For thousands of years, marching bands have been a fundamental unit of armies, setting the beat for the battles ahead. Not only was a band important for boosting morale, but they also signaled when the soldiers could march forward.
Not surprisingly in 2022, high school marching bands are the cornerstone of school spirit. Band students lead the way as their friends and families emerge from battling a pandemic and weathering the economic struggles of the last few years. Marching bands in the Midlands have picked up the tempo and set a new tune for the year. It is their opening movement to a more hope-filled future.
Finding Their Rhythm
“From the very first day of band practice, the students came in hungry and wanted to be good,” says Josh Brown, band director for Batesburg-Leesville High School. After the recent years of instability that included shutdowns, virtual band classes, and few performances, the students weren’t weary; they were ready. “It was remarkable,” he says. “They were eager to perform well, and they showed that in how they rehearsed, in their attendance, and through their attitudes.” This past year, Batesburg-Leesville High School attended five competitions and won first place in each, including state finals. “That’s the first time our school has done that in recent memory. I can’t remember a time going undefeated an entire season,” says Josh.
Batesburg-Leesville wasn’t the only marching band to find their rhythm. This focus on achievement reverberated around the Midlands. Otto Hage, band director for White Knoll High School, remembers the moment his band walked into the stadium during the state finals. “We were one of the smallest bands out there compared to these big high schools,” Otto says. White Knoll was ranked a 5A school in 2021 and competed at a new level, but Otto recalls that his students didn’t flinch. Instead, they put on one of the best performances of the year. When the cards were stacked against them, they represented their school well.
Although Blake Fowler, band director for Chapin High School, had to shift priorities when the pandemic hit, his students maintained a spirit of discipline and resilience. Chapin High School ranked as a 4A school for the first time, and its marching band placed fifth in the state competition. It was the 12th time the Chapin band placed in the top five at state since 2010.
Kevin Sweatt is entering his first year at A.C. Flora and can already tell that his students have a distinct spirit. After every rehearsal, his band joins in a unifying chant that spells “falcon.” The “O” stands for “overcome” and symbolizes that although the band has faced hardship they are committed to never giving up. Kevin is most proud of his students’ resilience over any other achievement.
Dr. Chris Lee, band director for Dreher High School, shares similar observations about his students. “They’re hungry,” he says. “My kids want to perform and to travel. They are hungry for the entire experience.” Last season, Dreher won second place in the lower state championship, seventh in the state for 3A schools, and first at Blythewood’s Tournament of Bands. These performances are far from performing in parking lots during the pandemic. And although Chris admits that his program took a hit during COVID, he remains optimistic. “We’re going to be okay,” says Chris. He pauses and then says with a smile, “Maybe even better.”
Crafting a Culture
What makes a subset of students so resilient across various Midlands schools? It is no fluke. Band directors have been crafting the culture of their programs for years. And when times got tough, their investment paid off. Chris says that being in a band teaches his students at Dreher far more than music and movement. “They learn so much about being human,” says Chris. “You aren’t always going to be happy. You are going to get hot; you are going to get tired; and it’s ok. You just have to keep moving.”
Glen Funderburk, assistant band director at Batesburg-Leesville High School, says dedication is essential to band culture. “Students have to buy into the understanding that the dedication has to be there. The amount of time they commit to the rehearsal schedule is unlike anything else.” This rigorous schedule in challenging elements shapes students into dedicated individuals.
Blake says that the Chapin band is one of the most well-disciplined groups of teenagers in the state. “If we show up somewhere, we will leave it better than we found it.” What is their motivation for such discipline? They are like family. “Nobody wants to let their family down. “We’ve had this family culture for 40 to 50 years, and it really motivates our students to be successful,” he says.
Kevin is hard at work instilling these deep values into his students at A.C. Flora. “We aren’t just coming to play music,” Kevin says. “We are building a culture. When we perform, it’s not about one individual player. It’s about a whole bunch of parts that are put together to create a masterpiece.”
Otto says that White Knoll’s band program is people driven. “We are going to be great humans first and great musicians second. It’s easy to sustain and grow that kind of culture. It’s an inviting and happy place to be.”
With a program built on dedication, discipline, and family values, it’s no wonder that these students are leading the way with resilience. Chris has noticed the band’s outsized impact at Dreher High School. “The band is the heart of every school,” he says. “They are the pulse, and it ripples through all the other classrooms.” And their influence expands beyond school grounds. Band culture helps to shape our community.
Batesburg-Leesville may be a small town, but its support for the high school band is enormous. “The community has bought into the culture,” says Josh. “They are one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever seen.” Band is not seen as merely a way to support athletics but as a gateway to opportunities beyond the band room — like scholarships and career paths.
“I know we are from Small Town, USA,” says Glen, “but if you truly want to be great at this, just because you are from here doesn’t have to hold you back. Because of the opportunities we give students and the instruction they receive, the world is their oyster if music is what they decide to do.”
Not only have communities recognized the potential packed into a band program, but they also value the uniquely unifying nature of the experience. “We have children from all grades, socioeconomic backgrounds, and skill levels,” says Otto. “They come from all parts of the White Knoll community, and they all work together for one common goal: to be very good at something together. It’s not always easy. But when the final product happens, it’s something beautiful to be a part of.”
In addition, Otto is grateful for how the community has backed his band. “Even during these times when things are stretched so thin, we haven’t had a problem with donations and sponsorships,” he says. As a result, the community has experienced a return on its investment as community members witness the caliber of the students emerging from the program. “It’s easy for a community to get behind what you are doing if there is a genuine love and passion for what these students can accomplish,” says Otto.
Kevin keeps this community mindset as he teaches his students at A.C. Flora. “Ultimately, we are training the next generation,” he says. “If I can train my students to be respectful, I can teach them to change their world.”
As these marching bands lead the way into the 2022-23 school year, they have set their sights on an exciting future. Josh senses that his Batesburg-Leesville band is close to competing at a regional level, and Kevin hopes to see A.C. Flora advance to the state finals this year. But trophies are not the only things these ambitious band directors have in mind. “Ultimately, my goal is to continue this community we are creating here at A.C. Flora,” says Kevin.
Otto wants to give his students at White Knoll far more than accolades. “We want to get them out there and let them gain some real experience,” he says. “A trophy is one thing, but playing your instrument on the banks of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is a whole other level. I want these kids to have those kinds of experiences. It’s life changing.” Chris wants more opportunities for his Dreher students to perform, too. “The kids love it,” he says. “It’s a band — it’s all about bringing people in and making it a positive experience for everyone.”
Blake’s priority for the school year is maintaining the culture of excellence that Chapin has had for decades. “I want to make sure that this culture is in place for many more years. The music stuff will come, the technicality stuff will come, but the culture is our No. 1 priority.”
With each step and snare hit, these resilient bands march on. They lead with deep values and rich culture because beyond the bass and brass, that is what is behind the beat.