I’d been obsessively binge-ing Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” recently. It’s a fantastic show that addresses real teen issues in a respectful yet thought-provoking way. It made me want to reminisce a bit about my own high school years, and really try to think about why and how it wasn’t all that bad. And don’t get me wrong; I understand that my experience is probably not noteworthy, and I actually count myself fairly lucky to have had, essentially, an unremarkable four years. It’s not that being unremarkable should be a goal, nor that I even encourage it; it’s just that, for me, it served a purpose of avoiding big drama and simply getting me where I wanted to go — even if I had no idea where that was going to be.
So I’ve put together a sample story – a “chapter”, if you will – from what I hope will eventually become a memoir of sorts, a “story of my life” to one day pass down to our kids. If you remember high school, and especially if you were a band kid, I hope you’ll get a kick out of it.
Chapter 3 – Band
High school band, specifically marching band, was a great experience, and a suitable alternative to sports. I was terrible at sports. My younger brother had proven decent at baseball in little league, but none of that talent made its way to me. (He didn’t take it any further, either, so I don’t feel bad about it.) It worked out that, after freshman year, marching band counted as phys-ed. credit, so I never had to take another P.E. class after the first one. I did anyway, but that’s another story.
Trumpet was my instrument. Had been since 5th grade, after my father’s encouragement from having played the French horn back in his day. I’d tried French horn before, but I never quite got the hang of it. It’s a strange instrument, for a brass, in that you actually need to use your 2nd hand to hold and muffle the flared bell to produce subtle tone effects. Trumpet’s a little simpler — you just purse your lips and blow, and press a row of 3 buttons to control note progression.
I wasn’t that great at it — never made “first chair” (which means you’re the best at your particular instrument) or had any solos, but I toed the middle line satisfactorily. Having braces didn’t help; in fact, the position of the mouthpiece on the lips coincided exactly with the brace brackets. But with a combination of inner-lip calluses and sheer will, I made it work.
I always admired and envied the “rock stars” of the band, especially the trumpet players who could hit those super-high notes with such ease. There were two guys in particular — Jared and Mark. Mark was a junior, a lanky rude-boy (fan of ska & jazz) with spiky hair and a contagiously good attitude. Jared was a no-nonsense senior who’d seen and done it all, making a great section leader.
And then there was our junior leader, Nicole. Ooh boy let me tell you. Picture a hot summer morning out on the football field for marching practice; icy water bottles being used to cool off sun-soaked sweat-beaded skin; and a tall tan teenage Cali-girl in short shorts and a rolled up tank top, telling us young’uns what to do and where to go. Can I get a 2-syllable ‘day-umn’? Yes, that first year of marching band was quite the eye-popper.
In order to truly appreciate this story, you need a basic understanding of the way high school marching band works. It’s in the fall, or first semester of school, to coincide with football. While we support and play at some home-games, our biggest commitments were “tournaments”. These are competitions hosted by various large high schools where they invite a number of other schools in to display their marching band’s “field show”, which is basically a series of songs played while marching into various formations that look like shapes and figures from above. Each band is judged on both their musical and visual performance.
The color guard, a small team of girls (usually, at least in those days), performs along with the band, by waving colorful flags and banners and doing some choreographed dancing on & around the field. Think of them like cheerleaders, but more elegant, and replace the pom-poms with twirlers and the mini-skirts with more flowy dress-like outfits (sometimes.. though here were definitely other schools who pushed the sex appeal angle much more with their own color guard).
You also have to understand that, unlike a sports team, the band didn’t have locker rooms. So essentially, the buses were our locker rooms. We did probably 5 to 10 events in a given season, only one of which was our own self-hosted tournament, so we were on the road a lot — at least, it seemed like a lot to me. The bus was our changing room for putting on our uniforms, our break area for chatting and hanging out between the performances and the awards, and our celebration circle (or, in worse times, our den of commiseration). Different types of people put up varying degrees of protest or privacy — some had to be in the very back with complete coverage and make-shift curtains made from spare shirts or towels, while others were happy to flaunt their undergarments to most of their peers, probably in an effort to tease and woo the opposite sex. I was somewhere in the middle (as usual); I hid behind the seat-back and kept it quick & subtle, but I also tended to wear a regular tee-shirt underneath the uniform. The aforementioned Katrina (of my previous chapter) was always around to cast a flirty glance or suggest a extra spray of her favorite cologne to make the stank more bearable.
A small side-note. Our school colors were brown and gold — the Golden Bears — but this made an absolutely horrible color scheme for uniforms. The regular ones were a brown base with gold and white trim, but they never quite got the hue far enough away from ‘shit brown’. The alternate uniforms were a little better, having a white base with gold and brown trim, but of course, they got dirty much faster, so we didn’t wear them as often as I would have liked. I do hope they’ve come to their senses and changed up the color scheme, or at least tweaked the uniforms so that they don’t remind spectators so much of human waste. Thankfully the color guard’s uniform colors were more friendly, being of a teal & fuchsia variety.
Finally, the third key concept here, is that each band is in a “class”, which is like a ranking system based somewhat on your high school’s historical performance, but mostly (read: almost entirely) on your size — the number of band members. Generally, the larger, and richer, high schools — in our area, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Mount Carmel, and a couple others from the wealthy areas of greater San Diego — had the biggest bands and were thus in the highest class, AAA. We had historically been in AA (just below the top), and had, from what I heard in passing from the seniors, a decent ‘win’ history. Depending on the size and attendees of a given tournament, we could default down to the same class as the others involved; i.e. if nobody else was above ‘A’, we’d compete as ‘A’ too, which would be to our benefit.
Think of it like your weight classes in boxing or wrestling. Just because you’re a heavyweight doesn’t mean you’re more skilled than a featherweight, it just means you weigh more. Sure, the weight (or size) does make some difference in the competition, especially if we use the wrestling metaphor. It’s just not everything. And there can be a hidden motivation to try to “make weight”, i.e. to get into a smaller class so that you have an edge over your opponents.
This being the late 90s at a growing suburban school, our band was growing in number, but not necessarily in skill or in booster dollars. In the wrestling metaphor above, we were basically gaining flab. The class system also hadn’t been updated in a while — basically anything over 150 was AAA , but those big rich bands I mentioned before tended to be in the 300s. So unfortunately, we were basically “forced up” into the AAA class with our larger number, but we were still way outgunned and out-funded by those that had long held the candles in that high hall.
Now, having said all that, my first year in marching band was one of the most exhilarating, and it’s largely due to our first and only “sweeps” win in one of the first tournaments of the year. A sweeps win is when your band wins the highest trophies in its class and in the tournament. Looking back, there must have been a perfect storm of coincidences that led to it. This was a relatively small tournament; none of those big rich bands attended, and we ended up being the largest one there. I think it was hosted by Orange something-or-other high school. The bus ride was a bit longer than most, maybe an hour or so. Our uniforms were freshly pressed, having not been worn yet this season; and we’d barely finished mastering our show (the music and marching steps/positions, i.e. the choreography).
There was something in the air that night.
We arrived in the late afternoon, not too long before our turn was scheduled. We changed on the buses and lined up to take the field. It was cool and temperate that evening, not too cold, but not warm enough to cause a sweat. Perfect marching weather. The emcee called out, “Tuh-MEC-you-la Valley High!”, and we took the grass. It was well maintained for a small school; no big potholes or divots, clean and even yard-lines. Our fearless leader, ‘H’ we called him — short for Mr. Hrbacek (her-ba-check) — took the conductor’s stand, counted it down, and the crisp snap of the snare drums meant it was on.
Our set was a big-band/swing theme, including “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sentimental Journey”. We’d memorized pages upon pages of marching positions and music for this. Practiced dozens of hours — “sectionals” for an hour after school, those sweaty Saturday mornings, and every chance we could get at a field during class — it felt like hundreds. Our feet were sure, our instruments were on-key and in-tempo, and we pulled it off, all the way to that final high note and conclusive closing drum beat.
The percussionists were always my favorite, even if I’d never admit it. They were the driving beat that kept us all going, and the catching energy that fueled our desire to win. Yeah, the brassy solos and deep booms of the tubas were great — hell, you’ve got to be a ridiculously strong dude (or dudette) to lug one of those bad boys around and march in tempo — but those drums made it all mesh together into something more than the sum of its parts.
So we left the field knowing that we’d gave it our all. Yeah, we weren’t perfect, there were a few missteps and a few misplaced notes here and there, but we covered them up and soldiered on. Thus, we took to the bus-changing-rooms once more, traded our uniforms for our street clothes, and gathered in the bleachers for the award announcements.
This was before the post-millennial days of “everybody’s a winner, everybody deserves a trophy”, but perhaps band culture was a bit ahead of its time, because almost everybody did get some kind of trophy. Although that may have been due to the smaller size of this tournament, as I mentioned before. Anyway, as with most competition awards, they worked their way up from the bottom to the top. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, which made me quite confused as to why my elder band-mates were cheering progressively louder and louder as the announcers didn’t call our name. Obviously (now), it meant that we were toward the top.
The announcer has made his way to the final 3 awards – best musical performance, best visual performance, and the granddaddy of them all, “the tournament award”. He calls the first. “Best Musical Performance… Temecula Valley High!” Loud but muffled cheers from our band as the director and seniors try to shush everybody. “Best Visual Performance… Temecula Valley High!” Louder cheers from our mates as they struggle to contain themselves. “And the Tournament Award goes to… Temecul–”
We erupt with elation before he can even finish the word. Hoots and hollers, whoops and whistles. Our director walks up to humbly accept the giant trophy, which I’m sure looked a lot bigger to us back then than it really was. The stands empty of the competing bands as we make our way back to the buses. The air is absolutely electric; high-fives and kudos abound, even between the flautists and the woodwinds, who are, for those of you unfamiliar with band sub-cliques, the quietest and most reserved of the bunch. As we settle into our seats and prepare for the drive home, from a boom-box in the back of the bus come those timeless strains of Bryan May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s piercing vocals. “Weeeee.. are the chaaaampions, my friennnd. Nooo time for looosers, cuz weee are the chaaampions… of the Woooooorld.”
The adults try to quiet us down, but this kind of celebration isn’t so easily subdued. A few of the seniors try to explain that we got lucky, that we did ok but we mostly won because we outclassed the other bands. And we knew, in the back of our minds, that it wasn’t always going to be this way; that jocks would still laugh at us and popularity queens would still snub us; that we’d be coming back on Monday to loads of schoolwork, and to the pressures and insecurities that go with high school life — particularly if you’re a band geek.
But damn if we weren’t gods in that moment.
And then, as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there. That’s not quite fair, I suppose. Heck, maybe I don’t give the old coot enough credit; perhaps he carefully planned this strategy of giving us an easy win to hit us with a taste of that sweet drug of victory, so that we’d stick around and keep trying harder, week after week, year after year, to replicate it. Friggin’ brilliant, perhaps. It never quite happened, as I said; we were hopelessly outclassed by those infamous high-society bands with their own logo-painted trailers and catered meals and mysteriously shiny pristine instruments that never seemed to fade. Those top 3 award spots that I mentioned, well – let’s just say we got real tired of hearing the name “Rancho Bernardo”. Over, and over, and over again.
The tournament that we hosted ourselves came towards the end of the season. It was a nice break from the competition because, even though we had to perform – twice – we weren’t being judged. So it gave those rock-star trumpet players time to show off their solo bits in a less subtle way. In the first performance of the day, Jared actually popped out of line formation and did a half-kneel toward the crowd as he belted out those crisp 4 high notes – but in doing so, he flubbed just a bit, and he got crap for it later from H. and Mark. Thus, at the night performance, he stayed in position, but absolutely nailed those notes, complete with a little trill-up and doo-wah. There were a lot of bands here, more than almost any tournament we’d been to, it seemed. I wondered why, but I’d come to realize later, after learning a bit of regional geography, that were we a convenient mid-way location between Orange and San Diego counties, so it made sense that those bigger schools wanted to come battle each other on the marching field without driving over 2 hours to either one’s hometown.
As the rest of the schoolyears dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory. There was nothing quite like it. Along with the occasional cleavage-peek on the bus, the weeks of pizza and coke on the road, and that Saturday morning navel-gazing at practice, it was enough to get me hooked for 4 solid seasons. I even convinced my parents to buy me a Letterman’s jacket with the band letter in junior year. But the biggest adventures were yet to come.