The rolling tattoo of the drums. The flash of the stadium lights on the brass instruments. The color guard’s silks snapping in the wind. And drum major Owen Doane braving the elements to set the band’s beat.
These are some of the sights and sounds that thrill the hundreds of spectators at the marching band show circuit in Maine, which has a six-week competitive season each fall, culminating in the state finals at Thornton Academy in Saco.
The South Portland High School Marching Band kicked off the season on Sept. 17 with a home show that drew crowds of supporters and netted the band a respectable three stars under the five-star scoring system, which judges the schools on their musicality, as well as their visual presentation.
Participation in the marching band is demanding. It requires hours of practice and stamina for the drills, as well as the ability to play well while also marching to the beat.
The marching band rehearses for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening. In addition, there are weekly sectional rehearsals, which include both music and marching, and on Saturday the members usually rehearse between two and three hours before heading off to the show that night.
“Marching band is a mental, as well as a physical workout. I never realized what it takes to be a part of the program until my girls joined,” said Sylvia Green, co-president of the Music Boosters for the South Portland schools.
“The South Portland marching band has a longstanding reputation for excellence and the pride that many students and families take (in that) keeps them coming back,” she said. “It’s really amazing to watch the transformation of the band from the first week of camp to the state finals at the end of October. In a world where kids are so into technology, it’s so refreshing to see all the time that they spend memorizing new music and each step they need to take.”
This fall, the South Portland band is competing to the music of film composer Alan Silvestri. The band is playing selections from hit films, such as “The Avengers,” “Captain America” and “Forrest Gump.”
Longtime band director Craig Skeffington, who has led the marching band to 10 gold medals at the state finals in the past 10 years, chose the music because “it’s iconic and connects to both our students and to the audience in a strong, recognizable way.”
In addition, he said, the band has “developed an identity over the last decade playing soundtrack material” from hit films and Broadway shows. Among others, the band has performed selections from the Indiana Jones series, “The Mummy,” and last year the music of film composer James Horner.
Skeffington also chooses the music based on the playing abilities of the band, according to Doane, a senior and the drum major this year. Doane, who is also an award-winning trombone player, has participated in the marching band since the eighth grade.
He remembers thinking it was “really cool when I found out in eighth grade that I could be in a band that sounds that good. There was a big difference in the musicianship. The music was unlike anything we experienced in middle school.”
There are no marching-band programs in Scarborough or Cape Elizabeth.
Doane’s first exposure to the marching-band scene was as a score runner during South Portland’s home show when he was in seventh grade. His job was to collect the judges’ scores.
Knowing the band has won 10 gold medals in a row does “weigh on my mind” Doane admitted during marching band practice this past weekend. That’s especially true since the Maine Band Directors’ Association has instituted some new rules this season that will require “more hard work and effort to win a gold medal,” he said.
Last Saturday, the band was competing in Massachusetts under the New England Scholastic Band Association rules, which, Doane said, are somewhat different than those in Maine because there’s more of a focus on the drum corps. The band came in second in its division and won for best music and best color guard.
In addition to playing the trombone, Doane can play most any other brass or woodwind instrument. Along with marching band, he plays in the wind ensemble, the jazz ensemble and the jazz combo. He is also the president of the senior class, president of the National Honor Society and a member of the Interact Club, the math team, the French Club and the student senate.
“Almost every day I am doing something musical after school,” Doane said. “I have to be really conscious of my time management, but I like being busy because there’s no time to procrastinate.”
Skeffington said he chose Doane to be the band’s drum major this year because he is “a stellar musician. He’s also a great leader among his peers and unflappable – great qualities for any drum major to posses. He is doing a tremendous job for us and gets better each day.”
A drum major has a significant leadership role. He conducts the band, leads rehearsals and makes sure all the band members are doing their jobs. He also works closely with the band’s instructional staff.
While Doane has a strong love for music, he’s also being pulled toward a career in science or the medical field. Right now he’s thinking about applying to two different sets of colleges, ones where he could major in trombone performance and ones where he could major in pre-med, with an eye toward becoming a dermatologist.
His ultimate dream would be to play in a Broadway pit band. He’s already making money and a name for himself in the southern Maine musical theater scene, where he plays in a variety of pit bands, including for City Theater in Biddeford this past summer and Yarmouth High School later this fall.
When asked why he and the other students participating in the marching band are willing to put up with playing outdoors in all kinds of weather – from the cold to the rain to extreme heat – Doane said, “We’re always thinking about the end product. It’s unlike anything else when you’re at finals and know you’ve played a good show. That’s when you know the past two months of hard work have paid off.”
Doane misses playing in the band, but he’s discovered that it’s “a lot more interesting up on the podium. From there I can see how everything comes together. It’s really interesting to see how it all integrates.”
Doane said from the time he joined the marching band as an eighth-grader it was his goal to become the drum major. While he’s enjoyed all five years of marching band shows, Doane thinks that this year may be his favorite, just because it will be his last. However, he also really likes the music.
“There’s definitely a contrast in the pieces we are playing and it allows us to show that we can play a wide variety of music,” he said.
There are distinct sections to the marching band, which include the low brass instruments, such as the tuba, trombone and the baritone and alto sax. There’s also a high brass section, which includes the trumpet, the alto sax and the mellophone; and a woodwind section comprising flutes and clarinets.
Filling out the sections of the marching band are the color guard, the battery or front ensemble, which includes the mallets, the timpani and a base drum, and a marching drumline. All have their own set of internal leaders.
Doane was a section leader for the low brass before becoming drum major this year and said he does miss the camaraderie that comes with belonging to a particular section of the band.
Still, he wouldn’t give up his current position, which allows him to interact with the marching band staff on a whole new level and see just how much work goes into planning each rehearsal.
For Doane and the other members of the band, having the home show so early in the season wasn’t ideal.
However, he said, “we also know it can only get better from here.” Doane was also proud of the band’s performance that night, even though a lot of show elements still need to be added before the state finals.
“The energy was crazy high that night,” he said.
And although marching band requires much effort and working outside often under difficult conditions, Skeffington doesn’t buy into the notion that it requires more commitment or hard work than playing in other musical groups.
“There is no difference in the amount of work or effort between the jazz or marching genres, they’re just different,” he said.
Skeffington also noted that most of the students who participate in marching band also take part in the other band offerings.
He said the marching band, “attracts kids for many reasons, some love the competitive aspect, others the camaraderie, etc. (But), the quality they all share is that they are great, respectful teenagers working hard for a common goal – excellence.”
And while marching band is ostensibly about the end product – the show the members put on at finals – Skeffington said that “we really use band as a means to an end. Beyond the immediate goal of achieving proficiency or a trophy, what we’re helping do is make better people. Ones who value art, each other, hard work, the list is endless. When I eventually retire from South Portland, this will be the thing I remember most.”
Members of the South Portland High School marching band practice before heading off to a show in Massachusetts this past Saturday.
Marching in sync, are members of the South Portland high marching band.
The color guard lifts its flags high.
Owen Doane, drum major for the South Portland high marching band, sets the beat.