A great band, by any measure

The Green Devils Marching Band is off to the state semifinals.

By LIBBY NELSON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG- When Jason Foster took the baton as St. Petersburg High School marching band director this year, he had one simple goal: make it through the year.

Then the Green Devils Marching Band took first place in its first competition. Then they did it again, and Foster decided it might be time to rethink their objectives.

Saturday, the 55-member band heads into state semifinals competition. The last time the school's band competed at that level was in 2003, two band directors before Foster. Since then, it placed near the bottom of its class in every competition.

Until this year.

"We are the Boise State of 1A marching band," Foster said.

His long-term goal has always been national recognition within five years, he said.

Now that seems a lot more attainable.

Foster, who turned 25 last week, isn't much older than some of his senior students. Being young and new were his greatest challenges, he said.

"I just told everyone, 'You have to buy in. Give me until the first competition,'" Foster said. "As soon as you start experiencing success, people buy into the concept."

The band's show this year is Raise the Colours, a medley of music from the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

"We picked something kids could identify with," Foster said. "The whole concept is they need to enjoy what they're doing."

The color guard has sabers and flags with skulls and crossbones. Band members finish the show by dropping to one knee and singing "Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!"

But a little more than a week before the semifinals, that last chant wasn't cutting it.

"Talk about anticlimactic!" Foster tells the band after a round of unenthusiastic "yo hos." "I understand it's the end of the show and you'll be tired, but we've got to do better than that!"

For a school of 2,300 students, the marching band is tiny: At its biggest, it has only 55 members. Participation is voluntary for concert band students.

Only two seniors have gone all the way through high school with the program.

The band had fallen "on dark times" since 2003, Foster said.

To bring it back, he emphasized music fundamentals like tone and tuning, keeping band members disciplined and accountable.

Now he can call out starting points by measure number or page number, even though sheet music is nowhere to be seen. Without losing track of the band, he can see a flute player step out of formation. He stops a song after two notes because horns are out of tune. They hit troublesome measures over and over and get a five-minute break for water.

"This season is amazing," said drum captain Matt Mench, a senior and member of the elite all-state orchestra. "I work really hard, and until this year, school has never been an outlet for me. It's something you can really be proud of."

The band members have been able to take the music, a popular show for the past few years, and make it their own, drum major Megan Kelly said.

"New sophomores and juniors came in this year, wanting something new," said Kelly, a senior. "The program is changing for the better."

A line of tall green trophies in the band room is a reminder of how much it has changed since last year's competitions.

First place, brass. First place, woodwinds. First place, percussion. Grand champion.

Nobody knows how far the band can go now, Foster said. But band directors know anything can happen - good or bad.

"As a director, I tell them this constantly: It's not ever about the score," he said. "Who knows how we're going to do?"

Libby Nelson can be reached at 727 893-8779 or lnelson@sptimes.com.