My family on my mother’s side has always been enmeshed in music. My grandfather not only met his wife (the famous G-M-Z) in band during college by bumping her chair with his trombone (not a metaphor), he then went on to be a career band director for their local school system. They raised their children (one of which was my mother, the other famous G-M-Z) in a hotbed of music. I’m fairly certain that my grandfather’s heartbeat, when observed during doctor’s visits, sounds exactly like a metronome at 120bpm.
The grandkids, aside from maybe actually every single one of us excelling at an instrument during our school years, also grew up with The Classic Band Stories. Ranging from summer lessons mishaps on Seminary, to pregnant grandmothers scaling the stands during Marching Band season, to every sort of reed failure imaginable, my youth was firmly enmeshed in actual music and memories of music.
Which is why when I stumbled upon a high school marching band in Valparaiso, I had to film it, share it, critique it, and immediately email my grandfather.
Here’s the thing. They were good, and very Latin American Music-y, but there were a couple aspects to the show that differed so greatly from any high school band performance I’ve ever witnessed in the United States that I felt I had to formally comment. Here it is… Things That U.S. High School Band Directors Never Have To Deal With:
1. The salsa-reggae-cumbia-whatnot blend of music the kids were playing really brought out the crazies. Valpo has a healthy roster of crazy hobos, and I don’t mean this in a flip, derogatory way. More like, there are actual mentally people who roam the streets and most likely have no home. Some beg, other wanders and interact with birds, and occasionally they will approach and make incoherent conversation. They are harmless in my experience, but sometimes they get too close or start speaking in tongues, which is the cue to walk the other way. The music down here being naturally infectious and inspiring, it’s easy to see why the frenetic drum beats similarly make the crazy resonate a bit stronger in everyone…but especially the crazies.
2. Going along with item 1, the music meant that the crazies, who notriously do not abide by social constraints, also do not adhere to appropriate performance etiquette. The band director at one point had to wrangle a man who had wandered into the drum line and carefully guide him out of the performance. The student dancers up front didn’t even bat an eye or miss a step.
3. Similar to item 2, the other group that doesn’t obey societal rules is The Strays. During the performance in the plaza, a rogue retriever wandered into the drum line and contented himself sniffing the ground amongst the gyrations and beats of the band. Nobody really cared — not a single student reacted, which is probably very different from what would happen during any band performance in the States. I can see entire horn sections giggling and making eyes, drummers missing the beat and flag girls dropping poles in response to even one unexpected animal on the field. Not here. It’s just part of the show.
4. Mid-way through the performance, one of the front line percussionists wandered out of the drum line, tiny multi-cymbal instrument in one hand, cell phone in the other, eyes glued to her phone. She paused near the periphery of the performance, intently texting. [long pause] Really??? Mid-performance? How could she even hear that she’d gotten a text with all that racket around her?
5. There is a very distinct sound that accompanies some genres of Latin American music, like a whistling-type noise that punctuates the music and gives it almost a Caribbean feel. I’ve never known (and still don’t know) what this instrument is called, but during this band performance I spotted it. It is essentially a small, hollow drum that the student was, well…fisting. It was funny to watch for a variety of reasons. The student playing the Unknown Instrument seemed pretty pleased with his performance, too.
6. In the States we have the flag girls or the baton twirlers, typically in eye-catching, flashy uniforms with impressive skilled routines. In Latin America, there are girls dressed simply but with a jaw-dropping, booty-popping choreography. With musical roots the likes of salsa, cumbia, bachata and more, each with their own unique dance but almost all involving a surprising amount of hip movements and flair, it makes sense culturally that the student dancers would dance like that. But outside of hip-hop culture in the States, you just don’t really see that. Especially not fronting a band, and especially not when under the age of 18.