To be in the marching band in any capacity, you have to be willing to wait around, to kill time, to put the group ahead of yourself. You can’t rely on a schedule or weather or getting exactly what you want. In the pit crew you move on instinct, by the moment: which drummer needs what, where, when. As Ken puts it: “The pit crew does not deal in reality. Not in truth, nor in facts. We deal in rumors, innuendo, and speculation.”

As the band marches on the field with rapt expressions, I lug the chimes out to the track. My heart beats fast and I clench my hands. I worry: Lauren in the color guard will drop her rifle. I worry: Dan will drop his trumpet mouthpiece; my chimes will get stuck in the mud.

But none of this happens. One boy loses his shoe and yet they keep on going. There is something indescribably lovely about watching two hundred and fifty kids play an overture through a river of mud. There is something in their gestures and facial expressions that says a lot about how beauty happens when you least expect it. I think of when Don asked them in the band room, “Is that beautiful?” and I want to say yes, yes it is.

After the competition, we huddle by the stadium fence to hear the judges announce their official ratings. The Jaguar Band receives a “1,” which means, technically, “Outstanding;” a “1” at the regions qualifies any band for State.

As we clap and scream, a parent from another school glances at my Pit Crew shirt.

“Congratulations,” she says.

I hesitate for a moment, wanting to say that I am not part of the band, that I am not part of anything like this. But before I can say this I smile and hear myself saying “Thank you” as I brush the rain off my face.