2013-08-21 / Family

The longest march

Football players aren’t the only ones preparing for the big game
By Jim McConnell

Monacan High marching band director Jenny Ryan counts out cadence during the school’s band camp last week. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Monacan High marching band director Jenny Ryan counts out cadence during the school’s band camp last week. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer “Stay with me!”

Sensing her teenage troops are beginning to lose focus after two hours on the drill field, Jenny Ryan offers a gentle-yet-firm reminder to cut out the chitchat and pay attention.

“We only have about a half-hour more outside,” she tells the young musicians, “and I want to get as much done as possible.”

As she calls out cadence from her perch on an observation tower, about 20 feet above the field, Ryan sees it all: confident seniors who already know most of the steps, freshmen who don’t have a clue and everyone in between.

Thanks to a wireless microphone and portable speaker, she doesn’t have to shout to get her message across to each of the 64 young people aligned below – and that’s good, because Ryan’s no drill sergeant. She’s far more likely to crack a joke than call somebody out for a mistake.

It’s not boot camp, after all.

It’s band camp at Monacan High.

Every August, high school marching bands across Chesterfield County gather for two weeks to prepare their shows for the upcoming school year.

While many of their classmates are sleeping in or relaxing by the pool, these students willingly give up a chunk of their summer vacation to work and sweat in Virginia’s typically stifling humidity.

“There’s such a big family bond,” said senior Kristina Wakefield, a third-year member of the Monacan marching band. “This is where most of my friends are. We enjoy being here together.”

There’s never been a better time to be part of a high school marching band in Chesterfield. Last year, nine of the county’s 10 high school bands earned a superior rating – the highest possible score – at the annual assessment by the Virginia Band & Orchestra Directors Association.

For musicians from Clover Hill, Cosby, James River, L.C. Bird, Manchester, Matoaca, Midlothian, Monacan and Thomas Dale high schools, the seeds for unprecedented success were planted during camp.

“Right now, all we’re doing is band,” said Ryan, who’s taught band for 20 years, the last 14 at Monacan. “When school starts, it’s hard to learn drill because of all the distractions. That’s why we go fast.”

Ryan generally aims to have her band’s entire show in place by the end of camp. That means the students must learn music and drill for four songs in just eight days.

Last year, when Monacan had 30 seniors, such an accelerated timetable was no problem. This year, Ryan has 18 new marchers and realizes it‘s an ambitious goal.

“It’s tougher, obviously,” she said. “With this group, I don’t know if we’ll be able to get it done.”

Making sense of the set pieces printed in their drill books can be a Herculean task for band rookies. On the first two days of Monacan’s camp, the students learned a song from “Phantom of the Opera” that included 21 different marching sets.

By the afternoon of day two, the plan was to start combining the music and marching – easily enough to leave a freshman’s head swimming. That’s when leadership from more experienced band members becomes especially important.

“Instead of saying, ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ we look for ways to encourage them,” said Monacan junior Jason Nesmith. “I tell them the things I couldn’t get when I was a freshman, and tell them they‘ll get it eventually.”

Wakefield acknowledged that many of her non-band friends have no idea how much work goes into putting together the show the marching band performs at halftime of five home football games.

“They’re like, ‘You just march around the field,’” she said. “They think it’s easy.”

On Friday, Monacan will wrap up its 2013 band camp with a family picnic. During the picnic, parents will join their students on the drill field and learn part of a marching routine the band worked on during camp.

It’s an opportunity for parents to understand and appreciate how much progress the band makes in just eight days.

“Every year, it surprises me that it all gets done,” Wakefield said.

“The cool thing is that they’re all part of something and they’re all getting better,” Ryan added. “As long as they’re trying, that’s all we ask.”

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