It's a lovely Saturday evening at sunset, and the grounds of Medina High School are buzzing with students, parents and a steady stream of school buses and cars, all heading toward Ken Dukes Stadium for the 19th annual Medina Band Show.
The noncompetitive invitational and fundraiser hosted by the Musical Bees features a veritable marching band variety pack. There's the host band's gargantuan, football-field-filling 300-plus students, rivaled by Highland High's 201. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Lucas High Cubs, the Smithville Smithies and the tiny Maple Heights Marching Mustangs, who raises a small but well-choreographed ruckus with just 14 members on the field.
As they exit their buses and head to the field, each band does so in lock-step unison to a simple beat played by a few designated snare drummers. Fans, friends and family sit on one side of the stadium and the bands sit in separate sections of the bleachers, save Medina and Highland, which are large enough to command the two end-zone bleachers.
The Bees will be giving everyone a first look at their new competition show, the Hawaiian-themed Mana Tiki.
“This kind of kicks off our Saturday performances,” head band director Jason Locher said. “We've been doing the football games, supporting our teams, and after this one we'll start the competitions.”
Locher, a 16-year teaching veteran and alumnus of Medina schools, is in his first year as head director. The season begins with tryouts in May and the first band camp in July. Locher often functions a bit like a hands-on CEO, using the bullhorn to remind the band to cheer for the others or quiet down, and detailing the many warm-up steps before they take the field.
Despite the evening's elegantly simple name, the Medina Band Show, the event feels like a near-professional-grade production, with vendors and corporate sponsors including 95.5 The Fish and Building 9 set up near the Marching Bees vendor, which sells T-shirts and DVDs of last year's show ($15, shot from multiple angles).
There's even an impressively thick stock program featuring ads, photos and well-wishes or “bee notes” with sweetly corny and encouraging messages from parents — “Keep playing your BRASS off, we are so proud of you!”
Worker Bees pitch in
While the young marching musicians prepare for the big show, the thoroughfare/concessions area is bustling. Family, friends and fans find seats in the packed bleachers while a busy phalanx of Worker Bees (also known as parents) sell pizza, popcorn, nachos and other standard game-day fare with a smile and — if it's a young'un — a few encouraging words.
Among the hustling were William and Jodell Ward, cashiers for the concessions and parents of senior trombonist William, in their final year of worker bee-hood.
“Actually, we will miss it,” Jodell said.
“It's nice to have something to do on fall evenings and listen to music and be involved, and it's always nice to know where they are,” Bill said.
The show began with Medina Band Parents Association President David Lynch welcoming all, praising the many all-parent, all-volunteer committees and groups that keep the Musical Bees buzzing, as well as the school's auxiliary jazz and concert bands, with well-maintained uniforms, instruments, away-game and performance chaperones, and funding beyond the school budget.
The national anthem is performed by the Medina 7th and 8th Grade Festival Band, also directed by Locher with Margaret Blasko. Many of the Festival Band's 200 cute and surprisingly precise middle-schoolers will go on to join the marching band, giving Locher a solid pipeline from which to draw.
As the Lucas Cubs begin their show (Hey, it's AC/DC's Back In Black!), Locher and his crew of assistants and his band wait for their headlining, show-closing turn. Armed with a headset remotely attached to a bullhorn, Locher is ready to lead, but the band kids are a fairly focused and self-contained entity. The bands watch each other's shows, enthusiastically cheering when they enter the field and for each cool visual or musical piece of flair.
Field commanders (conductors, for us laymen) Taya Catherwood and Mollie VanArsdale are both 17 and five-year veterans of the Musical Bees, having joined as wide-eyed eighth-graders. “We all come together as one and we all have one singular like: It's music,” said Taya, who heads the group of four field commanders.
“It's also a social thing, being with your friends and doing something that you love is really ... cool,” Mollie added.
Both say the mutual respect displayed by the bands is another “cool” aspect ingrained in the culture.
“We always like to respect other bands because we always want that for our band, so we always try and cheer other people on,” said Mollie, who is also co-president of the band officers.
“During Friday night games you always meet the other leaders of the other bands, their seniors, and we just ask how big is your band and where do you guys go for competition, things like that,” Taya said.
The young leaders agree that being in a marching band that both performs at games and competes requires different mindsets.
“The game is more of a pep band kind of session, versus competition, which is very military-style and uptight,” Taya said, as behind her Locher grabbed the bullhorn and began meting out instructions.
“They both have their perks, because you get the fun of the game but then at competition you get to be like, yeah, this is us, here we are,” Mollie said, raising her chin and straightening her uniform for emphasis.
Preparing for big show
For the next hour, the visiting bands show their stuff in three- or four-song sets. Maple Heights whips out the b-boy classic Apache and Beat It, augmented with a few fancy dance moves; the Harvey Red Raiders' 120-plus members give the audience one of the evening's takes on Taylor Swift's Shake It Off, while the 200-member Pride of Highland takes it to the streets with classic Doobie Brothers, along with Walk the Moon's Shut Up and Dance.
The relatively petite 70-person Smithies give us another Shake It Off, as does the 82-person Whippet Band from Shelby. The Streetsboro Marching Rockets, whose 109-person band comprises nearly one-sixth of the school's population, wrap up the visitors' performances with a set that includes Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk and Fall Out Boy's anthemic Centuries.
As the Bees' show time approaches they begin the long process of preparation. After some words from Locher, assistants take each section aside and begin tuning up or loosening up their flag spinning and waving skills.
The group of fathers in Bee Keepers T-shirts, who have been hovering near the band's gear-filled trailers all evening, begin the load-in process for the equipment. With the efficiency of a touring band's road crew, the dads bring out several full-size marimbas and tympani drums on risers with wheels, tiki drums and various other props.
“All these guys are Bee Keepers and we have about a dozen more that will be here next week. There's about 45 of us all together, and we need them,” head Bee Keeper Joe Toth said while overseeing the setup. He's father of snare drummer Jacob and Alexa, who co-leads the flute section and serves as a band vice president.
Toth joined the Bee Keepers six years ago when his son, now a college trumpet player, joined the band. Toth was also a Musical Bee during his high school days and recalls that when he was playing drums, things were a lot simpler.
“We didn't have any of this, we were all drums. We didn't have all the props either. So it's really come a long way. They do a nice job,” he said.
At games, the props aren't required and Toth said they can get by with a skeleton crew of Bee Keepers, but for competitions it's all Bee hands on deck.
“They have sound equipment, they plug in the marimbas and stuff so everything is amplified so we need more Bee Keepers just for that. The generator, the soundboard and the two sets of speakers,” he said.
The competition schedule takes them as far as Columbus, as well as area competitions and invitationals including the Copley competition on Saturday. And when the Musical Bees travel, it's quite the caravan.
“When we do competitions and away games we have a box truck and we also run a Penske truck for all the props and then eight school buses full of students. It's like a small army, it's crazy,” Toth said.
The Bee Keepers need about 40 minutes to load up the trucks and another 40 to unload, help the kids get the equipment set up and fix anything that may need attention. Bee Keepers also help maintain instruments during the offseason.
Marching to own beat
When the Musical Bees finally take the field, it is unlike any of the evening's previous performances. While many bands play sets that mix familiar hits, the Bees have an exclusive license to perform composer Gary P. Gilroy's Mana Tiki, which is separated into four movements (and for which tour T-shirts were available).
The band covers every quadrant of the field, and as soon as Taya, standing proud on the conductor's platform, gives them a commanding “1, 2, 3, 4!” the field, already lined with tiki drums, becomes a sea of movement and music. Each section marches confidently back and forth while flag wavers twirl in unison and rifles are fancily flipped.
The percussion section closest to the stands is a whirl of teenage hands moving in rhythm, horns are raised and lowered, fake tiki torches abound and announcer Mike and the audience, including the other bands, are relatively silent while watching the elaborately choreographed and tightly played spectacle. When it's over, the audience (some of whom may see this show several times in the next couple of months) cheers loudly and stomps their feet.
With several games, invitationals and competitions, Locher knows the Bees have a lot of quality travel and playing time together ahead, and tonight's show is an important, relatively pressure-free, first step.
“We like to host this show and it's a little low-key and we don't have to worry about the competition aspect. It's nice,” Locher said.
“Anytime you get to do a band-only event it's great for the kids, great for the camaraderie amongst the bands, who see each other play and support each other. It's exciting for them.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.