5 Things I learned at WBA finals, including a new esteem for Clovis North
I’m a theater/dance/classical music critic, and I also love marching bands. Here are Five Things I Learned at the Western Band Association Grand Championships 4A/5A held Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Buchanan High School stadium:
1. Clovis North is really, really good.
They grow up so fast, don’t they? It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Bronco Band & Color Guard was but a wee, fledgling demonstration ensemble from a new school, like a little brother struggling to keep up with his older siblings (especially the one who moved out west). This impressive band is now a state powerhouse. It won the “4A” division and placed fourth overall in the championships (out of 19 in the finals) while competing in the combined “4A” and “5A” category. (In other words, just three bigger “5A” bands placed ahead of Clovis North, while the Broncos beat out 15 other bands overall, including a whole bunch of bigger ones.) Along the way, the Bronco band snagged its all-time best score of 90.45. I was impressed with the band’s confidence, polish and beautifully designed show.
The Clovis North band has a really fine, big sound that was crisp and controlled — none of those splatty, mushy intonations that big bands can have. The visuals were memorable as well. The color guard unfurling extremely wide and long, gold-colored ribbons and then used them in various ways on the field, including through the moving ranks of band members. (Hey, I wonder how much that ribbon cost per square yard? Just one more reason to support your local marching band at its next fundraiser.) One of my favorite moments came when the band formed a big, solid square on the field with the ribbons woven between the columns, and the color guard members farthest from the spectators raised their ends of the ribbons higher than their colleagues closest to the crowd, creating a slight downward-ramp effect. The resulting angle caught the stadium lights in a blaze, making the formation luminous. Wow.
2. We call it marching band, but it could be dancing band.
It used to be only the color guard that leaped, spun and boogied on the field, but for most bands on Sunday, the dance floor was extended to all. Individual players in quite a few ensembles struck poses with limbs akimbo, arms and legs thrust at precarious angles with a modern-dance snootiness, as if some ornery, chain-smoking, avant-garde choreographer dressed in black had swooped into band practice and said, “You must feel through your appendages!”
Furthermore, the idea of simply marching from one place to another has been supplanted by many other forms of movement. I saw instrumentalists run with synchronized precision from one formation to another (Cerritos High School, which placed 12th); plop on the ground to form a series of concentric circles and then standing up to expand them in a wonderful and chill-inducing opening (Rancho Verde High School, which placed ninth); get chased by aliens (Granite Bay High School, which placed 14th), twist and shout (James Logan High School, which placed second), crawl through a desert on hands and knees (Rancho Cucamonga High School, which placed seventh) and, in one notable moment, in the case of the Trabuco Hills High School Band (which placed sixth), transform into a mob at the end while appearing to genuflect to an authoritarian leader. Or maybe it was a rock star.
I even watched a trumpet player surrounded and killed by birds (Fountain Valley High School, which placed 11th), with the bloodletting marked, in the proud tradition of stylishly staged Shakespearean tragedies, by a flurry of red ribbons tossed into the air. That’s an ending I’ll remember for awhile. Et tu, birds?
3. Bands don’t just end a show these days. They ripple.
There’s a movement style in common that just keeps getting more sophisticated and effective over the years. It’s the ripple effect, when a particular movement starts at one end of the formation and then moves through the ranks of players to the other end, almost like a staggered high kick by the Rockettes. It can be any motion: a tip of a hat, an outstretched arm, hopping up on both feet, a salute. When done correctly, it’s an awesome demonstration of synchronicity, of human beings cooperating with each other down to a fraction of a second.
On Sunday, it struck me for the first time that the ripple effect has entered our visual language recently in another way: the “Live” function on a cell phone photo, which gives us a second or two of flutter before settling into a still image. Recreating that small-screen experience on a big football field is impressive.
4. I loved Clovis High School’s show, and not just because it was by a local band.
The Golden Cougar Marching Band and Color Guard nailed it in terms of giving us a show that was fun. For its entrance, the band lined up in parade formation at the end of the field, complete with traditional drum major in front, and marched to the center, where the players abruptly turned to the audience and blasted it with a wall of authoritative sound. I liked the widely spaced rows of players columns, gliding steps and elegance of the intro. Perhaps it was the smoothness of the experience that appealed to me: In contrast to most of the other bands, this one didn’t open with players’ limbs thrusting at odd angles or musicians scurrying from one spot to another. The whole thing had a retro feel, and it also felt kind of meta: Here’s a marching band “playing” a marching band.
There was a nostalgic theme, too, with such songs as “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” What a shock: well known songs with hummable melodies instead of difficult arrangements of esoteric, minor-key classical works and moody, chromatic modern pieces.
Here’s the hazard in highly formalized competitions in which tenths of points can separate winners from losers: It’s tempting to play to the judges and not think about the bigger picture of accessible, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I get it. Everybody likes to win. But coming at this experience from the point of view of a theater critic, I wanted to feel a connection with the performers.
Clovis High placed 10th in the event, but I would have given it much higher marks for its jaunty confidence. It was like the band owned this field. In theater I would call this stage presence, and the Golden Cougars had oodles of it.
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5. Sometimes I wonder and fret about all the time, expense and effort that goes into all this.
But that lasts for about three seconds. Then I remember how important band was to me in high school and college, how it felt being an individual unit that fit into a larger whole. It’s like any team sport, including the almighty American pastime of football — except in band, the goal isn’t to pummel your opponent but to play a better 16th-note run. (And I happen to like those priorities.) As in any live performance, all those hundreds of hours of practice and preparation result in a moment in time that can never be replicated. People graduate, teachers move on, styles change. But the memories — and the lessons learned about musicality, discipline, working together and camaraderie — last.
I was proud of all the bands in the finals, including three other locals, Clovis West High School (16th), El Diamante High School (15th) and Lemoore High School (13th), whose music seemed particularly fine to me.
So who placed first in the event? The Chino Hills High School band, which offered a slick, smartly packaged show that fired up the crowd. Talk about a brawny sound: With their sleeveless-style uniforms, all those bare upper arms made me think: Muscle Band. Indeed, as I was walking out of the stadium, I watched a member of the band (I think he was in the pit), still fired up from an exhilarating performance just minutes before, give a shout and do a chest bump with a fellow Chino Hills musician. It was exactly what football players do after a win. And I thought: This is a moment he’ll remember forever. Good for him.