170 Kids On The Field

Let's see, the University of Toledo football team was on ESPN2. Don't remember their opponent, being busy with newspaper, swilling coffee, and mindlessly rubbing bare foot against warm dachshund belly. I looked up and saw a marching band, must be halftime, and the first file auto-pulled from my memory was a San Diego State football game, back when they played in the Aztec Bowl. A gang of us would sneak in, swill distilled spirits, and occasionally observe the contest. Since the Aztecs were always lousy, the only memorable gridiron moment was when the drum major came onto the field.

He was something, dressed in impeccably pressed white trousers, white coat, and cape topped off by a white shako hat and its two-foot plume. He entered alone from the north side of the field and leaned so far backward that the line from the tip of his plume to the heels of his shoes formed a perfect backward C. Four-foot baton at the ready, he'd bound forward, taking impossibly long leaps, travel half way down the field, and stop on a dime. Then, the marching band entered stage right. He was stunning, and since the SDSU team was so bad, the drum major became a star and always got the loudest applause of the evening.

* * *

"What does a drum major do?"

I'm on the phone with Mira Mesa High School band director Jeanne Christensen. According to a parents-maintained Web page, Christensen has taken the band to compete and perform throughout San Diego County, San Francisco, Colorado, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Hawaii, and Sydney, Australia. The foregoing, by the way, is but the slightest, smallest drop in the Mira Mesa Marching Band travelogue bucket. "So, what does a drum major do?"

Christensen says, "When we enter band-review competitions the drum major is judged, individually, and the whole band is judged. The drum major does a short, 15-second routine and then starts the band in their forward motion -- obviously, he's in front of the band -- leads them down the street, and beats time while they're moving."

"Is the drum major a conductor or another instrument?"

"My drum majors do not conduct. They play their instrument during the field show."

"They're not controlling the movement of the band?"

"No. Most of the large programs do not have the drum majors doing that. The band is trained to hear the drum major's whistle commands starting a parade, but once started, those kids are independently keeping time. We put in a lot of practice to get to that."

Want more. "Who becomes a drum major? Can any student walk up and say, 'I want to be a star'?"

"No. Drum majors try out with me in the month of May every year," Christensen says. "They have to have a parade routine, kind of like what I was describing to you earlier. They also have to do field conducting in case I'm ever out."

I wanted to know about the overseas travel...was it normal for high schools?

"That's, kind of, me," Christensen says. "I was chosen to be one of the directors for the Olympics, and that, in turn, benefited my students." Silence. "It's almost year-round now. The last thing that we do is march in the Fourth of July parade. The kids get four weeks off and then come back in August to get ready for the start of school and the competition season. Right now, we're competing at different field tournaments every Saturday."

The band -- 130 musicians, 40 girls on the flag team, 170 kids on the field -- is "doing drill designs. They've memorized 58 pages of different formations. And based upon the size of your group, you'll compete against other bands in Southern California that are your size. We've made state championships the last three years, and we're hoping to get there again this year. Last year, we placed seventh; the two previous years we were fourth."

Worlds without end. "When I was in high school, band was the place kids went if they couldn't go anywhere else. Things seem to have changed."

"Now, it's all based on audition. You have to audition to be in these groups."

"How many events do you perform per year?" I'm not sure I want to know.

"If you think about the football games, the competitions, the concerts we put on, the civic events we play at, all of that, it's anywhere from 40 to 60 in any given year."

Most professional rock 'n' roll bands would be envious. "More and more of high school seems to be year-round now. Sports, certainly. How long have marching bands been on the year-round grind?"

Christensen says, "I came into teaching 15 years ago, and it was set that way then. I talked to the director who was before me and he said competitiveness and the number of events have certainly changed. Like, we keep pushing the kids to do more and more."

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