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Linda Mah
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Taking Giant Steps Together

Hard Work Yields Rewards for Kalamazoo Central Marching Band

It starts with a few awkward notes. Throw in some fancy footwork and lots of practice. And in the end, it has you cheering.

While some may see marching band as a sideshow, for the musicians, teachers, and families, marching band is the main show of the football season.

Talk to those who march and their affection for band comes through clearly.

“I really love marching band,” said Rocio Gonzalez, one of three seniors who served as a drum major for Kalamazoo Central High School this year. “Everything about it is cool, but the friendships we make here, I think, are the best thing. “If I had to give a freshman advice, I’d say ‘just do it.’ Just do marching band and you’ll find that you love it.”

But how 100-plus students become a band that plays and moves in sync is a complicated process. Here is a look at a season in the life of the Kalamazoo Central Marching Band.

In the beginning

Marching band season starts in late February. That is when band director Dan Stout decides on the music for the coming fall. Sometimes, like this year, he chooses a theme, but more often he’ll brainstorm with other staffers to select a musical focus.

This past fall’s show had a James Bond theme, mostly because he’s always wanted to do Bond, James Bond. The show was drawn from theme music for the popular movie series, as well as snippets of songs such as “Live and Let Die,” “Moonraker,” and Bond music simply labeled “The Chase.”

Stout sends the music to a college buddy, who is an arranger in South Dakota. He arranges it depending on what Stout hopes to do with it in the show.

The first time the students play the music together is the last Wednesday in May, when Stout meets with his new recruits and returning band members.

They run through some scales and then launch into the music.

It can be a little … rough.

“This year after that first night, on Facebook, an incoming freshman parent posted on Facebook, ‘I think I’ve just heard the worst rendition of ‘Live and Let Die’ in my life,” Stout said with a laugh. “I wanted to comment, just wait. It always sounds that way on the first run. Most parents only hear it at competition. They don’t know the process it takes to get it to that point.”

Before the band plays

Stout knows what it takes to get to that point. He was one of those marching band kids.

“I started on trumpet and I was lousy,” Stout said. He was lousy but his teacher was great. “I didn’t want to quit. I was in the sixth grade. I was complaining to my director, ‘I’m no good at trumpet. I don’t like trumpet.’ He saw something and he told me to try the drums. It clicked. It made sense. I could wrap my head around that stuff.”

He went on to do marching band as a student at the University of South Dakota. He taught in Iowa, then took over for his old band director in Minnesota. He moved to Kalamazoo in 2001 and was a music teacher at Washington and Lincoln elementary schools.

He was looking at moving to another district when the job of band director opened at Kalamazoo Central. It was a rough transition. Marching bands come in essentially three flavors: corps style, which is a precise military style; Southern style, as often seen at historically black colleges and universities and in the movie “Drumline”; and Big Ten style, which is known for a high stepping form.

Stout comes from a corps style, which was a contrast to the Southern style of the previous director.

“The kids thought I was nuts,” he said. “They said, ‘No, that’s not the way we do it.” I told them, ‘This is how I’m going to do it.’”

You want me to play music and do what?

Band camp. This is when kids come to understand what they really signed up for. They have to play the music they studiously avoided all summer — while standing in the blazing sun in a high school parking lot, playing the same notes over and over, while coaches tell you to step with your right instead of your left foot, make your stride an inch longer, lower your horn two inches.

“It was very hard at first, especially in band camp and having to learn all of our dots and getting to know all of the music,” said Thomas Dillard, a freshman alto saxophone player. “But I think the support of my fellow saxophone musicians and fellow students really helped me. It got easier as time went on. We learned the fundamentals and then grew from there.”

Camp kicks off with two solid music days, in which musicians work with their sections, instructors from the school, and community coaches. Each day ends with a full band practice under Stout’s direction.

The third day is for new band members only, and that’s when they learn how to march.

“We just start from the beginning,” Stout said. “How we want you to stand, what we want your feet to look like, knee angles, elbow angles, shoulder height, how large each step is.”

The next Monday is when everyone comes together, no instruments, to work on the marching formations. When Dillard said, “learn all of our dots,” he was referring to the process by which band members learn how to get from point A to point B on a football field.

Each marcher wears a collection of cards that break down the complex marching formations into a series of starting points and stopping points — or “dots” — for each section of music.

“So Johnny, the trumpet player, is going to stand on the 40 yard line then move eight steps in front of the hash mark where he starts the show,” Stout said.

“Five yards is 15 feet and in band that takes us eight steps. To cross that 15 feet takes us eight steps of 22 ½ inches. What we’re training their bodies to do is to memorize 22 ½-inch steps. However, if Johnny only has to move three yards in those 16 counts, he has to train his body to move maybe in 3 ½-inch steps for those 16 counts because it all has to be one fluid motion.”

What does that mean for marching band members? Practice, practice, practice. Some days in band camp, a musician can march upwards of 19,000 steps.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but when it’s something you love, it doesn’t feel like hard work,” said junior Devin Dee, a member of the colorguard.

It sounds complicated because it is, and teenagers can be unforgiving sometimes — especially with themselves. Stout works hard to help them overcome that.

“We’re dealing with 13- and 14- and 15-year-olds. And they literally can’t play and move at the same time. They aren’t that coordinated yet,” Stout said. “‘Be patient with the process. It’s going to be hard at first.’ I say that to the kids constantly. ‘Be patient, you’re going to make mistakes. That’s OK.’”

The hard work pays off. The band earned a superior rating at the MSBOA District 11 Marching Festival Division 1. The band participated in five competitions, earning second place in Class A at Hastings, Lapeer and Jenison, while taking fourth at competitions in Otsego and East Kentwood.

“Our goal every year is to just improve with every performance,” he said. “Awards are nice. Trophies are great. But, as a staff, that’s not our motivator. Nothing is cooler to me than when you see a kid at the end of the show and you can just kind of see that look, like they had a good show, they had their best show ever, because they’re just beaming.”

Band is a family

Band is a lot of work. There is a lot of practice. There are a ton of mistakes. But what makes it worthwhile is a musician's fellow band members.

Gonzalez, the drum major, has been in marching band for all four years of high school, marching as a tenor saxophonist for two years before becoming a drum major. She had a sister who was in marching band, but she knew that it was going to be her thing too from her first day of her first band camp.

“It was intriguing,” she said. “I liked the environment. There was no one that was rude. Everyone was genuine and nice.”

The band is one extended family, made up of smaller families or musical sections.

“Your section is basically your sanctuary,” said Ben Venus, a sophomore who began playing drums in sixth grade. “You will always have support from your section. I have people in drumline who are like family, who are like brothers to me.”

Dillard, the freshman saxophonist, said it’s an upbeat environment.

“We focus on having energy and passion for what we do,” he said. “We really get along well. I really believe that we’re part of a big family and we all support each other.”

Dee has been a member of the colorguard for two years. She joined at the urging of one of her friends. She’d done dance before but never felt like she really fit. Colorguard is different.

“I’m usually a shy person, but I like being out there. It lets me be more confident and it allows me to have fun with my family,” she said.

This sense of camaraderie is certainly born out hours of practice in the hot sun, marching in freezing rain, and bumping into each other on the field. But, it may come from something else too: there are no auditions.

“Our athletic teams in this district are outstanding. And our coaching staffs are outstanding. And it’s a beautiful thing. But, you know that on those teams you have starters and you have people who don’t start,” Stout said.

“In band, we have very talented players and we have mid-level players. We have kids who like to play, and there are kids who just like being with their friends. We have a variety of ability levels, and a variety of kids from all walks of life. We pull from other sports teams and we pull from other clubs. We have all four classes. Almost everything is represented in band. This is an all-inclusive activity and that’s what I think makes it so amazing.”

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