Marking time in music is usually a pretty precise exercise.
But when it comes to the hot summer hours, the days on end in the band room, the mornings watching the sun come up that populate the life of a marching band, there’s no real quantifiable way to describe the moments in how the music gets made.
“We pretty much live in this room,” said Heather Smith, a senior drum major for the Bellevue East High School marching band. “Let’s be realistic.”
For Smith and the 149 other members of the Chieftain Marching Band, the time was well spent.
Saturday on the field at Millard South High School’s Buell Stadium during the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association competition, Bellevue East and their Red Riding Hood-themed show (aptly titled “Lady in Red” and featuring that title track, along with an arrangement of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” and “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday”) played its way into a state championship in the competition’s 22-band open class.
The scene is one Bellevue has gotten used to in recent years and, moreover, in the 31 years the Bandmasters have held the state competition. The Chieftains’ crosstown cousin, Bellevue West High School, has won the past three Bandmaster trophies — and finished second behind East this year — and the Chieftain Band has also had its share of consecutive title runs.
“In 31 years of a state contest, Bellevue East and Bellevue West pop up on that list a lot,” said Ron Hardin, East’s director of bands since 2000. “The tradition runs deep. If you equate that to sports, it’s a pretty big deal and it shows you what a value Bellevue places on music.”
Nobody at either school is really sure just how many times either band has claimed that trophy, and, like the intensely choreographed, discerningly crafted shows, that may just be by design.
“We just see ourselves carrying on a tradition,” said Lalah McLaughlin, Bellevue West’s senior drum major. “Week to week, it’s about improving our musicianship and getting better against ourselves. In every practice, in every competition, we’re going against ourselves to see how well we can play and figure out: can we do better? Can we beat ourselves?”
Musicians at both schools explained that outlook simply: when your fate at a competition is held in the hands of six or seven judges, it’s tough to tie all your hopes and dreams to such all-too-human foibles and failings.
Competitions are usually scored on a 100-point scale, Hardin said.
“And we try to get all of them,” he said.
But asked what East’s point total was after Saturday’s state contest?
“I really couldn’t tell you,” Hardin said with a smile. “It’s really not how we judge our success.
“It’s too easy to get too high when you’re good and too upset when you’re not. We look at each competition as a chance for going forward and working on our process.”
The final results of each competition throughout the marching band season are pointed to like mile-markers on a long highway to the final Bandmasters competition.
West’s show, “Awakening” — which followed the lifecycle of a butterfly — was marked by a triumph at a regional show in St. Louis, where the Thunderbird Band knocked off a seven-time national champion to finish first in the preliminary round and ninth overall out of 64 bands, a feat not achieved in even that band’s rich history.
The T-birds were also first in regional competitions at Marshall, Minn., Blue Springs, Mo., and Des Moines, Iowa, in the run up to Saturday’s second-place state finish.
“It was a very successful season,” West’s director of bands, Kyle Haugen, said. “We pride ourselves on creating a creative show and one that the audience will enjoy both as entertainment and on an intellectual level.”
And with the musical interpretation of an egg becoming a caterpillar spinning a chrysalis and emerging as a butterfly, West was able to take home several awards for visuals and effects.
For East, the map looked like this: first-place finishes at Millard West and the Capitol Classic at Lincoln Southeast, in both instances also gaining the accolades of best music, best effects and best visuals — the former two also captions the Chieftains took at state.
At a six-state regional competition in Minneapolis, East came in fifth, the highest finish at a regional in recent memory.
The band hosts a fierce competition every September at which they do not compete but instead play an exhibition, and then there was the state win.
“You really can’t ask for more than getting better every day,” East senior drum major Tanner Casart said. “After that first competition, we saw it. We saw that every week, we were starting to rise, getting a little better, step by step. When someone asks how you did at a competition, the best you can say is, ‘We played our best show’ and leave it at that.”
Thus unmoored from pernicious statistics, the student musicians agreed band takes on more of the intangibles necessary to making art.
And while the East-West rivalry may be alive and well in other corners, on the marching band field of competition, the mutual respect and the knowledge of what each musician has gone through to reach such a high plane of achievement is more important than the bragging rights.
“We both did really well,” said Brittany Stein, another senior drum major for the Chieftain Band. “We both worked really hard all year and it really boils down to that matter of opinion.”
The real winners, band members and directors said, are the people of the Bellevue community who come out on Friday nights to watch the respective bands play their rehearsal shows at halftimes of the football games, who come out to competitions to cheer on their favorites, who let the music continue playing.
“We want to be the best representative we can be for the district and for the City of Bellevue,” Hardin said. “I think people might feel that what we do at a football game on Friday night is secondary to the field show we’ll do on Saturday. That’s not the case. We play to be the best every time we put on that uniform. We feel responsible to the people who pay our rent, so to speak.”
One very special section of the community, one intimately aware of all things band, are the parents who follow their musicians competition-to-competition.
“Even before that,” Hardin said. “In the summer, the parents are up here building and construction and sewing and repairing and cleaning. There’s not any way we could do this without them.”
Perhaps that’s fitting. Because for all that time, for all that dedication, there’s a special bond that forms between bands, the musicians said. Because, above all, even the music, what the seasoned veterans try to impart to the up-and-comers, is a sense of pride, loyalty and love.
“I love everything about band,” McLaughlin said. “I love who I play music with. We share a lot, we have one big passion for music.”
“We’re all a team,” Smith said. “This is not something we do for ourselves but it’s what we pass on. We’re teaching these skills that can’t be learned anywhere else in school.”
“But at the same time, we’re being pushed by our band,” Casart said. “I don’t know any drum major who wouldn’t want it that way — that the kids in your band make you better.”
And if your family is who spend most of your time around:
“We’re a family,” Stein added. “As we all went through this process of becoming drum majors, I think we learned that. It’s not a job where you’re a boss. It’s a service. And when it’s a service and a family, it’s about what time you put in.”