When the Pennsbury High School football team finished its final home game of the season last November, no one left the packed stands. The players and cheerleaders stood on the sidelines. They all stayed while the 180 members of the Pennsbury marching band played music by Russian composers like Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. And when it was over, there was wild applause from everyone, including the football team.
These days, high school bands can be cool. They are traveling around the country, playing at Disney World and on national television, competing fiercely against rival schools, adding ever more complex formations and putting on jazzy, Broadway-style performances.
”There’s no putting people down in the band at all,” said Marc Mandell, a 17-year-old drum major who will be a senior this year with Pennsbury’s band here in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia. ”People say, ‘You’re in the band, that’s cool.’ ”
As students get ready to sweat through band camp in preparation for another school year, nationwide statistics suggest that the popularity of bands is on the rise. The number of high school band directors is up 7 percent in six years, to 10,398 from 9,715 in the 1993-94 school year, according to the National Association for Music Educators. Sales of sheet music to schools are increasing, says Larry R. Linkin, president of the National Association of Music Merchants.
Some bands cannot accommodate all the students who want to join. At Steinert High School in Hamilton Township, N.J., 100 girls tried out for the band front, a kind of color guard that dances to the band’s Broadway-style program. Forty-five were turned away. And so many students have signed up for the concert band that they can no longer practice in the band room but must play on the school’s stage.
Dennis Blose, the band director, says his bands include football players and cheerleaders. ”When I first started, 23 years ago,” he said, ”you would never have a kid give up football to play in the band.”Students are even willing to juggle band and sports. Last year, Dan Belton, a 15-year-old sophomore at Haddonfield Memorial High School in New Jersey, went to soccer practice from 3 P.M. to 5:30 P.M. and marching band practice from 6 to 8. In the spring he played on the golf team while playing drums in the band.
”A lot of my friends are doing this,” he said, estimating that about a quarter of the band’s 50 members also play sports.
Formats are changing, too. While some marching bands, like Pennsbury’s, stick to a military style, with precise formations and traditional marches and classical music, others are striking out in new directions. ”The move has been toward a lot more choreography and trying to produce the Broadway stage on the football field,” Mr. Blose said. ”It’s not merely a halftime show; it’s developed into an art form itself. Bands are creating illusions that are almost magical. There are no boundaries on music numbers anymore.”
Here in the Pennsbury school district, with 10,000 students, Michael Grothman, the district’s instrumental music coordinator and former marching band director, has 1,440 students involved in instrumental music through the schools. ”Musical enrollment throughout the district has been on the rise the last four years,” Mr. Grothman said. ”Parents realize the value of students’ participating. And you find all different reasons from the students for being in the band, including ‘My girlfriend’ or ‘my boyfriend is in the band.’ Band provides a place in this huge complex here where they belong.”
The Pennsbury marching band, which has had about 180 members the last two years, will have more than 200 this fall, said its director, Mark Morris, 30, who remembers that when he was in high school, he and his friends were teased as ”the band geeks.”
In the 1997-98 school year, the Pennsbury band went to Hawaii, and last spring 20 of its members were taken by chauffeur to New York to play on the ABC talk show ”The View.” The limousines dropped the students off at school at the end of the day just as the buses were loading up to go home. Moments like that help lift the status of the band. And so do the sounds they make.
”When students see the performance and sense the emotional impact of the performance, whatever stereotypes they have are diluted,” said Paul Schlicher, who puts out the band’s monthly newsletter and whose son, Zach, plays the quints, a 40-pound set of drums. ”You can’t fail to be impressed and you can’t fail to be moved.” in the two nights of sign-up in June for the coming year’s marching band, Mr. Morris and Mr. Grothman stood before the students and were candid about the type of commitment they required. A 10-page manual for band members outlines everything from attendance policy to hair length and the color of socks on performance days. If you do not march in the Yardley Memorial Day Parade, do not expect to get a band jacket. The students, at that moment outfitted in the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts and baggy Gap shorts so favored by teen-agers, sat in folding chairs and listened to the rules.
”The commitment is very thorough and very heavy,” Mr. Morris told an audience of students and parents. ”I expect you to behave just a little bit better than if you were standing next to the principal.” They will practice rain or shine, whether it is 95 degrees or 30. And such experiences, members and band directors say, build bonds.” When a kid breaks up with a girlfriend, 180 kids are there to cheer him up and get him on the field,” Mr. Morris said.
When Matthew Maloney, 16, joined the Pennsbury band as a freshman, he, too, expected to be called a band geek. But he said: ”No one labels you like that. It’s the prominence of this band, the prestige of this band and all the trips we take. You’re going out and you’re doing all this fun stuff. This band gets national attention when it plays in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia.” And there is another attraction besides camaraderie and fun, he said: ”The second most important factor is, will the colleges like this?”
Increasingly, college admissions officers say, the answer is yes. ”When I was in high school, band was just above the audio-visual club,” said Keith White, associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Wisconsin. Now, he considers band and other musical activities a plus. ”The students who are most capable, most involved and the most academically active are also the kids taking part in high school band and music in general,” Mr. White said.
In the last 10 years, since the university tightened its academic requirements, he said, more students with musical involvement seem to be making the cut. About 85 percent of the applicants accepted are in the top 20 percent of their graduating class, he said, and out of that group 80 percent are involved in some type of music in high school.
At Harvard, high school band is one of a number of activities that is looked on favorably if the student has made a long-term commitment and has been successful, said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions.
”We’re looking for excellence no matter what a student chooses to devote his or her time to,” she said. ”More and more students have musical performance as one of their extracurricular activities.”
Four years in a school band where a student takes on a leadership role is ”a good way to demonstrate you can carry through on a commitment,” she said. Students seems to have the feeling that band will help them down the road, even though most will not choose to major in music in college. A few years ago, when Mr. Morris was director of a fourth-grade band in the Pennsbury district, a pupil told him that he would be playing trumpet through senior high. ”He told me that his father went to Harvard,” Mr. Morris said. ”His father had read that playing an instrument was important, so he was going to play in the band and he was going to go to Harvard.”