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Little marching bands take on big challenges

| Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Members of the Clairton High School marching band gather around director Dave Geckle for a meeting prior to their halftime performance during a home football game on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Members of the Clairton High School marching band gather around director Dave Geckle for a meeting prior to their halftime performance during a home football game on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Members of the Clairton High School marching band including freshman Dorjae Parker (lower left), celebrate as the football team scores a touchdown against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Members of the Clairton High School marching band including freshman Dorjae Parker (lower left), celebrate as the football team scores a touchdown against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
David Geckle directs the Clairton High School marching band during pre-game ceremonies for the football team's game against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
David Geckle directs the Clairton High School marching band during pre-game ceremonies for the football team's game against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Clairton High School junior Amberly Horne (left), waits on the field for the football team during pre-game ceremonies for the team's game against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Clairton High School junior Amberly Horne (left), waits on the field for the football team during pre-game ceremonies for the team's game against California Area on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Clairton High School freshman Anthony Thompson (left), joins other band members in gathering around director David Geckle for a warmup prior to their halftime performance during a home football game on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Clairton High School freshman Anthony Thompson (left), joins other band members in gathering around director David Geckle for a warmup prior to their halftime performance during a home football game on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.
David Geckle, band director of the Clairton Marching Band, talks with band member Ivori Hale, 14, during practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
David Geckle, band director of the Clairton Marching Band, talks with band member Ivori Hale, 14, during practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Trinity Wilson, 14, member of the Clairton Marching Band, gets fitted for her band uniform by band parent Kathy Moore on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Trinity Wilson, 14, member of the Clairton Marching Band, gets fitted for her band uniform by band parent Kathy Moore on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
MacKenzie Adams (left), 12, and Raecale Horne, 14, members of the Clairton Marching Band, practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
MacKenzie Adams (left), 12, and Raecale Horne, 14, members of the Clairton Marching Band, practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
David Geckle, band director of the Clairton Marching Band, leads practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
David Geckle, band director of the Clairton Marching Band, leads practice on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Trey Jackson, 14, a drummer in the Clairton Marching Band, practices on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Trey Jackson, 14, a drummer in the Clairton Marching Band, practices on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Trinity Wilson, 14, practices with the Clairton Marching Band on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Trinity Wilson, 14, practices with the Clairton Marching Band on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.
Because of the small amount of members in the Leechburg High School Marching Band, Anne Sorisio (left), serves not only as a drum major but plays the saxophone as well, as seen on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Because of the small amount of members in the Leechburg High School Marching Band, Anne Sorisio (left), serves not only as a drum major but plays the saxophone as well, as seen on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
The Leechburg High School Marching Band practices during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
The Leechburg High School Marching Band practices during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Leechburg High School Band trumpeter Joel Knepshield, a senior, flips his music card while continuing to play during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Leechburg High School Band trumpeter Joel Knepshield, a senior, flips his music card while continuing to play during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
The Leechburg High School Band bass drum line Katarina Yurjevich (from left), a freshman, Charlie Stull, a senior and freshman John Sorisio, practice a Japanese-style drumming routine during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
The Leechburg High School Band bass drum line Katarina Yurjevich (from left), a freshman, Charlie Stull, a senior and freshman John Sorisio, practice a Japanese-style drumming routine during band camp in West Leechburg on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015.
Alec Teszna (right), 17, a senior at Monessen High School, practices with the marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Alec Teszna (right), 17, a senior at Monessen High School, practices with the marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Alan Duncan, 17, practices with the Monessen High School marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Alan Duncan, 17, practices with the Monessen High School marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Alyssa Henry (from left), 17, Hanna Leach, 17, and Maria Lucy, 16, practice with the Monessen High School marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Alyssa Henry (from left), 17, Hanna Leach, 17, and Maria Lucy, 16, practice with the Monessen High School marching band on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.
Members of the Windber High School Marching Band run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.  The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Members of the Windber High School Marching Band run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Shaylee Bloom (front), a sophomore at Shade Junior/Senior High School, and Caleb Bean (back) a seventh-grader at Windber, run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. Bloom and Bean along with other members of the band play multiple instruments to fill in the gap for the small number of students who participate in the band.  The marching band at Windber has about 40 students participating in the band this school year.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Shaylee Bloom (front), a sophomore at Shade Junior/Senior High School, and Caleb Bean (back) a seventh-grader at Windber, run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. Bloom and Bean along with other members of the band play multiple instruments to fill in the gap for the small number of students who participate in the band. The marching band at Windber has about 40 students participating in the band this school year.
Shannyn Swallow, a junior at Shade Junior/Senior High School, follows members of the Windber High School Marching Band as they run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.  The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Shannyn Swallow, a junior at Shade Junior/Senior High School, follows members of the Windber High School Marching Band as they run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Claire Telfur, a seventh grade student at Windber, runs through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.  The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Claire Telfur, a seventh grade student at Windber, runs through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The marching band at Windber has about 40 students, which takes two school districts to reach that number of student participants.
Windber High School Band Director Bob Lane watches as members of the Windber High School Marching Band run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Windber High School Band Director Bob Lane watches as members of the Windber High School Marching Band run through practice on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.
Terry Lasut (left), a junior at Windber, helps fellow band member Caleb Bean, a seventh-grader at Windber, move Bean's set of bells to the band room after band practice wrapped up on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Terry Lasut (left), a junior at Windber, helps fellow band member Caleb Bean, a seventh-grader at Windber, move Bean's set of bells to the band room after band practice wrapped up on the grounds of Windber Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.

Bob Lane thought he knew all about marching bands.

He knew the excitement of fall Fridays in Western Pennsylvania, when the blare of trumpets and thunderous cadence of snare drums fuel the fire of football-hungry fans. He knew about the spit and polish, and exhausting hours of practice needed to pull off a 10-minute halftime show.

What he didn't know was how to make this magic happen with a seven-member band.

That was his quandary eight years ago when he accepted his first full-time teaching position as director of Shade-Central City School District's marching band.

But it wasn't long before Lane found those seven spunky musicians — a few drummers, a drum major and two clarinet players — from this tiny, rural Somerset County school district were game for nearly anything.

And so was he.

“I thought, ‘OK, this is different,' ” Lane said.

Without pause, he set out to build a music program in a district with only 467 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

Lane, 32, is one of a small group of music educators — from Clairton to Leechburg — who have found a home at the helm of marching bands so small they can barely fill a couple of minivans, let alone a football field.

“When I got offered the small program, I think it led to a lot more creativity and gave me a whole different perspective, that even though it's a small band, they can still play high-quality music,” he said.

The difference is that instead of lines of trumpets, trombones and tubas, there might be just one trumpet, a trombone, a drum or two, and a couple of piccolos to keep the beat. In some places, the football team's star linebacker might leave his helmet on the sidelines to pick up a drum and march with the band at halftime.

Arranging music and writing drills for tiny marching bands means positioning students so they not only fill spectators' sightlines, but fill the stadium with sound.

Custom scores designed around available instruments are a must, said Lane, who moved last spring to nearby Windber High School. Officials there invited his former Shade-Central City band members to merge with their group when budget cuts forced Shade-Central City officials to close the district's music program.

The move upped the size of Windber's band to 26 musicians and 12 color guards, still far smaller than most in the region, such as Hempfield Area with more than 175, Norwin with 145, Kiski Area with 130 and Moon Area with more than 140.

Yet the arrangement has benefited band members from both schools whose halftime show, titled “Human Nature,” represents human emotions through songs ranging from Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” to the eerie music from the movie, “Psycho.”

“I don't know where we'd be without them,” said Windber junior trumpet player Terry Lusut after a grueling day of band camp.

For Shade-Central City sophomore percussionist Shaylee Bloom, the pluses are simple.

“This band actually has money so we can get instruments,” she said.

Always looking for members

Keeping small bands viable means directors are constantly recruiting.

“(When) I see good kids walking down the hallway, I'll always stop them and say, ‘Hey, ever think about being in the band?' ” said Clairton director David Geckle, whose band has 20 musicians and 12 Honeybears, who twirl batons, spin flags and dance.

“Almost every kid thinks about doing it at one point. And sometimes that's a hook to get them started,” Geckle said.

It didn't take much to hook Charlie Stull, a senior drummer with the Leechburg Area High School band in Armstrong County, which has 38 musicians and eight color guards. He used to sit next to the band at football games.

“Something just drew me in,” Stull said. “I like how precise it has to be.”

At Monessen High School, director Hilary Brown said she'll bring fourth- and fifth-graders onto the field to play the alma mater with her 26-musician band at some point this season, “even if it's just a note or two.”

When she took over the band in 2007, it had 10 members, but even so, today she has just two trumpets — typically a marching band staple — and one tuba player, who doubles as the drum major.

Why they play

Despite the odds, kids in small bands seem to find a way to press on, Lane said.

Like all band kids, they love the music.

They love the lessons that will serve them later in life: teamwork, time management, perseverance.

They love belonging to a group — size aside — that works toward a common goal.

With summer band camp, after-school practices, road trips and competitions, “you make really close bonds,” said Cassidy Krofchik, a senior drum major with the Leechburg Area band. “It's kind of like your own family at school.”

“I feel like I'd be missing a big part of me” if I wasn't in band, said Ryan Jordan, a sophomore flute player at Monessen.

Jordan has palpable pride about her band.

“We're little, but we're mighty when we play,” Brown said.

Battling for position

Music and arts programs battle for funding and jockey for position amid a crush of preparation for mandated standardized tests.

“Like all other school districts, they're very worried about test scores, so we're kind of last,” Brown said.

When test scores languish, administrators tend to double-down on core classes at the exclusion of the arts, but that's a backward approach, Geckle said.

“There's language, there's math in music all the time, every day,” he added. “I think that if we keep ignoring that fact ... we're going to lose the diversity that we need and that the kids need to think in different ways to approach the problems they're seeing on those tests.”

All bands, regardless of size, compete against athletic programs for students' time.

For members of some smaller bands, finding a way to make it all work is crucial.

At halftime, Monessen football player Alan Duncan whips off his pads and slips his drum carrier over his football uniform to play the snare drum.

The band plays on

In towns such as Clairton, where the economy collapsed with the region's steel industry decline decades ago, the high school band offers diversion from tough times.

With so much gone from the community, one thing remains constant. On football game day, the marching band, with just 20 musicians, parades up the long, steep hill from the school to Neil C. Brown Stadium.

“It's quite a hike if you're carrying a base drum, that's for sure,” said Geckle, who has led the band for 17 years.

It's a tradition that rouses the crowd assembled to support the football program that won consecutive state championships from 2009 to 2012.

When the band takes the field this season with its halftime show, the “iPod Shuffle,” featuring Wiz Khalifa's “See You Again” and Walk the Moon's “Shut Up and Dance With Me,” the crowd takes notice.

“With all the negativity that surrounds an inner-city school and some of the kids' home lives, every little positive thing is motivating me to keep going,” Geckle said. “Whenever a kid has that ‘aha' moment ... that makes me happy.”

In a tough town, band channels students' energy in a positive direction.

“I'm a good kid. This is occupying my time,” said Brayden Robinson, a freshman saxophonist.

Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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