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Band Aid

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Booster clubs, and especially those for high school bands, are models of parent involvement, experts say.

Several years ago, a band organization in Florida proved itself even more zealous. It filed, then dropped, a lawsuit against the band director after he wrote the parents' organization of his intentions to sever ties between the group and the band due to its excessive involvement and unreasonable demands. Other cases have been less extreme, but have led to a director's resignation or dismissal.

"When it comes to educational philosophy and the music itself, [parents] should not have a say," says James F. Keene, the director of bands at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the president of the National Band Association, which represents band directors. "However, the amount of support the band boosters give in time and money and effort gives them a certain amount of influence."

Plymouth-Canton's parents seem to have found their place--on the sidelines.

In fact, the parents were forced into a more active role several years ago and learned their limitations. Amid budget cuts of the early 1990s that paralyzed districts throughout Michigan, funding of extracurricular activities at Plymouth-Canton was slashed. Students had to pay to participate in after-school activities, and some positions were cut, including the marching band director.

The parents felt it was do or die. They rallied to raise more money to pay the activities fees and hire a part-time band director.

They were met with some adverse results.

For board members then saddled with the additional responsibility of setting and maintaining the musical standards of the program, it was very stressful. The boosters cancelled the director's contract before it expired because they believed his work wasn't up to their standards.

Morale dipped. Participation dropped. The music program suffered.

"It put a lot more stress on the boosters. We were running the show," recalls Gary Fry, the treasurer of the group at the time and now its controller. "I think the boosters provided the continuity to keep it going."

The additional financial support, however, could not sustain the continuity between the academic and extracurricular programs that had been cultivated under Jim Griffith, who had run both programs for more than 30 years before retiring, and that had continued under Adsit.

"It was an uncomfortable role for the boosters," says Rich Steinhelper, the vice president of the group who has been active since the first of his three children marched with the band nine years ago. "You can't expect volunteers to do what a director does on a daily basis as far as musical development. When we started to lose that on a day-to-day basis, there was a fraying of the fabric that holds the whole thing together."

Relief came two years ago when the district again underwrote the band director position and also hired an assistant. McGrath, who marched in the band as a student in the early 1980s was hired for the top post. He also team teaches and conducts the concert and symphonic bands at both schools during the day with his assistant director, Amy Boerma.

"It is a miracle that the program did not fall apart at that time," says McGrath. "Now, I don't have any fears that the level of support will taper off because of that level of involvement."

It was the defining phase in the life of the band boosters. Today, they prefer to focus on their traditional role.

The Friday night ritual begins again this month. Blaring trumpets and beating drums will rally the spirit of the home crowds at the weekly football games. When the half time whistle halts the action, the marching band will finally take center stage.

As is their tradition, hundreds of band parents, clad in school colors, will sit together and cheer wildly. The 4 1/2-minute performance will be their reward.

They will delight in watching it dozens of times, traveling to competitions statewide, anticipating the season's climax in November. Parents have already bought 500 tickets to the Bands of America national marching band championships in Indianapolis. Plymouth-Canton won the grand prize in the event in 1990 and 1991 and has been in the finals of the competition every year for the past decade.

"It is so exciting to watch them perform," says Linda Bright, whose son Matt is a senior. "You just get chills when you see their ability and the level of competition. I've seen mothers get tears in their eyes when they talk about it."

For many of these parents, the band allows their children to form friendships quickly in a school setting that, with nearly 5,000 students on one campus, could easily overwhelm them. The tight schedule and grueling demands of the marching season also build discipline, organizational skills, and self-esteem, they say.

"For some of the parents, this is their avocation. Some of them work harder at this than they do their own jobs, and with more fervor and passion."

Tim Lautzenheiser,
booster workshop director

The students must also sign academic contracts that keep them on track with their school work.

Bill Erwin, a truck driver during the day and a string bass player in the local symphony at night, wanted desperately for his sons, Shaun and Chris, to join the band. Erwin knew the satisfaction his own music experiences gave him. More importantly, however, he and his wife, Patrice, knew it would keep them busy. Very busy.

"They are very social kids, and we were worried they would jump into a fast crowd," Erwin says. "Now, we don't worry about who their friends are" because most are in the band and have no time to get into trouble.

The band keeps Bill and Patrice Erwin just as busy. While she works on fund raising, he manages the equipment crew. He recruits parents who are adept at woodworking--or prefer hard labor to raising money--to build the props and backdrops. Every Saturday, Erwin hauls the instruments and equipment in a tractor-trailer to competitions hours away.

Their duties never seem to end. Some parents make the commitment for several children, participating as many as a dozen years. Others continue to support the program and offer their services long after their children have graduated.

There's the local optometrist who still does fund raising for a single mother who doesn't have the time to earn enough credit to pay band fees for her two children. And the "apple man" who passes out bags of apples after each performance even though his children graduated years ago. One alumni couple brings coffee to every booster meeting and sets up the concession stand for competitions.

"For some of the parents, this is their avocation," says Lautzenheiser, the band booster workshop organizer and a former university band director who promotes the positive effects of music education on academic achievement. "Some of them work harder at this than they do their own jobs, and with more fervor and passion."

Judy and Bruce Henry understand the obsession. They jumped in quickly this year, signing up for any activity where help was needed after their daughter Ashley decided to join the group. Before moving to the area earlier this year, the Henrys were veteran band parents in Georgia, where another daughter played.

"Now more than ever, we live in a society where families are struggling to find ways to stay involved with each other," Judy Henry says. "People say it is so hard to connect with their teenagers. We all have something in common with our kids."

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