Milton High School marching band takes field with brass, not helmet and pads
MILTON—As long sunset shadows darkened the Milton High School football field, Nate Pierce stomped down from his perch high on the metal stadium bleachers.
His footfalls echoed across the empty stadium as the Milton High School Redhawk Marching Band regrouped in a modified heart-shaped formation at midfield. Pierce, the marching band's director, stalked across the sidelines and waded into the band's 81-member ranks.
Through a loudspeaker wired to his headset, he barked out orders.
“I could use more trombone and euphonium on that one! Hit that thing! Make me put something in my ears! Peel my face off!” Pierce yelled.
It was 7 p.m. on a Monday, and the band—one of the area's only competitive high school marching bands—had less than two weeks to brush up its field marching routine before the upcoming high school marching band state championship Saturday, Oct. 19, at UW-Whitewater's Perkins Stadium.
At Milton's homecoming football game halftime show the prior Friday night, the band hadn't played loud enough, Pierce said. And at an invitational field show competition in Wauwatosa the following Sunday, the band played too soft and with too little contrast, the contest judges said. It had cost the band points en route to a third-place finish.
It was a good show considering it was one of the first competitions of the year, Pierce said. The band had come a long way from a week earlier, when a quarter of the marchers during practice were gliding in and out of their steps instead of making sharp stops and starts to change their formations.
Even a few days earlier, one trumpet player marched with one hand on his trumpet and the other clutching music and marching notes scribbled on loose-leaf paper. The band now knew the music.
Still, Monday night Pierce sought to tighten the band's marching steps, and moreover, its sound. He wanted the band's heavy brass artillery—the tuba and trumpet sections—to play the crescendos (where the music gradually increases in volume) harder and louder.
He ran the band through an hour of repetitions intended in part to beef up crescendo parts of its seven-minute competition routine. The ranks marched back and forth, playing a salsa-funk version of Bach's “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” faster and harder, like a military company practicing drills.
Pierce socked it to the band, but they gave it right back—and loud. Trumpet and tuba blasts ricocheted off houses east of the field, and the crack of snare drums rattled the stadium seats.
Pierce peeled off his headset and yelled in excitement.
“Now THAT'S dynamic! THAT'S contrast! I heard it! I heard it!”
A NEW DYNASTY
The Milton High School marching band is the only high school marching band in Rock County involved in competitive field marching.
In fact, it's one of only about 35 schools in the state that competes in the Wisconsin School Music Association's state marching band championships.
Pierce, a former member of the UW-Madison marching band and the high school's instrumental music teacher, started Milton's marching band from the ground up. Now in its fifth season, the marching band has seen growing support from its booster club. This year, the program was able to buy a trailer to transport its gear.
The band competes in field marching against high schools from across the state. Some of the schools, such as Waukesha South and Wauwatosa East high schools, have competitive marching band programs that have run for decades.
Last year, the band placed sixth overall out of 10 teams in its division at the state tournament, and in other years, the band's flag color guard has placed third overall.
Emma Davis, a Milton High School senior and one of the marching band's two drum majors—the band's on-field conductors—said she's seen the band transform into a mini-dynasty since she was a freshman.
“It's grown in size, population of band members, but even more in the effort and focus everyone is putting in. It's more and more involved every year,” Davis said.
Leading up to the state tournament, the band performs its routine in full uniform during halftime at home football games and at three or four invitational competitions, which are held mostly on football fields.
But the band also practices five times a week, with a two-hour, on-field practice every Monday night. In August, the band grinds out eight-hour practices at a weeklong camp in the scorching heat. That's when band members first learn the steps, complicated formations and music for their competition routine, which changes every year.
In a week with multiple competitions, Milton's marching band can carry a time commitment of 15 to 20 hours.
That's to perform a seven-minute routine, which for Milton this year is a montage of classical music performed in a formation that starts in a tight heart shape and spreads out to circles, squares and zigzags as the musical themes morph from opera to the Russian movement “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
Some school marching band programs run even more hours than Milton, Pierce said.
“Some have dedicated marching band programs where the students just do that, sink or swim, nothing else. We're not like them. I'd say 70 to 90 percent of this band, these kids, they've got AP (advanced placement) classes and they're also in sports and multiple extracurriculars. Our schedule, it's the most I can ask of them,” Pierce said.
Davis plays varsity tennis and performs in the school show choir. She's used to running and learning footwork and body control. There are similarities between athletics and being in marching band, Davis said, but she sees marching with an instrument as its own beast.
She pointed out students such as Alex Schroeder, a tuba player for Milton's marching band. Schroeder wears a T-shirt printed with the phrase “Tuba: God's gift to marching band.” It's no joke.
“Ever see someone practically running while playing a tuba? It takes not only extreme breath control to play an instrument like that while you're moving but also balance and coordination. It's not that easy,” Davis said.
In competitive marching, a panel of eight judges in the field press box scrutinizes every movement and every note. Judges score on technical marching and musicality along with a band's overall visual flair during a routine.
During a competition routine, one marcher out of tempo, a flat or mushy note or one swing of a trombone out of time with other marchers can cost the marching band points.
The main difference between Milton's marching band and a competitive sport: There's no second string. Everyone in the band competes during field routines.
“There is no bench. Everybody, senior to freshman, has a spot and a purpose in our band. Say we don't have a second trombone, or we're missing a bass drum for the day—it's bad. You can't keep tempo. So, it's really a codependent team. We need everybody,” Davis said.
Ben Robinson, a senior trombone player, has played piano since he was in kindergarten. He also plays varsity soccer.
As a marching trombonist, Robinson has learned to be a low-key part of band's fabric; it's his job to act as the pumping pulse that drives the tempo. It's less flashy than playing solo piano or rushing the goal, but Robinson's grown to appreciate his role.
“It's not like soccer where if you score three goals in a game, you're cool. If you hit the three biggest notes right, it's not cool. You just did your job. That's more important than cool.”
Pierce, who recruits marching band members from Milton Middle School, said he's looking to grow the band from 81 members to 100 in the next two years. He's serious about music but more serious about teaching students such as Robinson the art of being an adult.
“I could care less if I ever get a collegiate music major out of this band. What I want is for these kids to develop the skill sets of work ethic and self-discipline. I want to them to have the tools to be successful.”
As the marching band readies for another state competition, Robinson said the band's reputation seems to be catching on in Milton.
When the marching band plays halftime at home football games, there are now fans in the front-row bleachers with red and white signs to cheer the band instead of the football team.
“Every year, the applause gets bigger. You hear that home crowd get quieter when we play now. I think we're getting better every year, and people are starting to notice.”
UPDATE, OCT. 22, 2013: Click here to see how the band did in the competition.
IF YOU GO
What: Milton High School Redhawk Marching Band is taking its competitive field marching routine to the Wisconsin School Music Association high school marching band state championship at UW-Whitewater. The Milton marching band will compete against nine other high school marching bands in its division. Dozens of other marching bands compete in the event.
When: Saturday, Oct. 19. Milton's marching band is slated to perform its seven-minute music and marching routine at 6:15 p.m. The event runs from noon to 10:30 p.m. with awards at the end.
Where: Perkins Stadium at UW-Whitewater, 910 Schwager Drive, Whitewater.
Cost: $14 for adults; $7 for children ages 6-17, senior citizens and undergraduate college students with valid ID; free for children 5 and younger.
For more information: Visit wsmamusic.org