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More than just music

At Citrus High's band camp, teens take on the sweltering heat and a physical workout rivaling that of a sports team in their five-day push toward perfection.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

INVERNESS -- At last, the sun was falling. All day it had baked them as they went over the routine, last year's glory driving them through one more turn and shuffle, one more trumpet blast, another flurry of drum beats.

They were fading, too. Band director Jason Koon put down his cowbell and trotted to the 50-yard line for a pep talk.

"You've got to suck it up," he said as the teenagers closed in around him Wednesday. "Come on, get a little hustle in your step."

"Let's do it!" they cheered, then ran back into position. It was 7 p.m. Nearly two hours of daylight remained, and they would use it all.

Marching bands, such as the one at Citrus High School, are attempting to shed their image, however unfair, as havens for the unathletic and unpopular.

Sophisticated musical arrangements and complex choreography, with an emphasis on personal style, have replaced the rote sheet music performances of the past that appealed mainly to parents.

"Now it's like, "It's halftime, let's go watch the band,' " said senior band captain Jared Kirby. "People are giving us standing ovations. It's the coolest feeling."

Bands increasingly engage in competition, traveling across the state and beyond in pursuit of trophies and bragging rights. The success has boosted the students' self-esteem and brought respect from peers.

"Kids recognize how much discipline, talent and effort it takes," said Michael Blakeslee, the deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education in Reston, Va.

"The current generation is in some ways a very serious generation. They are oriented toward, "Gee, what am I going to do in college?' Band helps them showcase their hard work."

Nowhere else in Citrus County is the transition more apparent than at Citrus High, which placed third in its class in the state championship tournament last year.

"We used to be called band geeks," said junior Aaron Payne, who plays the mellophone in the 90-member band. "Now we get more respect.

"People are noticing that we work really hard at what we do. They say, "Way to go.' "

(The band's social cache may have also been indirectly aided by the football team, which went 1-9 last season.)

Transcending the stereotypes

Payne, a skinny 16-year-old dressed in baggy shorts and a white T-shirt, rested against the high wall of football stadium during a water break. His short cropped hair glistened with sweat.

The five days that ended Friday is known officially as band camp. A more appropriate title, some say, is hell week.

Practices ran from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., the marching drills punctuated with pushups and jumping jacks, even laps around the track.

Koon views the exercise, partly for discipline and partly for endurance, as necessary if the band is to succeed. A 15-minute halftime routine requires precision and stamina, he said.

So when the second flute falls out of step, the band drops and gives him 20. "If even one of them doesn't live up to what they are supposed to do, it will mess the rest of the group up," Koon said.

In the next breath, he confessed another agenda: "When the football players see us doing pushups, they think the band isn't a bunch of wimps."

The theory seems to hold. "We used to get mad because they considered band a sport," said Micah Lamb, a wingback on the junior varsity football team. "But they work as hard as we do."

The music being performed today is more complex and, band members and fans agree, more entertaining. The idea is to make the audience feel the music, not just hear it.

This year's performance incorporates a Spanish theme that Koon predicts will be a crowd favorite. Last year, the band used music from the movie Gladiator; the year before that, Fiddler on the Roof.

Koon, 29, graduated from Citrus High in 1991 and played the tenor drum in the marching band. Back then, he said, the band "wasn't that prestigious."

Now sporting a goatee and black Oakley sunglasses, Koon is giving his students more than music lessons. "I tell them to gain respect, don't act like nerds. The parents are always going to love us, but we try to win over the students."

The fear of being labeled a nerd or geek in high school is enough to determany incoming freshman from joining the band.

"I thought everyone was going to pick on me," said 15-year old flutist Kym Gemkow, now a sophomore. "Not only was I going to be a freshman, but I was in band, too."

Making matters worse, her older brother, Thomas, played offensive line for the football team. But she stuck with it, and each week, her pride grew.

Rivalry draws fans, critics

Along with the football scores, the results of the band's Saturday competitions, called festivals, were displayed over the school's television system. Even her macho brother came around.

"He doesn't want to admit it, but he's impressed," she said.

Not everyone is convinced the added emphasis on competition is good.

Duane Hendon, the executive director of the Florida Bandmasters Association, said the trend toward numerical rankings was somewhat troubling.

"To me, music is not about combat," Hendon said. "Kids work their rear ends off and do a wonderful job and come in second or third and feel like losers. It should be about everybody doing the best job they can."

During FBA festivals, schools do not compete against each other, at least not officially. Judges give out a range of ratings -- superior, excellent, good, fair and poor -- in categories from music to general effect.

Still, many students say they enjoy rivalries. Citrus High is not alone in that regard.

Crystal River High School band director Robert Cook attributes the surging popularity of his band to competition and more engaging music. Last year, he had 85 students in the band, up from 48 four years ago.

This year the band is tackling a medley of Russian Christmas songs. "No kid wants to do anything that is boring," Cook said.

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or

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