NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12533967/12533970" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Notes from an American Marching Band

Books

Notes from an American Marching Band

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12533967/12533970" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
American Band Book Cover

In Elkhart, Indiana, high school marching band is more than just a half-time show — it's a way of life. Journalist Kristen Laine spent a year with the Concord High School Marching Minutemen and their famous director, Max Jones.

Laine follows the state champion Minutemen as they defend their title at the 2004 state finals. She discusses her book, American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland, and callers share stories of their days in high school band.

Kristen Laine, author, American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland

Excerpt: 'American Band'

Band prays i

Author Kristen Laine spent a year in Elkhart, Indiana, where the community rallies to support the defending state champion Concord High School marching band. Above, members of the low-brass section of the Marching Minutemen join hands for a prayer before competition. Darrel Yoder hide caption

toggle caption Darrel Yoder
Band prays

Author Kristen Laine spent a year in Elkhart, Indiana, where the community rallies to support the defending state champion Concord High School marching band. Above, members of the low-brass section of the Marching Minutemen join hands for a prayer before competition.

Darrel Yoder

Hear the Competition

Excerpt: 'American Band'

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12479796/12527788" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Bassline dances i

The bassline cranks up the tempo for a particularly demanding show finale at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Darrel Yoder hide caption

toggle caption Darrel Yoder
Bassline dances

The bassline cranks up the tempo for a particularly demanding show finale at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Darrel Yoder
Band stands at attention i

The Minutemen stand at attention as they await their score in the 2004 State Finals. Darrel Yoder hide caption

toggle caption Darrel Yoder
Band stands at attention

The Minutemen stand at attention as they await their score in the 2004 State Finals.

Darrel Yoder
A tear rolls down the cheek of clarinet player Diana de la Reza i

Clarinet player Diana de la Reza reflects on her time with the band as her final marching season draws to a close. Darrel Yoder hide caption

toggle caption Darrel Yoder
A tear rolls down the cheek of clarinet player Diana de la Reza

Clarinet player Diana de la Reza reflects on her time with the band as her final marching season draws to a close.

Darrel Yoder
Band in the rain i

Members of the 2004 Marching Minutemen gather in the rain for their traditional post-finals celebration. Darrel Yoder hide caption

toggle caption Darrel Yoder
Band in the rain

Members of the 2004 Marching Minutemen gather in the rain for their traditional post-finals celebration.

Darrel Yoder

They knew they would win.

Even as the Concord Marching Minutemen heeled-and-toed onto the artificial turf, holding their instruments at attention and their chins so high they couldn't see the ground in front of them, they carried themselves with the certainty of champions.

Two hundred and sixteen teenagers raised resolute, sure faces to three drum majors, and beyond, to thousands of spectators who filled one side of the massive RCA Dome, where the Indianapolis Colts would play football the next day. They knew, each of them, that they would march in long lines that turned to the right and then snaked back left, that they would follow each other backward through curves, that they'd bring three and four and more rows together on the field and rotate them, keeping each line and each diagonal straight, and do all of this so precisely that the judges watching from boxes high above the field couldn't find a single foot out of step. They'd thought about, and practiced, every move and every sound they made on the field so many times that they could perform the routine on command, with their eyes shut, and now, when it counted.

They knew they had the power of a community behind them. They would form their lines on a brightly painted cubist tarp in the shape of a guitar, the neck of which led to a stylized scroll through a series of ramps and platforms. The set had been built and painted over hundreds of hours by band dads now standing on the sidelines in matching green jackets. The dads had run onto the field to assemble the set before the Minutemen went on, and they'd swarm out afterward to take it down. Band moms who all season had tended to blisters, sunburn, thirst, tears; sewed uniforms and served food; dispensed hundreds, thousands of hugs, now stood in a block and shouted, "Give me a C! Give me an O!..."

For eight minutes, the high school students would play a sophisticated medley that their director called "Guitarras Españolas." First, a concert-band fanfare led by the crack trumpet section, followed by a technically difficult piece that sped up as it progressed, requiring the horn players to double-tongue while they marched nearly three steps every second. Crashing cymbals would herald an edgy concerto for electric guitar and wind orchestra, a composition so new that it had premiered in concert only the year before. Their finale: a swing-band chestnut so familiar no one played it anymore, and therefore shocked with both recognition and surprise.

And then they went out and did it.

Amanda Bechtel played fast triplets on piccolo while striding backward on tiptoe in a different rhythm. Cameron Bradley swung his saxophone toward the back sideline, and thought, Perfect so far. Brent Lehman marched along the front with the trombones, sending every rapid note straight up to the judges' boxes, daring them to find a single mistake.

Nick Stubbs sidestepped along the back of the field, his hands flashing above his snare. He rolled thunder from his sticks, and the long lines atomized, fragmented. The small groups played faster and the music grew more dissonant. Matt Tompkins's solo guitar joined the argument, moving from acoustic Spanish flamenco into rock concert wail and screaming to a final distended high note.

And then, tension released and unity re-established, the entire band played "Malagueña." Grant Longenbaugh leaned back on the fifty-yard line and blew his horn. He'd kept the trumpets together during the final dissonant notes of "Chaos Theory," kept them driving to the end, as he'd kept the entire high-brass section together during the past season. All the kids in his section, and in others, too, watched Grant, copied Grant, believed because Grant believed. He never doubted they'd win.

After the results were announced, the drum majors swigged milk beneath a sign that said, "Winners Drink Milk," and carried the tall trophy between them as they led the band outside, past a cheering crowd. The 2003 Indiana Class B state champions celebrated on the plaza outside the Dome, surrounded by more than a thousand supporters. Veteran director Max Jones said, in front of everyone gathered there, "You have been a special band from day one."

He could have stopped then, stopped talking, stopped working, even, called that win the cap of a long career. But Max Jones had one more mission. He was on the brink of creating one last dynasty: not just a band that brought home trophies but a music program so top-to-bottom strong — from the high school's top jazz and concert bands to the elementary-school band — that it would give thousands more their own shots at becoming champions. He wanted to institutionalize the notion, for every student who came through the Concord music program, that greatness emerged only when all, together, strove for perfection. Along with many in the band and the community — and indeed, along with the students themselves — he thought the upcoming seniors, the Class of 2005, were the ones he needed to help him finish his task.

Excerpted from American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland, by Kristen Laine. Copyright © 2007 by Kristen Laine. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

American Band

Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland

by Kristen Laine

Hardcover, 324 pages |

purchase

Buy Featured Book

Title
American Band
Subtitle
Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland
Author
Kristen Laine

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.