High school marching bands in the suburbs spend a significant chunk of summer getting ready for halftime shows and grueling band competitions.
Marching bands from Shaler Area, Norwin, Moon Area and Upper St. Clair high schools -- as do bands from across the region -- put in hundreds of hours of sweat equity and give up lots of vacation time at the pool to perfect these shows. Still, these young musicians and dancers insist the experience is more than worth all the work. Musicians and color guard members said they gain a valuable skill, make lifelong friends and learn how to work together.
And come fall, they're ready -- and eager -- to put on spectacular shows on football fields and to compete in regional and national competitions.
Staff writers Molly Born and Annie Siebert attended several high school band camps and practices last month.
Later this season, the Post-Gazette will look at the bands' finished product.
In the meantime, audiences can do their own critiques and, perhaps, follow the advice of Emily Pert, a drum major with the Shaler Area band:
"Anyone who wants to see what it's like should come to a game."
Aug. 6 was the first day of band camp for the Shaler Area marching band, but an observer wouldn't know it to look at the 150 or so students assembled on the field.
That's because none were holding instruments.
Because the Shaler Area band has 66 new recruits this year -- for some, it was literally the first day of marching band instruction -- Day One of band camp was spent teaching marching basics: coming to attention, marking time, marching, turning while marching, etc.
"We'll spend all morning marching up and down the field," band director George Tepshich said.
This is the first year Shaler Area has allowed eighth-graders in the marching band as a way to build the program, Mr. Tepshich said. It might make for a stellar band in a few years, but right now, a significant number of the band's members are pretty green.
"Feet together, new people!" Mr. Tepshich shouted into a headset microphone on the first day of camp. "Feet together!"
He demonstrated how to march and keep the lines straight -- he told students to match their strides with the others in their line and take eight tidy steps between each yard line.
"If everybody does that, these lines will stay nice and straight," he said.
On a first attempt, though, the lines did not stay nice and straight. The students took eight steps, shouting "Line!" every fourth beat, but after those eight steps, several members shifted forward or retreated to get back into lines.
"You need to get used to staying on the beat," Mr. Tepshich said. "Otherwise you'll just be strolling across the field while everyone else is marching."
By the fourth try, the marching had improved. Mr. Tepshich then instructed the students to march from the center of the field to the end zone. The formation fell apart well before they made it to the end zone, and most students were doing more walking than marching.
"Left-right-left-right-looks-weird-feels-weird-but-you'll-get-it," Mr. Tepshich said to the beat of a cow bell.
"This is very difficult!" one student shouted.
As they learned to walk sideways while facing forward, a few of the younger members looked terrified, as though at any moment their legs would betray them, twist together and drag them down to the field.
Just three days later, however, the band looked, well, like a marching band.
"By the end of next week, it'll be pretty solid," Mr. Tepshich said.
Shaler Area will perform six songs for parades and competitions this season, including "El Cumbanchero," "Soak Up the Sun" and "Karn Evil 9" by progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The students said marching band takes a lot of effort, but it's worth it.
"It's definitely a lot of work, but it's very rewarding," said drum major Emily Pert, a senior. "Anyone who wants to see what it's like should come to a game."
Collin Ziegler, the other drum major, agreed.
"We complain about our uneven tan lines, but in the end it's worth it," he said.
-- By Annie Siebert
Aug. 8 was a sweltering day here -- temperatures spiked into the 90s and an air quality action warning was in effect, encouraging people to stay inside in air-conditioned comfort.
Standing still in the shade was insufferable. Imagine being in bright sunlight, walking fast and carrying and playing an instrument, sometimes as unwieldy as a tuba.
But that's exactly what more than 100 Norwin High School students were doing.
At first, they stood stock-still on a cement practice field, holding instruments, awaiting their next instructions.
The performance was broken into small segments, and after each one, band director Robert Traugh yelled from a tower overlooking the field to the students, "Please check and adjust!"
Their heads snapped down in unison to stare at the ground. Some made small shifts.
"Please step it off," he said after another few seconds of playing. "We definitely need to [do that] in the flutes."
One girl, holding a flute, took three carefully measured, heel-toe steps. Later in the practice, a French horn player took one big step forward.
"I don't know what happened," he said.
Toward the end of band camp, the Norwin marching band comes together with almost military-esque discipline and precision.
But that comes after a lot of hard work and dedication. During the last week of school, there's an orientation for freshmen and new members. A few practices are held to go over the fundamentals of marching, sans instruments, "so they can focus on their feet and they aren't distracted by their instruments," drum major Johnny Murray said.
Then, weekly practices are held every Monday through June and July, and a five-day music camp is held in June. In July, the band holds "visual camp" -- one or two practices focusing on dancing and marching.
Come August, band camp begins. It's three weeks with eight-hour practices the first two weeks and four-hour practices the last week.
"That's the majority of the rehearsal and commitment," said Johnny, a 17-year-old senior from Irwin.
"It is really difficult, and it takes a whole lot of dedication," he said. "In the end, it's worth it."
Norwin's marching band has a rich history, and many claim it has brought more accolades to the district than the football team.
Norwin will perform Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for its halftime show, and its competitive performance is titled, "The Road to You," an original composition by Mr. Traugh. This year, Mr. Traugh and the rest of the band staff decided to make the competitive performance more like something that would be seen on a stage. The four-part performance is about a couple separated by war, and the piece follows the woman trying to get back to the man.
"It's like chapters in a book," Mr. Traugh said.
Mr. Traugh said the Norwin Band Aides, a parent booster organization, is "probably one of the best in the country" in terms of support for music education.
Classes during the school year are dedicated to learning music, and students use software called SmartMusic to practice concert and marching band music year-round.
Technology is present during performances, too; one student is dedicated to running a soundboard, and two computers are hooked up to synthesizers.
"The kids are just really dedicated," said North Huntingdon resident Karrie Bartuska, whose son, Sam, plays saxophone in the marching band. "I think the freshmen trust the upperclassmen that this is worth something."
April Ngo, 16, a co-section leader for the clarinet section and a junior from Irwin, said people are "blown away" when they see the band's polished performance.
"All the payoff comes when we actually get to perform for people who don't get to see how much time we put in," she said.
-- By Annie Siebert
At Moon Area High School, precision is key.
Band director Nick Barthen's summer practice schedule for his 128 students is incredibly regimented. He requires lengthy group stretches before each practice, and breaks are few -- just enough time to down some water at the sidelines and trot back onto the field. He sends a schedule to his staff before each bi-weekly practice, broken down into 15-minute increments in some sections.
The field show's theme this year is "U" and features "Who Are You" by The Who and "Someone Like You" by Adele. It also includes a song by Skrillex, which marks the marching band's first foray into electronic dance music, and it was a welcome one.
"You turn on the radio, you're going to hear that," Mr. Barthen said.
This band's discipline was evident at a recent evening practice at McCormick Elementary School. The students are learning 96 pages of drills on the field. They don't stand and play but remain in constant motion in a drum corps-style glide step for almost the entire 7 1/2-minute show.
The band learned almost a third of the pages at a week-long band camp at Washington & Jefferson College in late July. Members practice evenings twice weekly through early November.
When they're here, Mr. Barthen said, he doesn't waste their time and they don't waste his. He admitted the band has work still to do, even with a competition days away. A large, talented senior class graduated in May, he said, and many new faces are picking up instruments for the first time.
On the mild Tuesday night -- the first practice without rain in a few weeks -- the band rehearsed a small section of "Who Are You" over and over again until it was presentable.
"What we do here is not for the faint of heart," he said. "This is the biggest team sport in the world. I can't sit my team players here."
As field commander, 18-year-old Chris Lutz carries many responsibilities, and one Tuesday that included running to get replacement batteries for the director's walkie-talkie.
Chris has been in band since eighth grade and shares field commander duties with two other boys. All play clarinet.
Although he's not playing this year, Chris said the show's lineup and its new electronic elements are a good way to end on top.
"This is probably going to be my favorite show in all the years I've done this," he said.
The band also is using technology in interesting ways. A recording of each individual part in this field show is on the band's website, which members can access from home, so there's no excuse for not practicing at home.
"If they forget their music, they can download it," Mr. Barthen said.
The elementary school band director offers amusing Web podcasts, including "Mr. C Wants You To Practice" set to spooky music that implores elementary students to practice daily.
-- By Molly Born
Don Pickell held only his iPhone during Upper Saint Clair's band camp Aug. 13.
In a nearby folder, the director keeps trusty hard copies for backup, but his smart phone does the job of many other tools that he used to rely on. He holds the phone's speaker to his headset so the band can practice to a recording before members run through the show for real.
Mr. Pickell has laid out field show formations in PDF format, too, so he can load them on his phone and email a copy to students, who can access them on their own devices. One student, Mr. Pickell said, tried to learn the formations on his iPad, but that proved a little too unwieldy.
It was Day One of a two-week band camp held in the high school parking lot from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It was a cool, breezy morning, the perfect time of day to practice on an asphalt parking lot. By late morning, it had warmed up and sweat had formed, even under the neck straps of a small but powerful group of saxophone players.
This year, the 120-member band is playing music from the 2004 Disney film "The Incredibles."
"We have a strong brass section, and I wanted to feature that," Mr. Pickell said.
It's a talented section of French horns and wailing trumpets, to name a few. One member of the top brass is senior Genna Gustas -- the only female in the trombone section, an instrument she has wanted to play since fourth grade.
She chose the trombone, she said between gulps of water during a quick break, because it's a lot like her.
"It's loud, it's outgoing and it stands out above everyone else."
A friend from the clarinet section jumped in to affirm that: "Her spirit is awesome."
Late in the practice, the band broke into sections to run through parade music. Two tenor saxophone players sat away from the others and practiced in the shade on a grassy knoll near the parking lot.
In the middle of band camp, the students had to stop and rehearse their cadence and parade music for an event at Kennywood. Changing gears is just part of the game for many bands.
With all the hours the members clock on hot parking lots, on fields and in band rooms, perfecting every pinwheel, slide and flank, it's sometimes hard to believe they're only in high school.
Every now and then, though, there are reminders.
Shouted Mr. Pickell to one student during band camp: "Turn around and stop talking to that girl!"
-- By Molly Born