L.D. Bell High School’s Blue Raider Band is a state powerhouse and has finished first, second or third in five of the past six UIL state contests.
Their head band director is paid accordingly.
Van Mathews makes $102,269, which is on par with Bell’s head football Coach Mike Glaze, who makes $104,720.
At Haltom High School, which advanced to state last year, head band Director Greg Hull makes $99,881, more than head football Coach Jason Tucker, who is paid $94,408 annually.
In a state where football has long been king, marching bands no longer play second fiddle.
And at no time is that more evident than with the start of the University Interscholastic League contest season. Marching bands across North Texas are fine-tuning their shows with the hopes of advancing to the state championship in San Antonio.
Both Bell and Haltom will be among the Class 6A bands competing Tuesday at the UIL Region 5 contest at Pennington Field in Bedford. Because the UIL rotates which classifications can advance, Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 5A bands will vie for state titles this year.
Bell is using its UIL contest as a tuneup for next week’s Band of America competition in Atlanta, Ga., where bands from across the nation pay their own way to compete.
The Blue Raider Band hopes to add to their already impressive trophy case.
“If you go in the band hall, there are trophies everywhere,” said Mark Chandler, director of visual and performing arts for the Hursts-Euless-Bedford school district. “And this is decades-long. It’s not something new.
“It seems to go on for generations.”
Money and marching
Many resources go into high school marching band programs, both on and off the field. Music arrangers are hired as consultants to help compose the music. Instruments, provided by both the schools or families,range in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Many band members also pay for private lessons.
To be in Bell’s band this year, which includes 260 musicians and 42 color guard members, students must pay a participation fee of $995, which can be paid in monthly installments.
The fees help pay for charter bus transportation (including three nights in hotel room and some meals) for the Bands of America competition in Atlanta, concert season clinicians, music and instruction for a June camp, a band show T-shirt, a ‘dry-wick’ T-shirt to wear under the uniform, materials for flags, equipment and repairs for the color guard, musical arrangements, licensing and drill design, a band banquet in May 2016 and a band yearbook.
Bell’s booster club helps raise money to help pay the student fees, Mathews said, which this year should amount to about $225 per student.
“This is a huge undertaking on behalf of our booster organization as L.D. Bell High School has 44 percent of its present student population classified as economically disadvantaged,” Mathews said.
At Haltom High, which advanced to state last year, the student participation fee is $400.
The Pride of Haltom band, which includes 260 musicians and 37 color guard members, left Thursday for a weekend Band of America contest in St. Louis.
School districts pay for much of what goes into band, including transportation costs for UIL contests, instruments and uniforms.
Haltom High received new uniforms in 2013-14, said Mark Thomas, Birdville schools spokesman.
“To outfit 260 band members, we spent $99,000, or approximately $380 each, which included jackets, pants, gauntlets, hat, and plume as well as various snap-in pieces to change the look of the jacket,” Thomas said.
Haltom High receives from $20,000 to $30,000 annually for new instruments and to replace aging inventory.
At Bell and Euless Trinity high schools in the H-E-B district, uniforms are on a replacement cycle of every 10 years, Chandler said.
“We are in the process now of ordering the new set of uniforms for L.D. Bell. The total budget for that replacement set of uniforms was approximately $161,000,” Chandler said.
Instruments for the Bell band cost approximately $30,000 per year, Chandler said.
Hours of practice
Still riding high from last year’s successful season, Haltom’s band members are putting in plenty of work for this year’s show.
“A goblin is luring you into his underwater palace,” associate band Director Donnie Hull tells the marching band during a recent rehearsal, explaining the concept behind this year’s contest show, The Water’s Edge.
“Brass, you’re getting sucked into the ocean waves,” Hull shouts into microphone that echoes across the football field. “How many of you have seen the props? They’re turning into major waves, like things to become engulfed in. You’re getting pulled into the water to represent the story of the show.”
Band members glide across the football field in a spiral pattern, as if a whirlpool is drawing them underwater.
The show’s theme was “inspired by a tone poem (an orchestral piece that tells a story) by Dvorak called The Water Goblin,” Hull explains.
In the background, the color guard dances against a sunset that is turning the same color as the purple flags they are twirling. As the last hours of daylight fade from the sky, there is still more work for the band to accomplish.
Regardless of what’s at stake, band directors and students spend up to eight hours a week — that’s all the UIL allows — in rehearsals, scrutinizing and perfecting every note and footstep.
‘It’s a huge commitment’
Marching band requires a level of dedication, precision and time management that is not for the faint-hearted. High-achieving band members become experts in balancing school, band, family life and other commitments.
Bell senior Kason Kebaso is a flute player and drum major in the band. She is also in Bell’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. At Bell, band is part of the music curriculum for IB.
Kebaso’s day begins at about 5:30 a.m. and can continue well into the late evening hours. Her schedule is so packed, she must learn everything in class the first time she hears it.
“There are no second chances,” Kebaso said.
Athletic talent and a love of music sparked her interest in marching band.
“It’s a perfect balance between music and sports,” Kebaso said.
All band members go through a physical conditioning program that includes running and stretching in the off-season.
“The cardiovascular part of the training is super-important,” Donnie Hull said. “It’s one thing to move around for eight or nine minutes. But if you’re doing that and you can’t breathe when you want to because you’re playing a horn, that’s hard.”
The Haltom and Bell band programs both instruct students and parents on maintaining proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Without these essentials, it would be too difficult to meet the demands of band.
Rehearsals typically start before school in August, when there is no time limit.
The Bell band, for example, rehearses eight hours per day — six days a week. Once school starts, UIL rules limit practice time to eight hours a week.
For the entire month of August, the band is putting a week’s worth of work into each day, Mathews said.
“And it’s not in your kid’s best interest — if they want to be competitive and earn a spot in the contest show — to miss a day,” Mathews said.
Bell’s summer practice sessions are broken up into blocks, and afternoon rehearsals are held in the school’s indoor practice facility to protect students from the extreme Texas heat. Although there are breaks in between, students must be available from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
“It’s a huge commitment,” Mathews said, adding that strong support from parents, administrators, teachers, staff, and booster club members make all of it possible.
Directors, parents and students say it’s all a part of creating a marching band’s unique blend of magic.
“This thing that happens — it’s a beautiful thing,” Mathews said.
Band directors are constantly looking for music and themes to for their shows.
“Every bit of it is tailored to our kids — music, choreography and drill,” Mathews said.
Some of the shows have themes that are symbolic, while others are left open to interpretation. Bell’s show this year, Immortal, is more open-ended, focusing in part on the timelessness of Beethoven’s music.
“The music is timeless, and we’re doing it our way,” Mathews said.
At times, the logistics are mind-boggling. Each band member, for example, has to find dozens of markers on the football field while marching and playing an instrument.
“On a football field, using a rhythm and a tempo, you have to find 129 locations in the course of our eight-and-a-half-minute production,” Mathews said. “And then you multiply 129 by 64. That’s an organization of routes into the thousands.”
In addition to perfecting an instrument and marching technique, band members also learn how to express themselves through movement and dance, Mathews said.
“We borrow things from dance and incorporate those,” Mathews said.
Parent Carol Marlow said she is always amazed at the things she sees her son, Austin, performing on the field. Austin, a junior, plays the trombone in the L.D. Bell Blue Raider Band.
“He won’t tell us stuff because he wants us to be surprised,” she said. “It’s a proud moment to see him out there, out of 260 kids. And you wonder, ‘How did he learn to walk backward like that and turn like that?’
Despite all of the hard work, not everything is serious.
“I just love the oddness factor,” said Emma Lamar, a senior trumpet player in Haltom High’s band. “We’re all very expressive. We’re not shy at all.”
As a joke, each band section has its own bizarre good luck charm.
“My section has a picture of a circus performer,” Lamar said. “It’s kind of like the bearded lady.”
Students pass the vintage picture around before performances. The bizarre mascots are part of a longstanding band tradition.
“The saxophones had a jar of pickles and the horns had a rubber chicken,” Lamar said.
Donnie Hull calls it “silly fun,” something that helps band members bond as a group.
Bell and Haltom are located in communities with long-standing reputations as “band towns.”
When Haltom High’s band advanced to state last year, the entire school surprised them with a mini-parade, Donnie Hull said.
In the Hurst area, Bell band stickers are spotted on cars everywhere.
“I cannot go get gas, go get groceries, or travel from my house to the school without seeing vehicles with L.D. Band stickers,” Mathews said.
Turnout is also strong every time the band marches in a community parade, said Marlow, who also works as a secretary in the district’s communications department.
“Those streets are lined with people,” Marlow said. “The families come out. They know we’re coming. They hear the drums and they come out of their houses.”
Sometimes, professional musicians grow out of a band program. More often, students leave with an appreciation and respect of the arts that will last a lifetime.
And that’s part of the goal.
“Maybe play in a community band, or play your horn at your church,” Mathews said. “But be active in the arts. Be an advocate for the arts.”
Emma’s mom, Sue Lamar, believes life lessons are one of the greatest benefits of marching band.
“They learn a lot about determination, respect, and working hard,” she said. “And that’s what it takes to succeed in life.”
Back at Haltom’s band rehearsal, it’s nearly 9 p.m. and the day is coming to a close. Up until the last minute, students are pushed to perform with excellence.
“Be more dramatic,” Donnie Hull tells the band members as they kneel on the football field with their arms waving overhead in slow motion. “Make your arms look like a stroke, like you’re swimming underwater.”
“One more time,” Donnie Hull says — several more times.
Before the students are dismissed they fall into a final formation with military precision and snap their instruments into a starting position.
Donnie Hull offers them all a final word of encouragement.
“OK,” he says with enthusiasm. “That’s the idea.”
UIL marching contests
Classes 1A, 2A, 3A and 5A compete for state this year, while Classes 4A and 6A end at regionals. Here’s the remaining regional schedule for area bands.
Region 2 East Zone regionals, Class 2A, 3A, 4A and 5A
Saturday, Collins Athletic Complex, Denton
Area schools competing: Alvord, Boyd, Ponder, Paradise, Mineral Wells, Bridgeport, Lake Worth, Decatur, Argyle, Boswell, Azle, Brewer, Denton, Chisholm Trail, Saginaw
Region 2 East Zone regionals, Class 6A
Wednesday, Collins Athletic Complex, Denton
Area schools competing: Keller Central, Keller Fossil Ridge, Keller High, Keller Timber Creek, Northwest Byron Nelson, Denton Ryan, Northwest High, Denton Guyer
Region 5 regionals, Class 5A, 6A
Tuesday, Pennington Field, Bedford
Area schools competing: Arlington High, Birdville, Arlington Bowie, Haltom, Arlington Seguin, Hurst L.D. Bell, Mansfield Lake Ridge, Mansfield Legacy, Arlington Martin, Hatlom, Richland, Arlington Sam Houston, Mansfield Summit, Mansfield Timberview, Euless Trinity.
UIL area contests are Oct. 24 at Standridge Stadium in Carrollton, Collins Athletic Complex in Denton and Chisholm Trail Stadium in Fort Worth. State competition is Nov. 2-3 in San Antonio.