Falling Out of Step: A High School Marching Band Farewell

Last night I had a dream that my yard and driveway were taken over by a marching band. I can’t explain how it happened and why they chose my little house to park in front of and warm up their instruments by but there they were and they were everywhere; the sounds of the horns and percussion seemed to engulf every room.

I went to my front porch, now fully aware that I was in a dream, and watched transfixed as these high schoolers acted as if it was perfectly natural for the drum line to practice by my tree, the saxophones to tune each other on my sidewalk, the flutes to gossip while sitting on the edge of my porch, their feet dangling and kicking over the precipice. Even the color guard was there, stretching and practicing their throws and catches on the street in block formation.

In the dream I walked through the crowd of kids, feeling very much the adult, and found a surprised parent, I’m not certain why she was surprised, she just was. I asked what school is this? Why are they here? She didn’t answer my question, only asking a little hesitantly if it was okay.

I smiled and said it was great. And then I woke up.

I never got closure for my high school time in marching band. I never had a last show, a last competition, a last practice, etc.; not like other students I mean. There certainly was a last one at some point, of course, I just didn’t realize at the time that was what it was. Then, not knowing what was to come in the future, it was just another day I wish I had taken the time to remember.

My band director in high school was fresh out of college, and looking back now it is almost shocking that such a young person got the gig for this job. See, being the band director of my school would have been a big deal in my state then.

We were Wyoming Park High School. We were former state champions. When we arrived for a competition the others in our division would usually frown and mumble under their breath, while quaking in their marching band shoes or boots or whatever they were forced to wear.

Let them worry seeing us there, let them quake. We marching Vikings loved it. (Yes, now we can argue that these competitions are in many ways meaningless, but, man, don’t they feel important when you’re in the middle of one.)

My band director and I had an odd relationship from the start. I played the alto saxophone and really wanted him to like my playing, my dream to hold the first chair position in the jazz band (it was first seeing the jazz band perform at my elementary school that inspired me to take up the instrument so long ago). I even took private lessons on the saxophone with him, but it never felt like enough to lock in a position of strength, as it were, in his mind with the other woodwinds. I always felt like I was taking part in challenges with other saxes, jockeying for position in the line, always defending, sometimes having to attack to get my position back.

Looking back now, the frustration I felt all seems silly, even though I know it wasn’t for me then, still to this day able to tap into that nervous energy if needed. Frankly, I wanted to be the best.

I never had a quiet personality either which probably didn’t help in that relationship with the director, and in my junior year I started to get strong indications from him that he wanted me gone. It started that winter and by spring, the occasional (and usually out of the blue) argument, the solo being taken away, the occasional harsh stare or word in a rehearsal were all too obvious to me. All of my fears came to a culmination with the surprising decision that my leadership position over my saxophone section in the next marching season was to be taken away. With that harsh decision, it was then that I considered seriously leaving the band I had given so much of my time, energy, and, honestly, love.

Yes, I admit it, maybe it was arrogance on my part but I couldn’t imagine having another player ahead of me. The saxophones were supposed to be mine. I was the co-section leader the previous year with a departing senior—I trained all of the younger saxes in marching, helped them learn their parts—and now in my senior it was being taken away?! And more humiliating, everyone would know it. You can’t go from a leadership position to nothing and not have everyone notice, especially in high school. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would be?

If the band director after the decision wanted to keep me around, he didn’t show it. It’s not like it was a secret I was dropping band. All of my friends knew, many were mad at me as if I was somehow discarding them or turning against what the band meant for all of us. It was a betrayal not being there for our big senior year, because weren’t we supposed to take state again during our senior year? That’s how those things go in stories, right? That was supposed to be the story we share, right?

Thinking back now I’m pretty sure my departure was what this young director wanted and had worked towards with me; see, there was to be a sax solo during the marching band show and he wanted another to play it. If I was still in the band and section leader it would have been mine. That’s not what he wanted, and I took the hint. He got the show he desired and I lost any hope of closure for an experience that took up so many years of my youth.

By the way, that senior year the band director and I never spoke after I left the band so, honestly, I really have no idea if he was happy about my departure, it is all conjecture. I even remember once on an early morning passing him in an empty school highway and neither of us acknowledging the others’ presence; his air being cold, his eyes looking right through me. As an adult, I can excuse my silence, I was a kid; but he was an adult, a teacher. He should have asked me how I was doing or in the least said hi.  Of course, it all doesn’t matter now. Time diminishes the importance of everything.

At Park, if you were in the band, you lived for the band. When the leaves began to fall and the air got crisp, filled with the smell of burning leaves in the distance, it only could mean marching band for us Vikings. Practices almost every day after school. And you had to always wear your marching band coat, declaring your name and instrument. Shirts, sweatshirts, sweaters, we all had the attire and wore it pompously like the football players with their jerseys on a Friday before a game.

We were the marching Vikings and we were proud of it. And in making that decision to drop band I lost that part of my identity.

That senior year without the band I felt like a character from a short story by Ray Bradbury, lost in a parallel universe. This feels like my school, I’m sure it is my school, so why does it all feel wrong? I kept expecting someone dressed like a drum major to emerge from a closet and tell me it was all a dream and I was in actuality strapped to a bed in some asylum or in a coma. I had to be still in band with all my friends, this had to be a dream. I wouldn’t give up being a member of Park, would I?

But it wasn’t a dream, and that fact became more and more evident with each band practice, band competition, and band concert I missed.

I only went to one show to see my band that year and even that was a hard decision to make. It was our Senior Homecoming, how could I miss that?  I was, of course, sitting alone, all of my friends being in the band section of the stands.  The joy of such games was now lost on me, noticing things I never did before. Did the wind always feel so cold up here in the stands? Were the nachos at the concession stand always this bad? Why did I never notice all of this before?

When the band marched out to perform, I wanted to hide, wishing I wore glasses or a fake mustache or anything to hide my presence. I was sweating, feeling the beads trickle down my forehead, feeling nervous; assuming that ever member of that band could see me in the audience. I left after the performance, before the band had even marched completely off the field. If anyone saw me there I couldn’t say. I just know I left and drove around by myself in my light blue used Ford for a few hours before returning home.

My reaction around the performance was emotional and ridiculous I know, but I was in high school and that show, right there, should have been my last Homecoming performance, but it wasn’t. Mine was the year before and I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it.

After the marching season was over, many of my friendships improved. I still felt out in some ways, but it wasn’t as bad. It’s just they all had their last moments, last goodbyes throughout the year (from marching band to performing together at the graduation), and I didn’t.

I never told my friends this but for a decade after that year I had a recurring dream. It would happen at least ever few months or so. It was always the same and it always started with a phone call. It was that band director calling.  It was all a mistake, they needed me back! I will try to explain I don’t know the show and I am out of school; but he would plead with me and suddenly there I would be, in my old sweaty uniform trying to keep up, not knowing the show I was in, struggling under the hot glare of the stadium lights.

My high school disappeared as part of a merger. The Vikings are no more, replaced now by Wolves. My memory of being in band is a memory no longer just to me but to everyone who once donned the blue and white. There is no going back save in pictures and old videos now. The merger is a good change for the district and the kids, yet with all of my feelings over that last year, it means something different to me and I can’t put my finger on it exactly.

Almost more surprising to me than the loss of my school is that my twentieth high school reunion is right around the corner. Some of my friends from school even have children old enough to march! It has always been surprising to me, and probably always will be, how fast time can be and that it can slip right passed you without you realizing it.

Whatever the case, if that dream band appears on my lawn again, I’ll let them rehearse there, not bothering to talk to any of them, just listening and watching. I might even bring them some dream lemonade if my imagination lets me.

A Jane Austen DaydreamIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I have had four novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an ebook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

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12 responses

    • Thank you. That really means a lot to me (I’m Park class of 1992).

      If you like my writing, please consider following my blog (I try to write on a series of topics each week) or checking out one of my books. There are links at the bottom of the article.

      Thanks again. Go Wolves!

  1. Your description of marching season and the feelings I get as September rolls around are spot on, 29 years later.
    Miss marching with my fellow Vikings. ’83

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. Even without that last year, it’s hard to escape the feeling of band every time the Autumn leaves change. I drove past a high school yesterday on the way to the grocery store and there was a band playing on their lawn, and I had no choice but to roll down my window and listen… They were no Park, but oh well…

  2. Great article that hits home in many ways. I had a similar experience with a certain director at WPHS my senior year. Coincidence?

    Regardless, those were great times that I always recall with fondness. My own son is now a freshman marcher in a competitve band, and I am looking forward to reliving some memories this fall. Hopefully you will have a similar opportunity.

  3. I’d forgotten how similar our marching band experiences were. TO this day my stress dreams still involve band – my current boss is inspecting uniforms before a parade and I’m missing my shoes, for instance. I have the “the show is in 10 minutes and I don’t know the sets” dream too.

    • Wow, the two dreams are almost the same! That is hilarious. Another thing I almost wanted to discuss is how marching bands are never as good as you remember them as a kid. Seriously, I’ve heard a few in my area (as well as my own band a few years ago) and its just not the same. Thanks for reading Andrea! Cheers.

  4. I have one dream that stands out that I remember, and for me it was about quitting the band, and trust me there were times I wish I did. But band, especially marching band, was a lifeline to a world outside of my world……

    In my dream it was things like constantly being late, missing rehearsals, being told the wrong time for performances, instrument being stolen, etc It was about a band director who tried to push me out……and in the dream successful. When in real life, it was a band director that put me in last chair for having to leave a rehearsal early, which I earned my spot back in less than 2 weeks…. Since then I have been able to put the majority of my high school memories out of my mind until recently. When I heard of the merger.

    I have long since moved from Michigan, never to return, not for a reunion, or a visit……So while I wish I could get behind the ‘Wolves’, I just can’t for I am a Viking, and somehow I just can NOT accept the merger of the Hawks and Vikings. Maybe if I lived closer I could. But I can’t see how its for the good of the students…….but that’s me. Each and every one of those students will have memories that start this year as being a Hawk or Viking, and then being a Wolve. To me it just seems surreal.

    Maybe someday I will accept it, but for now, I think I’ve for once and for all been able to put my high school days behind me.

    Maybe its time for me to finally let go of my flute, and pick up an instrument I always wanted to learn, clarinet and bassoon, or even a banjo.

    • Thanks for writing. I have considered as well taking back up my saxophone, but I have lived so many years in apartments while in grad schools (where I felt I would have been too loud) that I’m sure it would be now like starting from scratch.

      I feel the same way about having my old days at Park behind me, but with the 20th reunion and the merger happening over this year, it has returned in some ways for me.

      Cheers!
      Scott Southard (class of 92).

      • This year would have been my 25th Reunion, one of the Golden Grads as we say, I guess I just show my age and am an old relic, new things are not always easy for me to accept……It took me the better part of 20 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and now I embrace it and love what I do, to the point that I don’t feel like I’m working most of the time…….
        1983 was a bittersweet year for us as band members, I remember a percussion instructor that took the time with me to work on marching, I remember band parents working on the director to NOT get me kicked out….yes I was a kid who had no rhythm. But in 4 years I came out, and in the end I had some choice words for our directors that we had……I missed Randy Gilmore, he brought out the best in us, our next director his first replacement, Mr. Topolewski, and the replacement after him, I couldn’t stand, could very well have been the one that was there when you were there. Or was it the new guy then Topolewski, can’t remember.
        Young guy, couldn’t remember his name……but the people who made a direct influence on me in band were those of my freshman year, Bill Wynn, and our director Randy Gilmore.

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