At first, the scene is, by most accounts, reminiscent of a typical high school football game.
Parents and other fiercely loyal fans fill the stands, wearing school colors and toting signs, noisemakers and pom-poms as their teams take the field. And they don’t stop yelling until the action begins.
But at Saturday’s marching band state championships, the game was not about inflicting pain or watching your opponents fail.
“It’s not about beating others or scoring best,” said David O’Shields, director of the Lexington High School marching band. “It’s about doing your best musically and visually, supporting other bands and appreciating them. They’ve done the same hard work you have.”
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Six Columbia-area bands – Lexington, Dutch Fork, Irmo, Blythewood, River Bluff and Ridge View – competed among the state's best in the 4A championship Saturday at Spring Valley High School.
“That’s the best part of it for me, just getting on the field and performing,” said Josh Frankle, 16, a junior mellophone player and captain of the Dutch Fork High School band. “It’s just the feeling of walking on the field in front of thousands of people, and it’s just dead quiet because they’re waiting for you to perform.”
Those bands with laser-straight lines and perfectly in-tune harmonies were rewarded by the judges for a season's worth of hard work and endless practice. Faulty footwork or screeching horns, however, would cost the bands on the scoring sheets.
“We have no control over how good the judges score it,” O’Shields said. “It's almost like the Westminster Kennel Club dog show or a Pillsbury bake-off. Judges come into the event with certain preferences.
“We control how well we perform, so that's where we direct our energies and efforts.”
For the Irmo High School band, whose performance theme was “Design,” their visual presence dominated the field from the beginning. Musicians lay on the ground in a surprising start, their bodies spelling out the word “design” as percussionists played a building, modern beat.
They proved they could sound as good as they looked with an engaging routine that included pop music selections such as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and a jazzy breakout performance by a trio of trombonists.
Music has been the strength of the Dutch Fork band for the majority of the season, director Paul Clayton said. His band delivered an impressive visual performance as well, though, with marchers moving to some 90 field positions throughout their eight-and-a-half-minute routine.
In addition to a crowd-pleasing umbrella-shaped formation – keeping with their performance theme based on the “Rain, Rain, Go Away” nursery rhyme – the band executed a complicated conveyor belt line movement that Clayton had praised as much improved in their last practice before the competition.
Repetition and memorization are important keys to pulling it all off.
“It’s how many times you do it right so you can’t get it wrong,” Clayton said.
Lexington tuba player Graham Jackson, a 17-year-old senior, described marchers’ mindset on the field as “robotic.”
“It’s so regimented – where we have to go, where we have to be, what we have to play. So when you’re in there, you’re completely focused,” he said. “But when you get to, say, a hold or something where you stand still and just play, then you let your mind wander and you think about, ‘Wow, this is cool.’”
For Jackson and other senior band members, Saturday was their last hurrah. Lexington color guard senior Katie Hill, 18, finally nailed a difficult five-turnaround rifle toss she’s been trying to perfect since her freshman year.
“I’m just so happy,” she said.
With the entire Lexington band resting and thrilled with their “Apasionado”-themed performance, Hill looked at her best friend, senior drum major Rebekah Summerall. Giggling, they simultaneously repeated the band’s season-long mantra:
“Last rep, best rep.”