by Guy Thompson
It’s 90 degrees and very humid out here. And standing on the asphalt behind Northridge High School, it feels much, much hotter.
But no one complains. The 154 Northridge High School Marching Band members move quietly, instruments up, faces tense with concentration, as a loud, electronic “tick, tick, tick” fills the air. They reach the end of a section and stop. “Fix,” says NHS Marching Band Director Brad Zook from the observation tower.
A few band members shift one way or another. Check their position relative to the others.
“Again,” Zook says and the band scrambles back to their starting positions to run through a single, 30-second section of their show. And they will do it again. And again. They are seeking perfection.
It’s only 78 days until the state marching band competition.
This is Zook’s 14th year as band director for Northridge High School. He came to NHS because “I thought this school always had tremendous potential for growth,” he said. The band had the numbers, he added, but he saw room for improvement with the band’s performance.
The work begins in the middle school, with Zook working with Northridge Middle School Director Bryce Cone. “He’s done an amazing job with the middle school band,” Zook stated. That gives him a base to build from when students come into the high school as freshmen. “The playing ability increases dramatically with the middle school kids coming in,” Zook noted.
The size of the band has increased as well. Eight years ago, the band had just under 100 members. Now, with over 150 on the field, “it is so much easier to generate excitement and affect a big sound,” Zook said. The “excitement” comes from those moments when the band produces “big volume,” as Zook describes it, and specific drill forms, such as when the entire band marches straight toward the audience.
The shows have changed over the years, becoming faster and more challenging with even more drill moves. Other areas have increased as well, Zook points out. The front percussion, the section that lines up along the sideline with xylophones and special instruments, has grown, taking two large trailers to transport equipment to the field. “The front sideline percussion is playing 20-times the notes they did 10 years ago,” Zook said. That adds even more depth to the show. “Micah Detweiler, our percussion instructor, has increased their skills so much,” Zook said.
Then there is the color guard under the direction of Brittany Rogers, adding flair and color to the show. “She’s done a great job with them,” Zook stated.
As the band scrambles back into place in practice, Drum Major Breanne Friskney, a senior at NHS, moves around the other band members, checking spacing when they pause or watching the drill formations take shape. Later, she’ll be up on the stand on the sideline, keeping perfect time as they go through the drills again and again.
For Friskney, who has been in band since the 6th grade, this is the place she enjoys the most. “It’s a really cool thing to do and it’s helped me be a better person,” she said. But, she adds, “It’s not about just myself.” This is, in every sense of the word, a team. “The band as a whole matters. If you take one person out, that can mean moving on or not,” she noted. Each spot is mapped out, with each band member having his or her specific spot to be on each beat of every song. And if someone is absent, or not in their spot, it shows like a missing tooth.
Those spots were planned months earlier by Zook, who began designing the 2016 show in December of last year. “I pick the music and then develop the theme around that,” he said. This year, the theme is based around the Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven,” and is called “Nevermore.”
Toward the end of the school year, once he knows who will be in the band for the coming year, he begins to lay out the marching formations, assigning each person to a spot for each moment of the show. The band members get the music at the end of the school year and practice at home and return in late July and early August for two weeks of practice, working throughout the day to master the drills. “They did an awesome job learning their music on this. I’m very proud of them,” Zook said.
Knowing the music so well allows them to focus on the marching for those two weeks. “Those two weeks are very important. I’m very pleased how it’s gone. We have a very hardworking group,” Zook added.
Meanwhile, parents from the band boosters are helping with building props to be used in the show. “Our boosters are tremendous. They help raise money. Help with logistics. Provide food,” Zook lists.
All of this effort – from the musicians, color guard, percussion, parents, and Zook – is focused on one show: the state competition on October 29 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The band has competed at the state contest eight of the last 11 years, finishing as high as 6th.
To reach state, they have to advance from regional and semi-state. “Most of the kids, sophomores and older, know what it takes to make state finals,” Zook said. “The freshmen come in and recognize that. That’s how you build the program.”
And it takes a lot of work. Often out in the sun on hot summer days. “It’s really tiring and draining,” Friskney said. With this her last year in the band, she admits that she probably won’t pursue marching band in college. “I love this band so much, I want to leave the experience of it here,” she said, adding that marching with another band just wouldn’t be the same.
The NHS Marching Raiders’ first contest is September 10 at Goshen. They will also perform their show at NHS home games throughout the season.