Little marching bands take on big challenges
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 email@example.com.