I stepped onto the green turf of the football field, in step with the 122 other high school students of our marching band. My heart pounded to the cadence of the snare drum. My mind counted the appropriate number of steps I was supposed to take to get to the right position on the field. My eyes tried to avoid the stares of the onlookers in the stands, not to mention the judges in the press box, waiting for me to mess up.
Tittering chatter ebbed and flowed as spectators waited for us to play. We were the last band to compete at the State Marching Festival. Our director expected fizz, pop, and wow. We were the underdogs, never having earned any respect among the music elite. Our school was known for only academics and sports.
I glanced to my left and right at two of my best friends. They smiled back at me.
I admired our crisp red, white, and blue uniforms under the brightness of the stadium lights. There was a bold stripe down the line of our pants that ended at brilliant white shoes, an attention grabber if any one of us was off the beat. The silly white feathers of our plume hats waved softly in the late fall breeze. One hundred and twenty-three metal instruments glinted as we moved, sparkling like diamonds in a velvet jewelry box.
My feet stopped marking time. The entire band froze, standing still, in anticipation for the culmination of a semester’s worth of practice: summer sweat from band camp, early morning wake ups, Friday night halftime shows, memorization exercises, and endless hours of wandering around a yellowing grass field.
Arms up! Up!
A pregnant pause stretched out as I flipped my flute up to my mouth, took a deep breath, and prepared to blow the first notes of the “Twentieth Century Fox” fanfare.
The Mountain View High School Toro Marching Band had taken the field.
Before my sophomore year of high school, I’d never seen a marching band performance. I thought marching bands were those people playing popular tunes, walking in a parade.
I never knew that the words “marching band” meant that a person had to play music while marking the beat with your feet while remembering how many steps you needed to take to go to a certain spot at the right time while your upper body faced one direction and your feet the other while keeping your instrument parallel to the ground while trying to watch the drum major while figuring how to breathe between phrases.
I never knew that the words “marching band” meant that I would have to spend my last week of summer, sweating in the high afternoon of 115° Arizona heat. I never knew that the words “marching band” meant that I was part of a huge family, that a shy girl like me would automatically have dozens of friends before school even started.
Before my sophomore year of high school, I’d also never seen Star Wars, the theme music for our halftime show. My parents were huge fans of the franchise, and they dragged out the memories of going to the theater in the 70s and 80s, awed by George Lucas’ imaginative prowess and special effects. They’d seen all three episodes (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) in original form on the silver screen.
The friends that I made during band camp were shocked to hear that I’d never seen the iconic movies. “Where have you been, hiding under a rock?” they asked.
I was fifteen and extremely sheltered. Music, at that point, was Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. I didn’t listen to the radio. I didn’t own any CDs. I was only allowed 30 minutes of TV per day, which usually ended up being a show my younger sister wanted to watch. My life was a repeating series of homework, piano practice, church, and Chinese school.
My parents ran a strict house. My brother and sister and I did our chores, kept our rooms clean, ate together as a family, played in our backyard. I was forbidden to have a boyfriend. I’d never attended a school dance. And I’d only gotten one B—out of all As—on my report card.
Occasionally, I’d sneak read Sweet Valley High books in my bedroom after dark, using my nightlight to see. I saved my allowance to hide vending machine candy in my desk drawers. I also secretly called a crush in junior high, whom I told my parents was a “girlfriend who needs help in math.”
On the Saturday night before school started, my band friends “kidnapped” me and forced me to watch the three Star Wars movies in succession…so I finally could understand why we marched in narrow lines for the “Main Title” sequence, why “Leia’s Theme” was played by the heart-wrenching French horn, why “Cantina Band” was so jazzy and fun, and why we had to sing gobbledygook for “Victory Celebration.” We poked fun at Luke, fawned over Han Solo, laughed at Yoda’s weird sentence structure, and wondered if Princess Leia wore a bra. It was the first time I really felt comfortable around a group of girls. It was the first time I really felt like I was a part of a group of close friends, like the ones I’d read about in novels.
Dun-dun-dun, da-da-dun! And down!
I exhaled in relief and stepped off the field. Our performance was over. I’d executed every step, every note, to the best of my ability. I felt good about my effort. I thought we sounded great. Did the judges think so, too?
All 123 of us gathered on the sidelines, awaiting our fate. Would we earn the elite rating of Superior, a rating reserved for the Big Five—high schools that were known across the state for their musical aptitude? Or would the judges dismiss us as a mere blip on the radar, unworthy of recognition?
The scores for Mountain View High School, Mesa…
I found my friends and we clasped hands, holding a collective breath. I trembled, wanting a good rating so badly that I was nervous. I could barely hold onto my flute.
A roar of applause and shouts of exhilaration shot into the air as we all danced and hugged in celebration. The hours of dedication had been worth it. The dozens of sunrises we witnessed, the glitter of Friday night football games, the occasional Saturday morning brunch…it was not considered a sacrifice anymore.
I beamed when I reported what happened to my mom and dad later in the evening. My first Superior rating. It was like I’d won my first gold medal.
Throughout the year, I encountered many firsts. My first lunch hangout table. My first regular school bus route. My first dance. My first football game. My first D on a test. My first time seeking teacher help outside class. My first crush who liked me back. My first drive in a car. My first A in English. My first class ditching.
But the best first was finding those friends; those band geeks would stay my friends past graduation, past college, past weddings and funerals and births.
From a normal person’s perspective, marching band is just a group of people making pictures on a football field while providing pretty music at halftime.
For me, it is so much more. It is teamwork. It is family. It is the Force that helped me to discover a new hope: friendship.
Note: I wrote this with my husband's students last semester as an assignment. Yes, I know it's full of cheese. Also, there is one small error in memory (for those of you who remember). but it's done on purpose: we marched in gaucho hats, which are large-brimmed sombrero-style hats...but most marching bands march with plumes, which I did with ASU. I did it to evoke common feelings for all marching band members. :) Happy memories, right?!