Band Aid

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Behind the scenes of high school bands across America is the ultimate parent involvement group—the band boosters.

Camp Kohahna, near Maple City, Mich.

It was all so overwhelming at first. Chris Davis' initiation into the world of the marching band at Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, a two high school campus in a suburb of Detroit, seemed unreal. The esprit de corps filled the band room where hundreds of parents gathered on a summer night for a meeting of the band booster organization. Parents of upperclassmen sat next to newcomers to do some handholding and offer advice for the new direction their lives would take from that moment on. Others worked the crowd, proselytizing in behalf of the organization.

Davis' daughter Erica was entering her freshman year and had earned a spot playing the clarinet. The after-school activity was an expensive one, costing parents up to $1,000 a year--sometimes more. So Davis wanted to find out how the organization worked and how she could minimize the expense.

Once the crowd settled down, band director David McGrath explained his plans for the year: the music the band would perform, the elaborate choreography of the marchers and the color guard, and the hours of grueling practices it would take for the students to reach peak performance in time for the national marching band championships in November.

Then, officials from the booster organization outlined the parents' role in meeting those goals: lots of volunteers and lots of money.

By the time the meeting ended, Davis was among the converted.

"When I got home, I told my husband what a tremendous commitment it was," Davis recounts. "I told him we had to sign up for all these things and do all this fund raising and that he would have to come with me to the meetings."

Her husband, Michael, balked at the prospect. They are crazy, he said, if they expect busy people to give that much free time and spend that much money.

That was two years ago. After attending his first competition, Michael Davis was hooked. Today, he is a board member, and the Davises are among the most active participants in the organization. They have worked at concession stands, washed uniforms, sold advertising for the annual band competition held at the school, and spent their summer vacations at band camp here in northern Michigan. He designed the band's computer web site and worked at a local air show that paid the organization $40 a day for each volunteer.

The Davises are not alone. Most of the parents of the 204 band members are active in the boosters, the group that provides extra money and support services for the marching band and other music programs at the district's adjacent high schools--Plymouth Canton and Plymouth Salem.

The predominantly white, middle-class communities that feed the district have proved they have the means to sustain the program. Canton is the smaller of the two townships located within the 16,000-student district. The average household income among its 18,000 residents, many of whom work in the local auto-manufacturing plants, is more than $43,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data. Plymouth, with a population of 33,000, is more affluent, with household income among the largely white-collar residents averaging more than $58,000 annually.

Over the years, the booster group has mastered the art of fund raising and become expert at turning the majority of parents into committed disciples. It has emerged as an efficiently managed team that has helped fortify the nationally renowned marching band through times of prosperity and need.

The late summer meeting is like the pep rally before the big game. The boosters gear up for a busy season of football games and competitions, car washes and candy sales. In the weeks and months ahead, they will spend hundreds of hours planning and implementing the details large and small, from fitting students with uniforms to building props and running concession stands.

The momentum starts building at band camp. There is a sea of ponytails and pillowcases as more than 200 sleepy-eyed teenagers--and dozens of staff members and parents--pack instruments, gear, and a week's worth of snacks and beverages into five chartered buses and a tractor-trailer on a rainy morning in August. From the school parking lot, they are heading 300 miles northwest to this secluded church camp along Lake Michigan.

The parents volunteer for this: a week of sleeping on bunk beds with thin, plastic-coated mattresses; serving and cleaning up after meals; manning first-aid stations; calming homesick freshmen; arranging nightly entertainment; supervising free time; and taking care of dozens of other details necessary for the week to run smoothly.

Meanwhile, students and staff set about their work.

Their marching and music drills break the silence of the bucolic setting. For days, weary feet trace and retrace the carefully coordinated sequence of steps on the lined practice field and rehearse the musical arrangement until the steps and the rhythm flow smoothly.

The color guard practices the modern-dance steps and flag-twirling sequences that will illustrate the performance.

The band boosters supplement the two schools' $100,000 music budget with more than $200,000 in private funds.

Amid the missed steps, dropped flags, sour notes, and frustrated sighs, there are high expectations that the show will soon come together as it does every year. The preparation is the key.

Band directors, music arrangers, clinicians, choreographers, and drill planners have been working year-round to conceptualize a theatrical rendition of this year's theme, "Where the Wild Things Are," striving to bring to life the characters of the classic children's book by Maurice Sendak. After the training camp and weeks of after-school practices, they will march in freshly pressed uniforms with newly polished instruments, white gloves, and plume-topped hats.

"No matter how much pain we go through over the next few months, nothing compares to how we feel at the end of the last competition," says Erica D'Angelo, a senior. "By that time, we are at our best."

The students and staff say that such an achievement would not be possible without the money and the time offered by parents.

"I'm lucky to have a group of parents that allows me to work on the music and administration of the program," says McGrath. "Their active involvement opens up so many other doors. If it wasn't for the parents ... there would be a lot of limitations."

So McGrath takes care to keep the lines of communication open and to recognize the boosters' contributions as often as possible.

Discipline and hard work are not enough to bring this display out of the realm of imagination. Professionally prepared music and choreography, elaborate costumes, and colorful backdrops quickly break the bank. As in many districts, the school budget pays for the basics: the salaries of the band director and an assistant, some replacement costs for uniforms and instruments, and transportation to several competitions.

"For any program to meet high standards, you have to have a significant level of commitment from students and parents," McGrath says. "It would be impossible to compete at this level without the funding sources and the support.''

Discipline and hard work are not enough to bring this display out of the realm of imagination.

The band boosters supplement the two schools' $100,000 music programs' budget with more than $200,000 in private funds each year. They pay for more than two dozen additional part-time staff members, including consultants flown in a few times a year to work with staff and students on the creation of the show. They pick up the tab for the entry fees and charter buses required for major competitions. They buy materials and supplies for making new costumes or building backdrops. Every fourth year, they raise twice as much money to cover travel and housing expenses for a trip to a college bowl game and parade. The band last year traveled to the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix.

Although all band booster organizations are active in fund raising and provide needed support, Plymouth-Canton "is one of the front-runners," raising four to eight times that of the average group, says Tim Lautzenheiser, who runs workshops for band parents through the Schaumburg, Ill.-based Bands of America, a nonprofit music education organization that also sponsors high school band competitions. Only a few other schools across the country can boast of such success.

The list of expenses excludes the extra cash parents dole out here and there, for T-shirts, for new instruments, for uniform shoes, for group photos.

The booster organization offers a smorgasbord of fund-raising options—from direct sales to volunteer opportunities paid by the hour.

Band membership demands a huge investment of time and money, one that would be out of reach for many hard-working families. Despite the tremendous variations in their ability to pay, few parents are exempt from the $1,000 annual fee, which doubles during a major trip year.

"I knew it would cost something for my daughter to be in it, but I had no idea how expensive it was," says Davis. "Money was tight, but they offered all the opportunities I needed to raise the money."

The booster organization offers a smorgasbord of fund-raising options--from direct sales to volunteer opportunities paid by the hour. A percentage of the money raised from the activities is credited to the contributing family.

For students whose parents still cannot afford the freight, or the few who refuse to contribute, the boosters offer scholarships subsidized by extra fund-raising efforts.

The stature of the booster organization began to grow a decade ago when Glen Adsit, an alumnus, took over the directorship of the band. The band had gained a reputation for its musical excellence but was lacking in marching skills. With a vision to improve the group's field performance, Adsit sought greater parent involvement to boost the program. Parents and students began pouring more effort into the after-school endeavor, recalls Adsit, who is now the assistant director of bands at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

The high profile and stiff standards that have continued to emerge, however, are not for everyone. There are students and parents who decide the hours and days and weeks of practice and the exorbitant fees are not worth it for the few minutes at a time that the band performs. Dozens of students who take music classes and play in the concert and symphonic bands that practice during class forgo the extracurricular marching band, citing the lack of time, interest, or funds.

"Money was tight, but they offered all the opportunities I needed to raise the money."

Chris Davis,

Even those students who do make the commitment sometimes wonder if it is all worth it. Some parents admit to pushing children to get ready for practice or competitions when the routine gets tedious. One of the most common complaints McGrath hears is with the schedule: Practices are too long, there are too many competitions, and the band members have no free time.

The schedule is unusually busy. At most high schools, for instance, the band performs at home football games twice a month. With loyalties to two high schools, the Plymouth-Canton band has a home game every week.

"It is all about what kind of band you choose to have," says Roland J. Thomas Jr., a Plymouth-Canton school board member for 14 of the past 16 years. In some nearby districts, Thomas says, band booster organizations deliberately hold their fund raising and competitions to a minimum. They do not want the band to become the monster undertaking it has at Plymouth-Canton. "It has become a choice of parents and students to be very competitive. I really do believe that's a good thing."

Thursday nights are bustling on the Plymouth-Canton campus. During the season, more than two dozen "washer moms" bring in hangers full of newly washed and pressed uniforms, one of the tasks they volunteer for throughout the fall.

Ellie Richards washed a stack of uniforms each week when her son Jeff, now a junior, started as a drummer in the band two years ago. This year, she is in charge of the operation. Her predecessor made it look so easy, which is one of the ways that active parents succeed in recruiting replacements. She had Richards fooled.

To get ready for the new season, she started collecting uniforms from the students last spring. After taking inventory of how many needed to be dry cleaned, repaired, or replaced, she rallied her troops. Throughout the summer, Richards sponsored sewing groups, long sessions spent getting the uniforms into respectable condition.

"They're teenagers, and by the time you get the uniforms back, they look like their bedrooms--a shambles," says Richards. "The zippers are broken, snaps are missing, they are all wrinkled."

Richards spends about 20 hours a week making the band look goodand stretching the life of the uniformswhich can cost up to $450 each. Even when she is in the stands, she is sizing up the marchers, making mental notes of who needs a hem fixed or shoes polished.

Thursday nights also bring most other band parents to school to place their orders for gift certificates from local grocery stores, retail shops, dry cleaners, and specialty stores. The vouchers are part of the band boosters' most profitable fund-raising venture to date.

Parents enlist friends and neighbors to buy the certificates, which are redeemable at face value at dozens of stores. The stores pay the band anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the total purchases. The program earns the band up to $80,000 a year and has eliminated the need for many of the door-to-door sales the boosters relied on previously.

"I can write a check or fund-raise," says Sandy Baxter, whose daughter Catherine is in her fourth year on the color guard. "I choose to fund-raise. I put out very little of my own money."

Baxter and her fellow band parents have sold steaks and Avon products and Tupperware. They have also stuffed more than 200,000 envelopes for one of the Big Three automakers and sold hot dogs at competitions.

Beyond the dozens of fund-raising activities, many of the parents aren't even aware of all that is done behind the scenes.

"I'm still learning things that I never knew were going on before," says Tom Wysocki, president of the boosters. "I was totally oblivious to the whole uniform thing. I just thought they magically got cleaned and handed out to the kids each week."

Now, Wysocki and his wife, Edie, know the many ingredients all too well. Recently, on his first day off work in weeks, Tom Wysocki was making phone calls and sending faxes from the golf course. He had to order the 100 cases of soda, juice, and bottled water they would consume, and give directions to a magician who would provide entertainment at camp.

"There are always money concerns and worries about people's ability to raise enough funds," Wysocki says. "And we have to constantly remind people to groom someone to take their place. It has to be a well-oiled machine. We can't operate in crisis mode."

Band booster organizations have done the same to keep their programs alive at schools around the country. One of the most popular extracurricular activities at high schools large and small, bands are also generally underfunded and one of the first activities to fall victim to the budget ax. Parents have long realized that the programs survive and thrive only with their backing. Across the nation, such groups have proved themselves expert at organizing and fund raising.

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

"Booster programs tend to be pretty stable. The band director may change, but the booster program stays," says Joyce Epstein, the director for the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. The center works with districts nationwide to build parent involvement in all phases of education.

"They are a good, initial example of the kind of stability we seek across the board for all types of involvement," says Epstein. "The goal is to get it so that regardless of who is [in charge] or the individual strengths that may disappear as people move on, they remain stable."

One of the most popular extracurricular activities at high schools, bands are also underfunded and one of the first activities to fall victim to the budget ax.

That stability, however, can sometimes blur the lines of authority. The organizations' fund-raising success and investment of hundreds of volunteer hours can bring with them certain political clout and expectations. Some booster organizations have saved band funding through well-organized displays of support at school board meetings and additional fund-raising activities.

Sometimes, the parents' mastery of the system has given them too much muscle, and they have made power plays against their band directors. Even at Plymouth-Canton, parents have pushed the limits, though everyone involved there says it is now a model of cooperation.

"It can be very scary to have such involvement," says Adsit, who insisted from the outset that the parents participate in all aspects of the band except the musical philosophy or the program curriculum. "I've seen programs go down in flames because the parents had too much control."

Adsit remembers one parent, whose child failed to gain a top position in the band, questioning his judgment. As president of the band boosters, the parent pushed pretty hard for special consideration on the matter. But after consulting with the group's other officers, Adsit used his authority to remove the president from the board.

"I felt it was an abuse of power. It got fairly obnoxious and wasn't the type of thing that I felt I could resolve otherwise," recalls Adsit, who left the post in 1992. "To call me on my musicianship was like putting a thorn at the very heart of my being."

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."

Vol. 17, Issue 02, Page 34-39

Published in Print: September 10, 1997, as Band Aid
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