by Diana Cook
On the winds of a hot summer breeze, the sound carries several blocks as the Phoenix Firebird Marching Band begins their season. Trying to learn music and how to perfectly march and move to it, all while conveying a central theme or character, is a challenge to be sure. As summer moves into fall, the goal presentation - a creative display of color, movement and pageantry - gets both easier and not. Students and directors can struggle with cohesion, maintaining a persona and style, or freshness needed to keep in tight ... and move towards taking any opportunity to practice and showcase the success already found with hopes of building it higher.
All through September there are chances. Marching bands from many local school districts hold their own show -often called a ‘home show’ - inviting other bands to come and compete as part of the program. Spectators cheer on favorite performing bands and colorguards while each school’s band/guard is judged in a variety of key areas. There are place winners at each one, a prestigiousness that drives school group’s forward towards achieving higher and higher scores. The pressure of time and intensity can take it’s toll. Will a band/guard come together as a team and ‘wow’ the crowd, or struggle to make it new time and time again?
These are the types of issues that arise for both directors and parents who support the program. Interest goes beyond the music to fanning the flames of spirit as the season goes on, with a variety of ways to approach the challenge.
“It’s a long season ... we start in July,” says marching band director John Bird, who goes on to point out that everyone gets tired. He also has faith that what’s put in place - with staff, volunteer help, summer band camp, consistant practices, and ongoing team building activities - will lift the whole band/guard team together.
An early jumpstart comes with the initial summer band camp, which introduces both band and guard to a physically rigorous schedule, while they learn music, marching and performance elements. It’s a time when ideas continue to flow ... parent and student volunteers engage in creation of props, directing staff begin to evaluate and change up drills and sections of music. The band and colorguard boosters come in to serve sustenance at the band camp cafe and everyone begins to learn the pattern of communication, coordination and expectation as they embark on the season together.
As they continue through August and into the start of school, practices are typically two to three days a week, after school and also including early rehearsals on Saturdays. Beginning in September Saturday afternoons and evenings are reserved for traveling to other school districts to compete against other bands who come in from around Central New York and the larger state, at local band home shows. And it can be in that September time frame that Bird says the show and even attitudes “can get a little stagnant. People are tired. Now they’ve got classes and homework.” Fortunately, in recent years, parents and staff have found another way to get the music performance moving again ... sometimes a change of scenery and experience is just what it takes to get the spirit alive once more.
A couple of years back, they added to the marching band schedule an overnight experience at Camp Talooli. “It’s become a great opportunity,” says Bird.
Out at camp, chaperoned by staff members and parent booster volunteers, the kids engage in various team-building activities, from taking on a ‘Challenge” course to ice-breakers and multiple chances for different kinds of interaction. Kids might work together in sections or get split up into groups, mixing/matching wind players with guard girls or percussion people, building trust through the games and challenges presented to the groups. They stay in gender-separate cabins but spend most of their time together with the focus on a balance of social relaxation peppered with a little practice time even.
“It was incredible, and the timing of Talooli was perfect this year.” Bird says of the weekend’s team-building results. “They’re hanging out at a campfire, they’re eating together, cleaning up cabins and the dining room together, helping each other through everything. We even lined a field out there and were able to hold an actual practice. It was awesome.”
It’s impact comes at a time when great uplift is needed, as the band shows are coming weekly, and inspiration can make all the difference in a competitive edge. “It was a perfect refresher for everyone,” says Bird, “It changes the whole tone and atmosphere of the group.”
From there, it’s back to the routine and holding the students and staff to their ultimate commitment ... to each other ... to doing their best. Bird also has expectations that start at the top and help drive student achievement on the field. “I think it’s a lead by example kind of thing,” he says, speaking to elements he sees as important for everyone in keeping things fresh and moving forward. “Like, if you start on time, stay on task, and do what you say you’re going to do ... if everyone does that ... it only gets better. Communication is important ... we keep them engaged and involved ... and listen,” Bird says.
The staff is “phenomenal” this year, the director feels. Camp contributes to lightening their stressors too. “It’s nice for them to get away as well,” he says.
That staff is comprised of and responsible for the many elements that go into making up the overall cohesive band and guard presentation. There’s a ‘visual’ caption head, percussion caption head, guard directors, instructors and assistants to the director who focus on a variety of details. And Bird says, “This is the best staff I have ever worked with,” including some of the adult drum corps’ he has been a part of. “We complement each other well, we’re all excited to be there ... in fact, a lot can’t wait to be there ... and mostly, they’re all so good with kids,” says their leader.
In addition, Bird recognizes another driving force in the success of the Firebird Marching Band throughout the years, in parent and volunteer members of the band and colorguard boosters.
This booster club, like others in the district, formed back in the 1990s when budgets were tight and additional funding was essential for supporting program needs. Members may be engaged in a variety of ways ... from planning and carrying out fundraisers to ideas and logistics for moving and monitoring kids to building and placement of theme-based props on the field during a show. They frequently chaperone students on the bus to a competition, organize and assign uniforms, prep food for hungry kids, solve on-the-spot problems like a broken strap or ripped out pant-leg hem and plan ways to celebrate success, as well as organizing and manning the Phoenix Marching Band’s home show.
“The fact is that if it weren’t for the band boosters supporting us, we wouldn’t be able to function,” Bird says.
He cites the work of parents who are there time and time again - with multiple kids coming through the program or even after their kids are grown and gone.
“Like Eric Kraus .... he’s been working with us for seven years now ... building props, hauling props. They recognize how important this type of program is. They are there for us... you just can’t replace them,” he says, “What we get in the way of support, from parents and booster volunteers, is remarkable.”
A lot of that support - in the way of time especially - goes into the marching band season ... where every detail associated with music, theme and performance can make a difference in scores. Depending on the theme, for example, there might be costume overlays that need to be made for band uniforms or particular ideas in hairstyling for the guard team.
This year, for example, the show theme is “Nightmare Before Christmas”, the 1993 Tim Burton musical fantasy film. Bird and his friend Pete Blake arranged the music to be used in the Firebird show with Blake focusing on the wind instruments and Bird on percussion.
They also involved the talents of Rick Morey “who wrote a great drill,” says Bird.
While some schools might purchase a pre-packaged show plan and music, Bird feels strongly that “It’s better for someone who knows the group to write the show ... they know the kids, where the strengths are ... it’s fun to put it all together too.”
The arrangement includes several musical numbers embedded in the movie ... “This is Halloween”, “What’s this?”, “Poor Jack” and then, there’s the finale ... which Bird says is a compilation of the music played throughout. Drum majors Laura Kraus and Liz Marticello keep time and contribute to the character and energy, he points out.
A John C. Birdlebough student, Alysha Briggs, “a fantastic artist,” says Bird, designed the artistry for eight tapestry props, doing all the painting to connect to the show theme as well.
The colorguard squad kicked the theme up a bit with “all kinds of crazy hair and make-up to fit the idea,” Bird says, “And it looks great out there!”
So far, the Phoenix Firebird Marching Band and Colorguard have competed in two shows, taking first place against the other two bands in their class at the last field band show. Liverpool and Central Square home shows are coming up still in October with the culmination of the season at the end of the month.
The final push is on, as Phoenix prepares to host their own Marching Band home show and invites the public in to enjoy it, while also preparing themselves for the last big hurrah .... the New York State Field Band Conference Championships at the Syracuse University Carrier Dome.
Through sponsorship and support by the Phoenix Band and Colorguard Boosters, the Marching Firebirds will hold their home show on Saturday, Oct. 29 beginning at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. In addition to a full schedule of about nine bands onsite to perform, the community will also have access to a full concession stand serving such meal items as hot dogs, chili, snacks, and beverages. A variety of opportunities are available to audience members to congratulate and support the band and its members, including flowers and airgrams for purchase and delivery.
Parking will be available, along with shuttles if necessary, to the program which typically takes place out on the football field, weather permitting. In the event of rain, the show will be held inside the building.
The Phoenix Firebird Marching Band has consistantly improved their performance scores throughout the 2011 season, with the ever-present goal of taking first place as they move through show competitions. Students, staff and volunteers are very hopeful that members of Phoenix and surrounding communities will come out and support the hours of practice, and get a taste of the pageantry and showmanship at the Firebird Home Show on Saturday Oct. 29.
The day following the Phoenix home field show is also a very big deal in Central New York as bands of all sizes descend on the Syracuse area to compete in the NYSFBC Championships, which has been known to draw upwards of 50 marching bands in performance competition.
This event begins at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30 at the Carrier Dome, and is one event very well-attended by the local community. Eager parents and friends always lend great excitement to the anticipated experience by lining the high school halls dressed in crazy orange and black spirit, cowbells clanking in hand, as they cheer students out the door towards competition heights and then follow them to the Dome as a personal cheering section. Community members are always encouraged to come out and add to that excitement and support as well.
The whole program, from student and staff commitment to band booster and community support is designed to engage as many as possible in the excitement of supporting musical performance opportunities for kids in Phoenix. Beyond the marching band home show, it’s season and its tasks, boosters are already busy planning other fundraisers and events that work towards fanning that spirit of inspiration.
Already there has been a Krispy Kreme fundraiser, a chicken barbecue, a fundraiser at Cici’s and soon their annual wreath, poinsetta and citrus fundraiser sale will open up for orders. Reservation information will soon be out for the band and colorguard boosters ‘Father-Daughter’ dance on Nov. 18 - a special night for fathers and daughters to have a little one-on one time.
With all the activity that band directors, staff, students, and parents put out for the benefit of kids, it’s easy to understand why flagging energy can sometimes be the issue in keeping the spirit alive. But, says Bird, “Everyone does a great job of keeping the kids motivated and marching forward. It’s been a fantastic year.”