Band Aid

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments
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.

Web Only

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories