Center Grove High School

For Center Grove High School, its indoor percussion show, “Don’t Give Up,” became a rallying cry in its struggles to fight for its arts programs as a whole.

Photos courtesy of the Center Grove Marching Trojan Band

In 2009 the Center Grove Marching Trojan Band from Greenwood, Ind., won first place, best music, best general effect and best visual awards in Class AAA as well as 9th overall in the Bands of America Grand National Championships. That same year, the indoor percussion ensemble received the silver medal in WGI’s Scholastic World Class.

The group did not fare as well at WGI championships this year, placing 15th for percussion and 11th for guard although those rankings don’t faze its leaders. Being in the band is about the experience, not winning the awards, says Joseph Lapka, assistant director of bands.

In fact, despite the ensembles’ past successes, the groups’ awards are not prominently displayed in the band room. At Center Grove, the staff works to create an atmosphere where the students are appreciated and can experience personal victories week-to-week. This philosophy is important, especially considering its recent school budget struggles.

Halftime Magazine recently checked in with Lapka to find out how Center Grove operates.

Halftime: How did you prepare yourself to become a director at Center Grove?

Lapka: The best thing I ever did in my career was that I spent three years after I graduated college watching the directors of Carmel, Avon and Lawrence Central. Seeing those people made me realize: “Wow, this is what high school kids can do.”

Halftime: Is Center Grove’s music program threatened by budget cuts?

Lapka: Right now, jobs are being eliminated due to budget cuts. … They closed an elementary school. … And in order to save the rest of the teachers, they have decided to do a referendum, a vote from the community … The school has dipped into emergency funds to retain all teachers for next year. If [the referendum] passes, everyone will keep their jobs, but the danger is we already know that next year the governor is going to cut the same amount that they cut this year again. So we’ll be facing the same crisis. But we’re safe for another year, at least.

Halftime: What is the story behind this year’s indoor percussion show?

Lapka: It really has a dual meaning. It’s just kind of coincidental that the piece “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel is the one we gravitated toward. There’s a main character who is representing Hope, whose name is actually Hope.

So once the budget issues started happening, they just started talking about how there are times in our lives where we need to not give up and always have hope.

And the end of the show is interesting because it’s not all warm and fuzzy; it’s kind of eerie and unsettling. It almost lets the audience know that it doesn’t always work out, and there is always uncertainty.

So it kind of has a dual meaning in terms of don’t give up, really, on the arts and fighting for the arts. But originally the show was just about, in general, not giving up.

Halftime: How do you decide on a show concept?

Lapka: Sometimes the shows are really visually based, and sometimes they’re based off the music. … Once the idea is generated, the director and the music staff find the right music for that, and then we figure out which parts of the music we’re going to use. It’s just a process that keeps going around, around and around.

And obviously when we give it to the students, finally, we hope that it’s in its final form even though it will continue to change. We really don’t want the students to do something that we don’t feel is set up in every possible way, whether that’s pacing, or exposure or effect. When we give them that music or when we give them that drill, we have faith that’s the product we want.

Halftime: How do you feel about the group’s placements at WGI?

Lapka: Center Grove has been in World Class for six years at least, so they’re used to it. … This year, the group performed very well; the final placement at WGI wasn’t necessarily what they had hoped. But it was kind of a younger group; we’re not graduating many people this year, so the group will be pretty strong next year.

We are the type of program, as is many, where we’re going to go in and try something new and not worry too much about how it will end up being judged. They walked away feeling pretty good about their performance at finals, and in the end that’s all we can ask them to do.

Halftime: What makes your band unique?

Lapka: Center Grove has really based its recognition on pushing the envelope and being on the forefront of the activity and not really worrying about what everyone else is doing but being the ones setting the trends for the rest of the activity.

Halftime: How has Center Grove pushed the envelope?

Lapka: When you look at Center Grove from 1995 to 2000, … the visual concepts that were being presented at the time were unparalleled in the activity. They really pushed the activity to go and think about different concepts that had not been previously considered or thought even obtainable, whether that’s the tempos that they were going or with simultaneous demands.

Certainly the quality of the guard at that point in Center Grove’s history was near the top, if not the top, both in WGI and marching band, so when you have that quality instruction, this allowed the designers to do things that most people can’t.

Halftime: What advice do you have for aspiring directors?

Lapka: For directors, my advice is to … become the best musician you can, first and foremost, because when you look at directors from quality programs around the country, they are great musicians.

They have great musical instincts, and the only way you develop musical instincts is by listening to as much music as you can, seeing as many live performances as you can, watching other people rehearse, going to master classes. It’s about gathering as much information as you can to the point of where it becomes instinct for you. … Your first instinct is there, and it’s correct, and it’s productive, and it’s sufficient. And that only comes from doing as much practice as you can.

Note from the Editor: Find out how Center Grove alumni are helping to avoid arts cuts in the future. Visit our “Web Exclusives” section of our website, here.

About the Author

Sabrina Lochner, a senior at Syracuse University, is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. She is majoring in magazine journalism and political science and minoring in architecture. She currently serves the Syracuse University Marching Band as head drum major and has served as the band’s associate drum major for two years. She has played the clarinet since fifth grade and is a sister of Tau Beta Sigma, National Honorary Band Sorority.