High School Marching Bands

It was as an 8th Grader in middle school last year that Cal Guy Snr began talking about Marching Band. Would he be able to join the marching band when he moved up to high school? What it would involve and how it would impact on family life no-one then knew…

Marching bands developed over a century ago to perform during interval breaks at football games. After the first World War many veterans with musical experience became involved in music education. Soon school marching bands started to become competitive organisations, with the first national contest being held in 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.

Cal Guy Snr’s high school band this season has involved 143 musicians with another 17 additional performers in the Color Guard. This academic year the band is larger than ever before, credit at least in part to the successful music programmes in middle schools. What must have been a particular challenge this season to the band directors and section leaders is that over half of the band are new intake freshmen (9th Grade students*).

For Cal Guy Snr the band commitment started with a three-day pre-band camp in June after the end of the school year. This involved sectional music practice (low reed, he plays a baritone saxophone), fittings for uniforms and physical fitness. Then, at the start of August there was another band camp (10 days, 11 hours per day…)

The semester started in late August, since which every Tuesday and Thursday evening there have been three hour rehearsals, in addition to performances at all home game football matches, some full day Saturday practices and participation in competitions.  Transport to competitions is in yellow school district buses, with kit, instruments and uniforms travelling in convoy in a couple of trucks. All competitions are on school football pitches where the yard line markings provide vital ground signposting for the musicians and performers.


For Boatwif last Saturday evening the 36th Annual Vista Field Tournament      was a total eye opener into an extraordinary cultural happening.  .

Bands are classed according to their size; when Boatwif and Cal Son arrived at about 5pm a Division 3A band (about 100 strong) was performing. Around the campus other bands were warming up before in turn each assembled with props and instruments at the north end of the field. The competition rules are tight: each band has 4 minutes to set up their show (percussion instruments, conducting platforms, electronics, props).



  A clear voice over the PA system introduces the band – and then comes “So and so school, you have 3 minutes to deploy…”

Followed by “So and so school you have 1 minute to deploy.” Under tight rules a late start (or finish) results in a reduction of marks.

In less than 4 minutes then a band of 150 or 200 or more participants plus equipment and props is in position to start…

As the competition proceeded other conventions were noted: the very formal salute made by the drum majors (conductors) to the judges before the performance started, the impressive heights achieved by twirling batons, rifles and flags,       the use of scenery screens on wheels,    the requirement to completely clear the field after a band’s performance.

Mesmerised Boatwif watched as band after band performed. The tightest of discipline ensured smooth arrivals of musicians and props. Each display was a colourful moving tapestry of tuneful musicians and athletic dancers deftly weaving patterns across the field.

Larger schools, according to Cal Son, can employ professional help in arranging music and drilling the band. Costumes, scenery and props seem to be created by backstage bands of parents and supporters. There was a tower for Rapunzel (Murrieta Mesa High School), a trained rose as centre piece for Rancho Buena Vista’s performance,   very striking marching tunics from Murrieta Valley High      and a river under which Cal Guy Snr and band made their exit… 

The judges have no easy job: under three major headings (Music, Marching and General Effect) three long lists of criteria are considered. (** See below for full list). In the final competition of the season Mission Hills (Cal Guy Snr’s school) broke the 80 mark barrier, being awarded 80.3 and earning a third place.

After all Class 5A and the one Class 6A bands had performed another highly visual ritual took place. Six representatives from each competing band, most now wearing a flowing cloak,   paraded in close formation around the pitch to form up opposite the judges’ box, then to move forward into an elegant arc.     27 awards were announced, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each class as well as Sweepstake Awards for best overall in such categories as Percussion and Visual Effects. As each trophy was presented there was much tossing of long cloaks back over shoulders and elaborate salutes between teams. 

How then do youngsters, many only young teenagers, achieve this standard of success? Much practice time, inspirational band directors, talented section leaders, commitment from the students, along with moral and financial support from band members’ families, seem to be the vital criteria.

There was further insight into the band’s development during a Family Night at Cal Guy Snr’s school. Led by the steady beat from the drum corps the band members wove their way from the Band Room down onto the sports track, marking time until all were in position.    Then the sections (brass, drums, percussion and Color Guard (the flag wavers) were dispersed to different areas of the field to do their own warm ups. Under the co-director’s instruction, aided by a drumstick generated beat, the wind players went through a series of bends, stretches and poses, before rehearsing a forward march through the ranks and a turn to march backwards – while playing…     


Jackets on,      section photograph taken,  plumed shakos on      – and then the band performed its competition routine again…          

and the repeated strain of Riverdance running through the central section gave this Boatwif a very particular pleasure… Not that this will be the final performance – there is to be one more, during the half time interval of an interschool American football match on Friday night.  “But don’t expect to hear the music, Granny,” Cal Guy Snr has advised. “There’ll be far too much noise and shouting and screaming from the crowds…”



*Freshman = 9th Grader

*Sophomore = 10th Grader

*Junior = 11th Grader

*Senior =12th Grader


** Judged under Music: Musicianship; Technique; Ensemble; Musical Content.

** Judged under Marching: Marching /Movement; Ensemble Technique; Individual Technique.

** Judged under General Effect: Program Effectiveness; Performance Effectiveness; Showmanship; Coordination of Elements.



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