by Drew Holmes
Years of memories flooded my mind as we took the field one last time. A senior at East Bridgewater High School, I was marching in my final band competition. The squish of Astroturf underfoot, I thought back to how I got here.
Three years prior marching band was new, exciting, and overwhelming. Seeing the upperclassmen in their white sateen NESBA championship jackets with the blue embroidery, the ones that could only be earned by winning finals, I felt the weight of a tradition of excellence. Though only a freshman, writing my own chapter in that history was my singular goal. We were well on our way, winning our first competition of the season but Terry, our instructor, quickly brought us back to earth with a resounding thud.
“You didn’t win, everyone else lost,” he said flatly. “Today you were the lid on the garbage pail.”
We put in the work to improve and won finals that year, earning the coveted white jacket. The next season we won every competition and earned another line of blue embroidery to mark our victory at finals. Taking Terry’s criticism to heart, my Nike band practice sweatshirt had a patch under the hood that said “Somewhere someone is practicing. And when you meet him in head-to-head competition, he will win.”
Marching band required dedication, but rarely felt like work. Rehearsals were a time to forget about homework and tests and stay truly focused in the moment. Two years and two championships were the fruits of that labor, and I was looking forward to adding more embroidery to my jacket.
Junior year was a time of crisis. The band was so tiny we did not qualify for NESBA Division I, the smallest classification. Now trumpet section leader I needed to do something. Knowing that if the band went away for one season it would likely be forever the other student leaders and I went on a recruiting spree and managed to get the numbers just big enough to have a band. We did not win finals that year, but fielding an ensemble and competing was an even bigger achievement.
This recalibration of expectations was front of mind as I took my place on the field ready to perform a show that was different that anything we had marched before. Focusing on musicianship first and visual artistry second, we adapted a concert band piece for the field, knowing that our small ensemble would sound twice as big if we played well. I even had a muted solo, a part played indoors by the oboe.
Despite the challenges of the previous year the season was successful and we were in a great position to win at finals. Our performance was the best one to date, but another championship was not in the cards.
As expected, all the caption scores were close among the top groups. All except the General Effect Visual, which had us on the wrong side of a significant gap, an insurmountable point difference. Crestfallen, we returned to the bus for the ride home.
Terry had left as our instructor a few years prior but before we departed, he boarded the bus.
“You guys got screwed” he said to us.
I was floored. He had never taken our side when we disagreed with a judge. He was always the first to tell us that we had not earned the scores we expected and that the competition had outplayed us.
Throughout my years in marching band we acquired countless medals and trophies from dozens of competitions, though (other than winning finals) none stand out as particularly noteworthy. Searching my memory I cannot recall the last time I saw my coveted white jacket, thought I likely left it in the front closet at dad’s house back when the room at the top of the stairs was mine.
I now know we succeeded every time we took the field regardless of the final score. Whether it was by winning the competition or just having a band in the first place, the journey was always the destination. In a sea of earned accolades, that moment on the bus has always stood out in my mind. Gaining the respect of someone who always held us accountable for mediocrity was far more meaningful than any trophy.