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Band directors can only watch, cheer

Months of practice end with a march for grades on the technical and artistic merits of their bands' routines.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000


CLEARWATER -- For three months, Dunedin High School's marching band has performed its Rob Roy routine under the watchful eye of director Madeline Dunsizer and her trusty loudspeaker.

But today, Dunsizer and her vocal cords are relegated to the sidelines.

Her small army, decked out in plaid kilts, must make do with only a pep talk before they step before the judges at the Florida Bandmasters Association District 9 Marching Festival on Saturday.

Sports enthusiasts know fall as football season. But late August to mid December also is prime marching band season, when kids wearing impossibly warm uniforms celebrate everyone from James Bond to Jesus Christ Superstar on their instrument of choice.

Most days, the bands are relegated to halftime performances. But today, the football field is theirs and theirs alone.

"It's a lot of pressure," says Sam Hayward, who has directed Pinellas County school bands for 45 years, the past 21 at Countryside High School. "Let's put it this way: If they're prepared, they'll do the job. If they're not prepared, it will show. The minute they come off the field, it's a sigh of relief, no matter how they did."

"Line it up, line it up," Dunsizer yells to the band as they head for the Clearwater High School football field. "Love you guys. I'll see you at the end."

She scoots toward the stands and then turns to offer one last bit of advice: "No brain farts."

Proud parents toting elementary-age siblings start to fill the bleachers, and Dunsizer joins them.

It seems odd that the band director should spend several nights a week choreographing a band's every move only to lose the power to direct on the day of competition. But that's how it is: This contest is about what the kids can do on their own.

Dunsizer only can watch. She takes a deep breath and clasps her hands together as her band begins to march onto the field.

Behind her, each of the five judges is speaking into a handheld tape recorder, noting every minor detail of the band's performance. Dunsizer will listen to those tapes later.

"Come on, Angela, come on, Angela," Dunsizer whispers as drum major Angela Sutherland, not a hint of nervousness in her, heads for her platform. "You always hope the babies will do well. But you never know."

A friendly voice oozes over the public announcement system, reminding the crowd that hot dogs, cheeseburgers, Polish sausages, peanuts, popcorn, pickles and cotton candy all are available at the concession stand.

The faint smell of rain fills the stadium, but the sky is only overcast. More than 1,000 musicians, dancers and flag guard members are performing at the marching festival. Jack Henderson is focused on the 45 in front of him.

It was a rough morning. The buses that were supposed to bring the Pinellas Park High School band to the competition never showed up. Then the band's water coolers were missing in action.

Henderson has been directing this band for only 21/2 months. Before that, he was a substitute teacher who owned his own janitorial business for 18 years.

"C'mon guys," he urges, clapping and dancing to the band's finale.

"Very good, very good, very good, good job, very good guys," he says as they file out of the stadium.

"Every little tweak I hear, I want to go out and fix it. But I know I can't," Henderson says of the sideline experience. "We just want to play as well as we can. Even if we just get "goods' here, it's okay."

The judges -- band directors or former band directors from outside Pinellas County -- will rate each band based on the technical and artistic merits of its routine. Were the lines of marchers even? Were the instruments in tune? Did the players and dancers exhibit emotion?

The end result is any one of five grades: superior, excellent, good, fair or poor.

The bands are not competing against each other, only looking to improve on their own performance.

"Band directors know their limitations, and they teach that to the students," says judge Antonio Womack of Boca Raton. "A band can feel just as triumphant with an excellent rating knowing where they started in the summer. The only thing we see is a 10-minute show. We've missed the 10 months of preparation."

Nathan Kooi has not had quite that much time to prepare his group. This is only his first year directing Palm Harbor University High's marching band, his first year as head director of any band, for that matter.

He stands on the track next to the football field, pumping his left fist and bobbing his head in time to the music as his band plays selections from three Broadway musicals.

"You've just got to kind of hold it in, bite your tongue and let it happen," says Kooi, who does not put much stock in the judges' ratings. "I don't take them too seriously at all. That's what somebody else thinks. They haven't been with my kids all year."

Dan Schmidt, band director at St. Petersburg High School, admits he eagerly awaits the judges' comments. But more importantly, he said, he wants his musicians to enjoy performing.

"I want them to do the best performance of their life. I don't care if it's at practice, at a football game or in competition," he said. "I just want them to know how that feels."

Dunedin's band members still are sweaty from their workout when Dunsizer strolls up with the judges' comment sheets in her hands. They gather around, kneeling on the parking lot pavement so that Dunsizer's voice will carry to those in back.

"There is some bad news and there is some good news. Which do you want first?" she asks. They want the bad news.

"The bad news is (judge) Ivan Wansley gave you a 2 in music. That's an excellent," she says. "The good news is all the rest of the judges gave you a superior."

The band goes wild.

"It's definitely a keeper. We won't throw it back," Dunsizer tells an onlooker. "It gives me chills to watch them when they do really well."

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