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High school band competition enters an age of theatrics
76 trombones just doesn't cut it anymore
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald correspondent

Wheeling High School in the Knight of Champions competition.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Will they get rescued in time? Naperville North won the Chicagoland Marching Band festival with this salute to silent films.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

The Huntley band takes the field.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Warren High School competes in the Knight of Champions competition at Prospect High School.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Members of the Waubonsie Valley High School band compete during the Knight of Champions hosted by Prospect High School.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

A brass player from Fremd High School, in the 42nd annual Chicagoland Marching Band Festival held at Wheeling High School.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Naperville North's salute to silent films, with the band playing the musical accompaniment.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Huntley High School at the Chicagoland Marching Band Festival.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Lake Park High School performing "Elements of Balance."


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/18/2009 12:01 AM

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Where to see bands

The competitive marching season is nearly over for 2009, but there still are opportunities to see bands perform.

• Friday night: Local high school's half-time shows.

• Saturday, Oct. 24: The Illinois State University Invitational Marching championships in Normal. All-day event, but the larger suburban bands play after 2 p.m.

These days, the best show under the Friday night lights might be wearing spats instead of cleats.

Not too many years ago, competitive high school marching bands were a small, almost ignored student activity. Now, many of them rival the average high school musical for costumes, choreography and drama.

"It's not your average half-time show," says Annie Martinez, a spokeswoman for Bands of America in Indianapolis, which sponsors regional and national competitions.

"It's truly pageantry of the arts. Each of the band show tells a story."

Take Naperville North High School, which won last month's Chicagoland Marching Band Festival at Wheeling High School with an innovative show saluting silent films.

The opening scene of the band's performance takes the audience to the Sahara Desert, recreating scenes from Rudolf Valentino's classic, "The Sheik of Araby." Then, girls are tied to railroad tracks as a speeding train approaches, while the band plays "The Perils of Pauline."

Naperville North Band Director Dan Moore, who wrote the program, says organizations like Bands of America and Drum Corps International encourage bands to try to be more entertaining.

"That's right up our wheelhouse," Moore says. "For years, we've attempted to create shows with high audience appeal, while creating musical and visual challenges for our students to conquer."

Dallas Niemeyer, a certified judge and former band director at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, says thinking outside the box delivers programs that are inventive and colorful.

Not only are bands using more props and special effects, he says, but they are incorporating nontraditional band instruments, like electric guitars and keyboards, and a variety of mallet and concert percussion instruments. Even their music is unconventional.

"Arrangers are treating the music in very inventive and colorful ways," Niemeyer says, "which produce programs of great originality."

Prospect High School, a band consistently at the top of the rankings, is using George Gershwin's music this year in a program called "Rhapsody in Red, White and Blue."

Gershwin, a jazz guy at heart, probably would have approved, even though the program is largely original music that weaves his famous melody through an opening tango scene, followed by a "Cloud Burst" scene, before moving fully into "Rhapsody in Blue."

Prospect's director, Chris Barnum, says schools continue to try and push the envelope.

"The shows get bigger and bigger, as people try to do different things," says Barnum.

Band programs have been growing steadily for the last seven to eight years, both in performances and budgets. Now, Niemeyer says, successful marching bands are spending a lot of money on staffs and instruments.

"Ten years ago, you'd see bands marching on the field with white plastic sousaphones," he said. "Now, they're very high-end brass sousaphones that cost something like $6,000 apiece. It's changed the whole band a lot."

The personnel behind each successful high school show these days often includes people from the world of drum and bugle corps. Top notch corps, like the Cavaliers based in Rosemont, are masters of precision marching, powerful playing, and strong choreography.

High school bands that want to be highly competitive found the best place to turn were to drum corps people. That's the style they want, so they're spending a lot of money on drill, a lot of money on color guard and a lot of money on the front percussion section.

Lake Park High School in Roselle is a perennial powerhouse, with as many as 20 staff members, some volunteers, working with the Marching Lancers.

This year, the Lake Park band features an original program called "Elements of Balance" written by Donald Hill, a Los Angeles composer, who also writes music for the Glassmen Drum & Bugle Corps in Toledo.

In "Elements," the students musically and visually illustrate the five segments of Feng Shui - metal, earth, water, wood and fire - culminating with a sixth set showing the entire band in harmony, or balance.

The Lancers use props to bring the elements to life, including wooden percussion instruments and mallets for the "wood" section, and metal pipes during the "metal" section.

They even do a trick with a giant ball to simulate a droplet of water hitting a calm pool, and the band actually becomes a rippling pond.

The Lake Park school district contributes money to transport the band in five to six buses, but parents in the band auxiliary make many of the props and scenery and raise money for their costumes, instruments and extra staff members - as well as the four 28-foot trucks it takes to move their equipment.

Bands of America sponsors regional and national competitions in which bands are listed by theme, Martinez says.

"These are productions, not just marching band shows, that are very thematic in nature," she says.

Still, not all bands have added theatrics. Prospect and Wheeling high schools both have creative programs that rely on the strength of their musicianship and tight drills that dramatize the music.

"Marching bands," says Brian Logan, Wheeling band director, whose band has won five competitions in its class this year, "start with good playing and marching."