Still striving for marching excellence, now on turf

Morton High School, in Morton, Ill., brings a marching band this fall to a newly upgraded, artificial turf field at the high school, made possible through generous support from the school and many others in the community. The band is directed by Jeff Neavor, who has made great strides in the area of high school marching bands over the last decade.

Artistic (architectural) representation of Morton’s new facilities

District 709 recently approved the construction of a $4.7 million upgrade to outdoor athletic facilities, which includes the installation of artificial turf on the football field, bleachers that make the press box higher, and a practice field for the marching band with a tower to give the directors a better vantage point.

A fundraising event today, coordinated by “Build4Community,” a group that includes the athletic boosters, the band boosters, the lacrosse club, and the football alumni association, is called “Drive4UrSchool.” It’s just one of several fundraisers connected with the facilities upgrade. At Drive4UrSchool, Ford Motor Company will donate $20 for everyone who takes a test drive in a new car and completes a short survey.

The work on the artificial turf field is expected to be finished around August, which means when the marching band takes the field this fall, it will be on a reliable, consistent and well-marked, artificial turf field.

Morton’s shows have won many awards in the past, having reached the semifinals at the Bands of America Grand National championships in Indianapolis or the finals at the super-regional contest in St Louis a few times. The band was named Class AA champion in St Louis in 2012.

But the upgrade to artificial turf, from a main football field that was sunken in spots and muddy in spots and a marching practice field that had no grass to speak of, will certainly give teachers and students a better chance to fine-tune their performance this fall, without having to worry about staying on their feet in a muddy mess or finding lines and hash marks on the field they use for guiding their marching movements.

The show: ‘Open Your Eyes’

Morton’s marching band show this fall, entitled “Open Your Eyes,” is inspired by the young adult book The Giver by Newberry Award-winning author Lois Lowry. Here’s a review in Publishers Weekly. It was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Swift, and Brenton Thwaites as the main character, Jonas.

Jonas grows up in a seemingly ideal world: there’s no conflict, poverty, unemployment, divorce, injustice, or inequality. When he turns 12, he’s singled out for special treatment. Along the way, as he discovers the dark secrets behind a world where everyone has good manners, he experiences what is most incredible and undertakes what was thought to be impossible.

The ending of the book is ambiguous, and that was done on purpose.

“Many kids want a more specific ending to The Giver. Some write, or ask me when they see me, to spell it out exactly,” Ms Lowry wrote in a brief question-and-answer section on the book’s last pages. “And I don’t do that. And the reason is The Giver is many things to many different people. People bring to it their own complicated beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all of that. So I don’t want to put my own feelings into it, my own beliefs, and ruin that for people who create their own endings in their minds.”

Mr Neavor often develops marching band shows that include original music by Craig Fitzpatrick, the band’s brass caption head, and are inspired by literature. He has used The Hunger Games, Brave New World, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, to name a few, and combined the study of music with literature, history, and other subjects in cross-curricular experiences for his students.

This year is no exception.

Toward the end of The Giver, Jonas reflects on how it is usually better to experience true happiness and let what happens in the natural world surprise and amaze you, despite the appeal of a world without poverty. This is especially true when that ideal world is hidden behind restriction, censorship, and dull predictability. Just read:

Soon there were many birds along the way, soaring overhead, calling. They saw deer; and once, beside the road, looking at them curious and unafraid, a small reddish-brown creature with a thick tail, whose name Jonas did not know. He slowed the bike and they stared at one another until the creature turned away and disappeared into the woods.

All of it was new to him. After a life of Sameness and predictability, he was awed by the surprises that lay beyond each curve of the road. He slowed the bike again and again to look with wonder at wildflowers, to enjoy the throaty warble of a new bird nearby, or merely to watch the way wind shifted the leaves in the trees. During his twelve years in the community, he had never felt such simple moments of exquisite happiness.

Likewise, we expect to be amazed and awed at Morton’s show this fall, which we know will bring surprises beyond each curve of the road. We will slow our bike and merely watch. From a higher seat in the bleachers.

The field: artificial turf

Marching band shows, like Morton’s “Open Your Eyes” this fall, are written one page at a time based on the music being used. Each page, called a “set,” shows a diagram of the football field with little dots to represent each of the band members. Then there are instructions that tell each musician or auxiliary performer how to get from one set to the next—when to move there, what path to take, what size steps to use, how fast to march, and so on.

But even if kids know where they’re supposed to be for a given set and do everything they can to get there in the specified manner and at the appointed time, marching on a field where they can’t see the painted lines isn’t much different from steering a boat in the middle of the ocean without a GPS or sextant.

Band director Chris Kaflik at Broken Arrow High School in Oklahoma, which was named the Bands of America Grand National champion in 2006 and 2011, said he feels much more at ease when he finds out his band will be performing on artificial turf.

“With a grass field, you don’t always know what you’re going to get in terms of the field conditions—wetness, holes, bumps,” he said. “And the paint usually comes up off of grass fields during a marching band show, making it harder for students to perform an accurate and precise visual show.”

High school marching bands have been performing on artificial turf fields more frequently these days than when Broken Arrow won its first Grand National championship. Andy Cook, a band director at Carmel High School, just north of Indianapolis, had to think for a moment to remember when his band, Grand National champions themselves in 2005 and 2012, last performed on regular grass.

“I think Lawrence Central was the last grass field we performed on, and that was 2007—if memory serves me well,” he said, adding that artificial turf has been in use at Carmel since about 2005. “And there were many schools to have it before us.”

Mr Neavor said the only time his students march on regular grass anymore is when they perform or practice at their own school, such as at a football game or for their invitational marching festival every fall. He has high hopes for the outdoor facilities upgrade.

“I look forward to not losing practice time or performances at halftime anymore due to muddy or wet conditions,” he said. “Consistent visible field markings will be amazing too,” he added, saying that seeing the lines, hashes, and ticks on Morton’s field was in the past both a challenge for the band and a constant chore for the groundskeepers.

John Bell, director of bands at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, said, “Artificial turf has been a wonderful boon to marching ensembles.” He started seeing artificial turf on high school fields as far back as 20 years ago. “It’s much cushier than hard ground or regular grass,” he said, explaining that the rubber pellets used as infill on most artificial turf fields provide cushioning for marchers and may play a role in reducing the expected number of stress-related injuries. “Also, because it is artificial, the length of the blades is even, giving the marchers an even surface on which to march.”

So far, research has shown no major differences in the incidence, severity, nature, or cause of injuries sustained by athletes on new-generation artificial turf, compared to grass.

Performing in a marching band, however, creates distractions in the minds of performers: precision of movement, body position, music execution and all that goes with it, etc. Marching band therefore differs from athletic contests in that performers have to rely on solid footing, without looking at the ground too often, so they can concentrate on other aspects of the performance.

Mr Kaflik said he also agreed that artificial turf is safer for marchers than grass, due mainly to the inconsistency of regular grass fields. He added, however, that the strong need national-class marching bands have to practice precise movements on a reliably even and well-marked field was a more important consideration.

“I believe even more in the fact that the students are set up for success when they march on turf,” he said.

And that setup for success and performance excellence is what Mr Neavor hopes will lift his own band even higher and draw more bands from the area to the invitational in the future.

“I’m hoping the beautiful field and higher vantage point will also translate to better enrollment in our marching invitational,” he said. “Our judging panel has always been top notch, but the low press box and run-down field were not great selling points.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.