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Coming in from the cold

A too-small jetliner nearly ruins their Festival of States trip, but the ingenious Minnesota school bands find a way.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


The jetliner was too small for their tubas and scores of other instruments. But the Grand Rapids (Minn.) High School bands are used to marching over adversity.

And if they can make it to Sioux Falls, S.D., for competitions, they certainly could find a way to get to this week's Festival of States in St. Petersburg.

They had already raised money by sponsoring their band leader in a snowmobile race to Winnipeg. They slept on gym floors to save money while traveling to band competitions. And they had braved the flagpole test: If a band member's tongue doesn't stick to a flagpole, it isn't too cold to march.

Rest assured, the bands have found a way.

The high school track coach and his wife are in a 24-foot Ryder truck brimming with instruments -- including three types of saxophones -- and 21 crates of uniforms, on their way to Florida.

Darrin and Andrea Hofstad should finish their 1,800-mile trek sometime after noon Monday. They started the trip by driving 70 miles in the opposite direction so he could coach a track meet. He teaches math at the school, too.

Grand Rapids bands director Mark Saiger called Hofstad a lifesaver. If it weren't for Hofstad's willingness to make the 29-hour trip, Saiger said, 168 band members would have missed the chance to come to St. Petersburg.

Sometime Tuesday, the 168 band members should arrive here in two jets.

Most of the members have lived in Grand Rapids all their lives. (The town of 9,000 is an hour south of the Canadian border.) Only a handful of them have ever visited Florida or seen a palm tree. Few have ever flown.

Saiger and bands co-director Dale Gunderson started making plans for the trip more than a year ago.

Saiger, who has brought students to two Festival of States celebrations, said coming to St. Petersburg has become a school tradition. Many of his students' brothers and sisters have attended the school and traveled with him to the 1989 and 1995 festivals.

He said the students like St. Petersburg because of the people.

"They treat our kids so good," he said. "It's one of the things that has drawn us back."

Saiger's plans for this year's trip started falling apart Monday when he found out the plane he had booked to bring the band's 300 instruments and 21 crates of uniforms wasn't large enough. After a sleepless night and countless phone calls, he located a truck and offered to pay the track coach's expenses if he would consider making the trip.

"I knew these last two weeks would be difficult," Saiger said. "But when we meet an obstacle, we don't back down. We find a new way to get over it or through it."

Members of the Grand Rapids High School bands make several long-distance weekend trips during the year. They travel as far as Sioux Falls to compete. Besides sleeping on hard floors, they take lukewarm showers to avoid high-priced hotels. They regularly practice in 20-degree temperatures to prepare for competitive marching and field shows.

"If you can stick your tongue on a flagpole and it doesn't stick," it's warm enough to play," Saiger said.

The students' dedication has earned them the distinction of being the only school north of Minneapolis that has a competitive field show-parade band. They also have won top 10 finalist honors at the St. Louis Regional Bands of America marching band competitions.

They will arrive in force: two concert bands, two jazz bands, a street marching band and a field show band.

The students and their 15 chaperones will stay at the TradeWinds Sirata Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach. Saiger said the group is scheduled to have a meeting as soon as everyone arrives at the hotel, but they probably will have to check out the beach first.

"They'll be standing a hundred yards from the ocean and won't be able to resist," he said.

Band member Jeff Peltier, 17, said he can't wait to get here.

"I'm just really looking forward to seeing the beach for the first time, sleeping right next to it, being in the parade," he said. He doesn't know anything about St. Petersburg other than what he has heard from his band director and from some older band members who have been here.

"That's kind of a good thing for me," he said. "I don't mind surprises."

The students will participate in several Festival of States events, including the out-of-state bands concert and jazz evaluation Thursday at the Palladium Theater and the Festival Coronation Ball and Pageant on Friday night at the Coliseum. They will march in the TradeWinds Resorts Festival Parade on Saturday morning and participate in the post-parade marching band field show performances in North Straub Park.

They also will do a little sightseeing. They will take a dinner boat cruise, an afternoon trip to Busch Gardens and a day trip to Walt Disney World.

"We want them to keep focused since it's a competition and they're representing their school," Saiger said. "At the same time, we want them to enjoy themselves."

He said the students worked hard to raise money for the trip.

The school set up an account for each student that required individual deposits of $1,125. They sold candy bars, discount coupon books, pizza, caramel rolls, French silk pies and frozen cookie dough to raise money. Many of them contributed funds from their part-time jobs. Parents chipped in to cover the difference between what the students collected and what they needed.

Saiger added to the pot by participating in the three-day International 500, a snowmobile race from Minnesota to Winnipeg. The band boosters came up with the idea, he said, and asked the students to find sponsors to pledge money for every mile he raced.

Saiger completed 500 miles and raised $2,500. He placed eighth in his class of 160 entries.

Saiger and Gunderson have armed the students with a list of instructions for the trip. They have suggested that they drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. They have warned them about the Florida sun and have told them they can get burned even when the sky is overcast.

They also have discussed the importance of appropriate attire and of being respectful. They have told them to be aware of their environment and to realize that they have the ability to change people's minds -- for the better -- about kids.

"We have to be considerate," 16-year-old Olivia Latimer said. "The teachers want us to be nice so we give a good impression of our town."

Olivia, who has only traveled as far south as Missouri, said she'll wear a dress on the dinner cruise even though she doesn't like dresses.

But the band directors said they aren't concerned about behavior problems with their students. They said that all the school's "good kids" are in the band program.

"Being in this program develops self-discipline," Saiger said. "The discipline of music makes good kids."

He said there are "a ton of headaches, a ton of obstacles" in putting a trip like this together, but the looks on the students' faces when they see the beach for the first time make all the headaches worthwhile.

"Every time I take the trip, I wonder why I'm doing it," he said. "When you get there, you know."

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