The sky was on fire the other night over the end zone — a breathtaking scene all too familiar to John Cluver. But this time, the boys and girls under its glow weren’t John on trumpet or Michelle, the girl he’d later marry, in color guard. Marching band had ended for those two long ago. Just the way most of the fun from childhood does when you become a grown-up.
“That same sunset, oncoming over my right shoulder,” the 48-year-old Center City architect reminisced with the faintest of smiles from the bleachers behind his alma mater, Marple Newtown High School. His son, Ben, a senior, was down there playing on the same field where John had stood a generation ago. “That combination of the excitement of performing but the tedium of repetition, doing it over. And over. And over again.”
Then came an onslaught of sound. Trombones and trumpets blared, in time, with tubas, piccolos, drums, and flags twirling overhead. You couldn’t help but get goose bumps. The kids were simultaneously in tune and in constant motion, their bodies forming shapes on the field that morphed like shifting sand dunes.
“Who’s the guy on keyboards?” a man shouted from high up in the bleachers. He was looking to get the volume turned down on an overamplified piano that was making a version of Rhianna’s song “Diamonds” sound more like Liberace playing chopsticks at Carnegie Hall.
“Felix!” another grown man replied.
“HEY, FELIX! TURN IT DOWN! THAT’S WICKED LOUD FOR A BALLAD!”
John and I laughed. I was there because John, a reader, had sent an email hoping that I would help honor the memory of the school’s beloved former band leader who died last year. Two generations of kids had been affected by Larry McGriff’s magic. Many came back as adults to pay their respects when he died.
But I found a different story: Marching band, I discovered, has remained largely untouched by the sorry-you-didn’t-make-the-cut culture that seems to have swallowed childhood and poisoned extracurricular activities from elementary school on up.
Band, at least at this suburban Philadelphia outpost in Delaware County, remains an old-school refuge. An antidote to the anxiety of year-round travel sports leagues and college admissions stress. It’s an outlier in an age that has conditioned kids to become crazed competitors before they even know how to tie their shoes.
What I discovered at this place high up off of the West Chester Pike, not far from an amazing view of the Philadelphia skyline, is that marching band dares to dismiss the dog-eat-dog forces out there so it can remain the one place where being average, good, or brilliant all blend into a harmonious, glorious adrenaline rush for all.
“I never had people to call a group — to call friends — until last year,” 15-year-old sophomore mellophone player Sam Lightcap confided to me as I watched practice one evening late last month. He was trudging around with a binder of sheet music slung over his shoulder when he spotted me along the 20-yard-line and said hello.
“I really haven’t felt like I’ve had people say they really care about me,” he said. “The people in here is what keeps most of us going.”
Soprano sax player Carly MacLaughlin ditched sports for band after middle school because she loves music. It’s a refreshing break, too, from the vibe of club lacrosse that she played all through eighth grade.
“The good players will all pass to each other and you’ll just be standing in the field, or you’ll get benched,” the 16-year-old sophomore said. Here, though? “There’s no bench in marching band.”
Their leader for more than 20 years now, band director Mike Massimo, has seen the change for himself. He played at Marple a generation ago, when playing soccer or baseball meant playing in high school and that was that. Today, the year-round grind of all-season league sports, video games, and the race to pad college applications with blue-chip courses has pulled kids away from band.
Which is a shame. Because it’s like an alternate universe where everyone can just be — the way they used to.
“We take everybody,” Massimo said. “We take kids that never played before, that didn’t even play in elementary and middle school.”
Gripes among regional band directors are that it’s getting tougher to attract the same number of kids to play, Massimo said. Even Marple had to reach into middle-school ranks this year for eighth-grade players because so few freshmen joined.
Let’s hope that these bands stay the course. And that today’s musicians light a fire of passion in their kids, too. In band, you experience one thing that no other sport can boast: In the purest sense of the word, you experience the power of “we” over the power of “me.” It happens on the field. If one player screws up, everyone is off. It’s over. Done.
“You can really feel this connection with 88 other people,” Massimo said. “You can really latch in and do this one thing that literally takes 87 other people to accomplish.”
Just ask John’s boy. He agrees.
“The best part,” Ben said, “is when it ends. When you rip the trumpet off your face and you’re panting and you’re sweaty and you know you just killed the show.”