To make a Bands of America champion

On a warm September evening, O’Fallon Township High School, founded in 1901 and occupying its main campus in O’Fallon, Illinois, since 1958, brings a marching band, directed by Melissa Gustafson-Hinds, to a Bands of America grand championship performance at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee. The band is led on the field by drum majors David Lewis, Natalee Barker, Lilly Schmidt, and Bianca Castillo. Their performance on September 19 marks the first BOA grand champion trophy for a band from Illinois since 2001.

OTHS Panther Gym. (public domain)

We’re pleased to present below an inside snapshot of just a few things that go into—and come out of—the development of a high school marching band program that reaches the stage of producing a BOA grand champion. We extend our sincere congratulations and gratitude to the staff and students of O’Fallon Township for helping us produce this report.

WHEN we plan for the upcoming marching band season, we reflect on the past season and evaluate how we can improve. This process begins almost immediately at the end of the competitive season. So for the directors, the marching band season is more or less year round. This year we made a decision to attend Grand Nationals every other year, thus attending an additional BOA regional instead. During the off years from Grand Nationals, we’ll be able to improve our process and purchase additional equipment needed for our growing band.

In planning for the show, O’Fallon chooses a simple concept and then selects quality literature to support this thought. The show this year is titled “Between the Lines.” It emphasizes the use of tarps on the field, which portray white horizontal lines from goal line to goal line.

The music includes

These selections demonstrate our music ability in regard to technical execution and in-tune lyrical playing. I believe the students’ favorite selection is Rocky Point Holiday. At least that is what they practice the most on their own!

Once the show concept was planned, we as a staff had to organize student leadership. I believe this has been an integral part of our success this year. The student leaders take their role in the teaching process very seriously and have a great understanding of the high expectation of the O’Fallon band. Every year our student leadership reaches new heights of responsibility, professionalism, and overall dedication. I am very proud of our leadership team!

Obviously it takes many parts to have a successful marching band program. It takes school support, band parent support (in a variety of ways), a great staff, and great kids. I would like to emphasize the importance of a strong booster organization. We have always had booster support for our band program here at OTHS.

Our executive board sets the yearly budget, fundraising events, transportation and equipment, and student assistance with our chaperones. OTHS encourages the parents to do whatever it takes for our program to improve from year to year. As the director, I have close ties to our booster organization and continue to educate them on the direction of the program.

Every year we make changes to our schedule and curriculum in order to offer our students the very best. It is my responsibility to explain to the boosters and parents what these subtle changes mean and how they will greatly benefit the individual student and overall program.

At a marching band show there are a lot of checks and balances with parent support and student achievement. It is essential for the band staff to be in communication with parent support (uniforms, chaperones, transportation, and props) before, during, and after a show. Also, the band staff have to make sure the students are ready to perform and plan for a warm-up that will be motivating physically and emotionally. The student leaders meet with the band staff to view the stadium and talk through preliminary competition procedures.

It was very warm at Clarksville when we went into warm-up for prelims, so the staff organized a proper warm-up for the band that would be sensible with the heat and also invigorating after a four-hour bus ride. Our performance at prelims was solid with a few minor visual errors. As a staff, we were very proud of the performance, which earned a top-five spot in finals.

After the finals directors’ meeting, the band staff met with the student leadership team first to let them know the times for finals; we were to go last in the competition. The head drum major and brass coordinators asked if they could have a meeting with the band to talk about the finals competition and how they could improve going in. I agreed this was a good idea and allowed these students to meet with the band, without the staff involved.

I believe this made the difference in our finals performance. I have always told our leadership team that they will be the ones to make a positive influence on the program—it’s their program. After their meeting, I had a new and improved O’Fallon band in front of me; they were still and focused waiting to go on the field. I could feel their energy and anticipation of the performance. And then they performed!

All students coming off the field were exuberant with their performance. At this time, I did not have an opportunity to congratulate the band because we had to move immediately to retreat, but my comments were not needed, because they were proud of their performance.

As they set up for retreat, excitement began to grow, especially when they were named the class winner and we were given the opportunity to medal the students. I don’t believe the students or staff were as focused as usual during the award ceremony, because we were awarding the student medals at the time.

The students remained poised while they were named for earning two captions. They also maintained their composure when they were named the grand champion—however, I don’t believe the staff did! We knew how hard they had worked and that it was great to experience an outstanding life payoff.

Having competed in the BOA circuit for some time, we have an understanding and appreciation for each performance, whether it be our own or another band’s. We maintain respect for all competing bands; we know that everyone has worked hard and is performing their best.

One band that has amazing professionalism is the Franklin High School Band from Tennessee. This band remained in the stands for our encore performance. I had the opportunity to speak with this band and director to thank them for their kindness and sportsmanship. I have since been in touch with their director, and we are hoping that someday soon our bands can meet and perform together.

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.