In honor of my daughter’s entry into high school marching band, I would like to dedicate this tribute to Mr. Leslie S. Anderson, my high school band director. Little did he know all these years later, that I finally figured out most of my useful life skills were learned in marching band.
Initially a flute player, I drifted to the challenge of a piccolo, not just because it sounded all 1776’ish drum and fife like, but selfishly because the case was so small it could fit in my bookbag.
Later, I joined the percussion section (certainly not based on a sense of rhythm, but more likely a crush on a bass drummer), where I flashed the biggest set of cymbals, creating pecs and shoulder muscles the likes of which I have not seen again on this aging body.
I made some lifelong friends. My bandmates from back in the day are doctors, lawyers, dentists, actors, singers, parents, teachers, and columnists. Their lives well-led bring me joy.
I traveled to some fabulous places for competitions, and I fundraised fiendishly. I learned the obvious things like discipline, teamwork, sacrifice, dedication to task, and that competition is healthy. A few more really important lessons, however, have served me very well through the years.
Be on Time
We practiced early in the morning on the day before our shows, and that meant being at school by 6:00 a.m. Mr. Anderson had the advantage of a very large band, and he told us at the beginning of the season we might not march if we were not on time, as he had plenty of subs.
I made the rehearsals on time despite having to get up early enough to carefully apply my Love’s Baby Soft lotion and perfume and my bubble gum flavored Kissing Potion lip gloss.
Mr. Anderson’s lesson was that being on time shows respect for the person you are meeting or the event you are attending. I like to be on time to this day, even though I have learned to give myself and others grace for tardiness.
Measure Your Steps
One of the beauties of marching band is that musicians have a designated number of steps to get to the next place they are going, and others are counting on them to be there to continue the show. And that is not just metaphorical waxing—literally, someone is counting on them to hit that mark.
“Hey, Piccolos, by measure 48, you need to be at the 30 yard line. Got it?”
A fellow marcher, Danny, was always in a hurry to get to the space, and my marching shoes and heels felt his rush as he bumped into me more than once along the way. I always wished Danny would measure his steps a little more, and I have no doubt I let him know or returned the pain on occasion.
There is a beautiful simplicity to having someone help you set a goal and expect that you will achieve it.
Feel the Rhythm
Every once in a while, Mr. Anderson had us practice with our eyes closed, just to feel the rhythms (and no doubt to encourage the required memorization).
“We have done this show so many times, you ought to be able to do it with your eyes closed,” he would shout into the megaphone from his perch above the field. That was the intro to what we knew would produce some pretty comical outcomes, as the lead marcher misjudged the yard line and created a scene not unlike the one in Animal House, where row after row of the band just marches right into one another on the dead end street.
But there was a method to Leslie Anderson’s madness. I literally knew that music by count and by step, its rhythm firmly entrenched in my brain.
It took me a long time as an adult to realize that our lives are just a series of complicated rhythms, to which we should pay careful attention, and when we have our rhythms interrupted, we usually end up off track, looking to catch back up with the beat.
Look to Your Colleagues to Stay in Line
The difference between a championship performance and second place in many band competitions is something as simple as staying in line. We practiced staying in line all the time. Mr. Anderson would stand at the end of a line and look down it, hoping to see us in one myopic string.
But there were lots of marchers over the years who just couldn’t stay in line. They would drift a little, and before you knew it, our line looked like a garden snake wending its way through the yard. We tried to gently adjust those out of line marchers, and sometimes we purposefully moved them back in line.
Knowing how to stay in line myself, and help others do the same, came in handy in many jobs over the years. It doesn’t make me a wimp or an over-zealous rule follower, rather one who escaped without reprimand, by fixing my eyes on solid colleagues who towed the line.
Pay Attention to Appearance
Despite the fact that my Farrah Fawcett hairdo didn’t fit too well under our marching band hats, which were the tall British soldier looking ones with white fur and a maroon feather plume, I loved my band uniform.
We cleaned our white spats, worn snapped over our unattractive black shoes, until they were Clorox white. We actually brushed the fur on our hats, and we routinely did epaulet checks on the beautiful gold braided parts of our jackets, right before parade marches.
Rain or shine, Mr. Anderson also dressed the part, wearing a collared shirt and tie to our performances as well, usually under a snappy looking windbreaker.
And always, there would be a mention of how nice our band looked in the judges’ remarks, encouragement enough to give us the pride to keep up that appearance.
Later, in the work world I noticed that neat appearances were appreciated and noted. It isn’t that we have to look a certain way to do a good job, but rather that by taking pride in our personal appearance, we create a culture of taking pride in other things we do as well.
Lots of Small Parts Make a Pretty Good Whole
Marching band taught me a sort of patience for the evolution of small parts which eventually join to form a whole. We trained in sections, and then eventually joined each other to run the whole show; not to say that our curiosity didn’t sometimes get the best of us, and we would peak at what the other folks were doing.
Perhaps you can relate if you work jigsaw puzzles. I will stay up into the wee hours of the night just to finish a section because I know the next day we can find the piece that hooks it into the adjoining section.
On a side note, my mother-in-law calls those puzzle pieces hookers, which I think is hilarious, especially when she says, “We just need to find a hooker, Cathy!”
There is real satisfaction that comes at the end of a finished project, where I can see all the small parts that made it a whole. It has helped me as a parent, to teach my daughter to take small steps toward big things she hopes to achieve.
Be Prepared for Unexpected, Perhaps Unfair, Outcomes
Every year, my band competed in the Lion’s Contest, one of the fiercest battles in the world for bands. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it was “bigly.” For weeks, we would tweak our show and add stunning details which were designed to boost us past our arch nemesis, Lafayette High School, and their crafty director J. Larry Moore.
There were whispered rumors that Lafayette sent spies over to watch our practice. It seemed like someone’s cousin always marched for our big rival, and they would report that Lafayette had stolen our music or our formations.
During that cold, crisp October, certainly families were divided over which band would hold the title that year, and even local businesses were asked to take a side and support a band in their advertisements. The contest winner would be named Kentucky’s Musical Ambassadors for the year.
For weeks before the competition, Mr. Anderson hinted at an element of surprise he would add to the Saturday show. On Thursday night after rehearsal, he called us together and asked if we would be willing to practice on Friday night after the football game.
“Yes!” we cried in unison, abandoning visions of Shakey’s pizza dates with boyfriends and best friend sleepovers!
Mr. Anderson’s elaborate surprise involved our flag corps. My high school was in Lexington, Kentucky, and our corps wore white go-go boots, white shorts, and then the authentic thoroughbred jockey silk of a local horse farm as a top. Their flags matched their tops, the corps brought tears to people’s eyes, as people in Kentucky take horses seriously.
The demo Mr. Anderson showed us with a couple of privileged seniors who had been in on the planning shook us to the core! At one point late in our show, the flag corps literally laid down on their backs on the field, where we stepped over them at the last minute, and then their flags shot immediately in the air behind us after we passed.
Surely with this kind of pageantry, nee magic, we would beat Lafayette! We practiced well into the night, with parents posted like vigilantes in wood paneled station wagons at the chain link fence around the field to make sure no one knew our secret.
The Saturday morning of the competition was sunny and cool, the perfect October day. Our rifles competed well. The drumline battle was masterful. And our parade performance was without flaw. All the was left was to march our newly revised show.
We were second to last to compete, with Lafayette, as host school, holding the coveted last spot. Our drum majors led us onto the field to the showy stick work and cadence of our drum corps. Rap tat tat tat. Boom bah bah boom bah bah boom.
We launched into the show of our lifetimes. High steps, side steps, all crescendoing to the big moment where we stepped over the flags. I could feel the whip of wind that came from the flag directly behind me.
The crowd went wild. At least my parents and a few others did, I am told by legend.
We retreated to the side hill to watch Lafayette perform. They plodded through their show, in our minds, shocked by our outstanding performance. We anticipated our big win. That is until the very end of Lafayette’s show, where they had a twist of their own.
Instead of a fully advancing big brass sideline finish they were known for, they launched the beginning notes of a song that we all knew by heart…. Queen’s We are the Champions, while they marched into the shape of a #1. It was a snarky reminder of their win from the year before and a portent for the eventual outcome.
Lafayette beat us that night, by a point. One point. Fair or unfair, they had played the same game as we did, and they beat us.
Gentle readers, you can likely tell that I hold no enmity toward Lafayette, Lion’s Grand Champions that fall. But I did learn a valuable lesson.
Our best efforts are just that-efforts. They may or may not produce the outcome we hope for. And we must cope. And not some decades later write a whiney review of their performance.
Mr. Anderson, thank you for the dedication you showed to band, to your marching family, to promoting good musicianship, and to the multiple life-lessons you taught, with just a wave of your baton.
Harper Grace and band companions, you are in for the treat of having great fun marching, all the while learning truly valuable life lessons. I will be there to cheer you on!