It's Football Saturday at Kenmore Stadium, and the North High School Vikings' season is continuing down its not-very-good path.
For much of the game, the team is unable to move the ball past midfield on offense and unable to keep its opponent, the East High School Dragons, out of the end zone. It appears the Vikings, who lost each of their first five games by at least 30 points, will go 0-5 in front of a sparse crowd.
Nevertheless, the North High School marching band is there in the stands, led by 12-year veteran director Richard Eder. It's one of the smallest bands in the Akron school district — when fully stocked, it has only 23 members, adorned in their black windbreakers with the school logo, matching black pants and shoes.
On this day, the noncompetitive band has only 14 Marching Vikings. Two horn players are absent because they are soccer players. Two other members are already on the field — one playing football, the other cheerleading. A drummer had a family engagement.
The eclectic and affable, racially mixed group — including recent immigrants for whom English is their second language, and a special-needs kid who loves music and dancing — sit together for the first half, watching the more elaborately equipped, significantly larger East High band play every time the Dragons score ... which is much too often.
A few days before the game, the band was in class, honing the music and their verbal jabs.
Among the veterans is senior David Johnson, a drummer who also plays trumpet and viola and plans to major in music at the University of Akron. He has seen the band's size ebb and flow during his four years, and though he admits it can be tough, he enjoys it.
“We've definitely gotten better, there's definitely been improvement, and I just like playing in a band,” David said as they worked on “The Hey Song” (better known as Gary Glitter's jock-jam standard Rock and Roll Part 2).
“There are different types of education everywhere. In this band I can actually teach people, and I like teaching people,” David said.
“I taught John Paul. It's his first year and he's gotten pretty good at the cymbals,” he said, referring to ninth-grader John Paul Rasinski, who has Down syndrome.
“He was in band in eighth grade ... He really enjoys being part of the band. It's like being part of a community within the school. It's neat how these kids all work together,” said John Rasinski, John Paul's father.
He credits his son's success to his bandmates' help and acceptance. “Dave has been fantastic,” he said of David Johnson, and Eder impressed the senior Rasinski during their initial meeting at summer band camp.
“When I came to talk to [Eder] about John Paul being in the band during a lunch break, he talked to me for about an hour or better about opportunities for John Paul,” Rasinski said. “If he wasn't passionate about what he does, he would have found a way to cut the conversation short and gone to eat his lunch or something.
“That's what strikes me about him, is his passion for what he does with the kids,” he said.
Sizing up competition
While some kids naturally feel competitive with whichever band is on the other side of the field, some of the Marching Vikings simply can't muster it.
“Man, look at their hats ... Sometimes I think, why are they so much better than us?” mused Ashish “Deo” Poudee, a junior saxophonist, watching the Dragons band.
“Those are berets and they're not better than us,” Jacob Shiplett, also a junior saxophonist, replied with some confidence in his voice.
As the hot sun beats down on their black-clad backs, the musicians are hurling playful barbs at their football team's disappointing performance, their bandmates and Eder, who happily hurls them right back.
When horn man Patrick Cummings complains of heat and thirst, Eder responds as most caring, empathetic instructors would: “OK everybody, spit in your hand and throw it at Patrick.”
Though Eder keeps the mood pretty light, he pulls no punches when critiquing performances, and when he needs them to focus he barks “Hey band!” and they immediately snap to attention with “Hey what?”
The Marching Vikings have spent quite a bit more time together this Saturday than usual. Eder had them gather at about 7:30 a.m. to play Rock and Roll Part 2 for Akron marathoners, with some runners even clapping and yelling “Hey!” as they passed.
Hours later, the band is hot, tired and more than ready to do their halftime show. Anup Gazmere, a senior saxophonist and four-year member, skipped his soccer game to play after some lobbying from Eder.
“I was definitely going to my soccer game,” Anup said while leaning, a bit bleary-eyed, on his horn. “But there's a lot of people missing; we don't have a bass drum. I didn't expect so many people to be missing, and I have a very important part and I just didn't want to hurt the band.”
When halftime mercifully arrives, the visitors go first, performing a set that includes Walk the Moon's pop hit Shut Up and Dance and Jessie J's dance-infused Bang Bang, augmented with a few subtle dance moves.
Most of the Vikings watch the East band, save Isaiah Kelly who, having just left the field as a player, takes some time to assemble his horn, then bends over to take a few deep breaths and get his mind right.
“Hey, I just love playing my instrument,” Isaiah replies when asked why he didn't take a halftime break with the rest of the football team.
The Marching Vikings' halftime show isn't especially fancy. “We line up, we march out on the field, we play our songs and we march off the field,” Eder said. “My philosophy being, if you sound really bad, nobody cares what you're doing, they're not going to pay attention anyway. So we work really hard on our sound.”
At the previous game at Ellet, the band received praise from the crowd and staff.
“I will take that all day over anything,” Eder said. “You can give us a hard time about not marching, that's fine; you don't know our challenges. But did we sound good? We did? Great!”
Among Eder's regular challenges are having several students who never played an instrument before high school, compounded by the difficulty of getting players to camp in the summer.
Junior clarinetist Devin McVay, “almost 17,” picked up the instrument her freshman year.
“I like it because they are funny. [Eder] is strict but he's also a funny guy and we just have fun in there making the music,” she said.
“Since we're smaller, we have to work harder ... so we have to try our very best. It was good that we got a whole bunch of compliments [from Ellet] and that's why we were real happy and were proud of ourselves, because we work so hard and our band is like 20 people, if that,” she said, noting that even while they're teasing each other, they're gladly helping anyone who needs extra assistance with the music.
With so few players, Eder also has to get creative with arrangements, even occasionally breaking out a bass horn himself. There are a couple of big alabaster sousaphones gathering dust on a top shelf in the band room; they simply don't have the personnel to use them.
While some school bands have an established pipeline of young musicians from surrounding middle schools or even in-school bands of lower proficiency levels, North High's “Band B” only sometimes funnels players to the marching band. This semester Eder has just four Band B students.
Likewise, as with any team, there need to be team leaders, which Eder says he also can't always count on. But he is quick to praise the five current seniors for their leadership.
“We don't have any troublemakers in band. We got good kids,” he said.
Once the band finally takes the field to play their set — Kanye West's All of the Lights, Zombie Nation's Kernkraft 400 and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons — the scene perfectly encapsulates their underdog but dedicated nature and why they are an easy group to like and pull for.
There's the sweaty guy in his full football uniform on the frontline blowing his heart out on sax; behind him a clarinetist in a Vikings cheerleader outfit; and in back next to the freshman/senior rhythm team, a musician borrowed from East High in his bright red uniform, dutifully sight-reading and playing the bass drum for the other side.
“I thought we did OK, I was happy,” Eder said afterward.
A nearby grandparent mentions that since the band plays with their sheet music, her granddaughter could have brought her instrument and played along.
Eder, always trying to make the band better and possibly a bit bigger, takes no offense. “What do you play?” he asked the granddaughter.
“Clarinet,” she said.
“Yeah, you should've brought it. I'm just saying,” he replies with a smile.