College marching bands aren’t the only ensembles that head out to prestigious bowl games during the holiday season. Many high school groups have the opportunity to travel and benefit from performing on this national scale as well.
The roar of the crowd and the thud of pads upon pads on the fresh gridiron during the winter—these sounds echo through the stadiums at college bowl games where fans are treated to football in faraway and, at times, exotic locations. With various tailgates set up in the parking lot, the smell of barbeque lingers into the gate entrances with flags proudly displaying school pride waving in the breeze. And from the end zones, bands blare the refrains of their fight songs and other popular pep tunes.
For college football teams and their bands, the bowl games are the culmination of a season of hard work. But college students aren’t the only ones who can experience these stimulating moments. In fact, dozens of high school marching bands have the opportunity to participate in this fascinating “college” atmosphere. For many individuals, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will build memories and help them become even more inspired by what they put out on the field.
This season, 13 college bowl games including the Outback Bowl, the Sun Bowl and the Sugar Bowl invited high school marching bands to perform either during a pre-game parade or as a mass band at halftime. For example, the Outback Bowl had 15 high school bands in a parade as well as in a halftime show with nearly 3,500 performers on the field.
A typical high school band performs at its Friday night football game in front of a crowd of a few hundred or a few thousand. By contrast, the average bowl attendance is about 50,000. For most bands, this will be the biggest crowd of the season.
“The kids in these bands will be performing in front of so many people, and that can be an experience in itself,” says Hunter Johnson, vice president of WorldStrides Heritage Performance, a travel company that specializes in helping high school bands participate in a bowl game. “I’ve heard of kids saying that nothing can top this or that they have fulfilled everything in life. I hope that they still have higher aspirations, but it still speaks to how special this moment can be for these kids.”
The students at Fort Dodge Senior High School certainly experienced a different climate as they went from Iowa to Florida for the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“Many of the kids here have never seen the ocean,” said Al Paulson, band director at Fort Dodge, prior to leaving for the trip. “They will have a great time in Tampa Bay compared to cold Iowa. It’ll be a great change for the kids seeing the blue water rather than the Great Plains and to perform in front of so many people.”
Connecting With Colleges
College bowl games are a great way to expose high school bands to the performance level and repertoire of university bands. Students wanting to move on to the next level in their marching career get a feel for the atmosphere and logistics of being in a college band by seeing it firsthand and performing on the same field.
“We’re excited to see what the college bands have in store,” said Ruben Mitchell, the band director at Anniston. “Many of our kids who continue with the band go to historically black universities and join their bands, but this gives them an opportunity to see bands with a different way of doing things.”
The Fort Dodge band looked forward to seeing the Iowa Hawkeye band at the Outback Bowl. “I think it’s going to be great to see the Iowa band, and it gives our band a chance to see them in action and cheer for them,” Paulson said. “A lot of our kids dream of being in their band, and it lets us show off our Iowa pride a little bit.”
Making a Tradition
Some bowls, such as the Allstate Sugar Bowl, have always had a high school marching band perform at halftime, but one bowl is beginning a new tradition. The Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, will now have a high school band instead of a celebrity entertainer, such as past headliners Rihanna or Los Lonely Boys. Timing logistics was the main factor in the change.
“When we had the celebrity entertainer perform at halftime, they only did three songs instead of a full concert,” said Bernie Olivas, executive director of the Sun Bowl Association. “We talked with our sponsor, and we thought, ‘Why don’t we have the entertainer do a full concert at our Fan Fiesta the night before.’ That opened up time for halftime. We pitched the idea of having a high school marching band perform during that time, and they agreed.”
The Sun Bowl, which hosts a Thanksgiving parade, used that November event as a competition to choose the high school band that would perform a halftime field show at the bowl. The committee hired judges from the area in order to choose the best band based on musicality and performance.
The high school band show does not affect the timing of the college band performances. “With this new model for halftime, it will actually extend the time for the college bands to perform at halftime,” Olivas said. “With the entertainer, you had to set up the stage and then the sounds and cut the bands off a little early, but now, the crowd can enjoy both college bands and the best high school band this region has to offer.”
Traditionally, high school groups that perform at bowl games submit applications as well as recorded video or audio copies of their past performances.The bands are judged based on their musicianship as well as their performance readiness.
“We were judged on how well we played our music and how we would present ourselves in front of a large crowd,” Mitchell said. “Once we got through that application process and practiced our music, it feels great to get this shot for our kids.”
To prepare for the bowl game, many of the students gave up their winter breaks in order to go to practice. The Anniston band took advantage of a late break to have as many rehearsals as they could before it started. “Our kids did not mind spending extra time to prepare for the game,” Mitchell said. “In fact, they are very enthusiastic and want to do whatever it takes to provide the crowd with the best we have to offer from this band.”
The Fort Dodge band wound up facing difficulty with its preparation because of snowstorms but found a way to practice by using the school’s heated gym. “The snow has definitely made it hard with our drill and parade preparation,” said Paulson. “Fortunately, we got permission from the school administration for us to practice with instruments in the gym during school hours. Our community is happy to see that we are out here still working hard.”
For the Woodland (Ala.) High School Marching Bobcats, it is an incredible opportunity for the band’s 72 members to showcase their best talents at the Outback Bowl after nearly being disbanded four years ago due to lack of interest.
“I have been a band director here for three years, and when I came in, there were only 22 students in the band,” said Dilmos Hamilton, band director for the Marching Bobcats. “Today we are 72 members strong and hopefully growing.”
The term “once-in-a-lifetime experience” is not an exaggeration by Hamilton as most of the students come from backgrounds where money is tight.
“In the area we live in, it’s very depressed financially,” said Hamilton. “Some of these kids that are going to the bowl game would have never been in a hotel room before. We are fortunate to raise enough money for all of them to experience that and more.”
All band members needed to raise $750 in order to fulfill their share of the bowl trip costs. The band itself employed various fundraising strategies including T-shirt sales and rock-a-thons, but it’s most effective method was a simple letter to relatives.
“We had our students send out letters to their relatives that live out of the area and tell them that in lieu of Christmas or birthday presents, they help make a donation to their trip fund and help them get to the bowl game,” Hamilton said. “It became our best source of fundraising as we had extended relatives helping out. What made me happy was how the kids motivated each other to raise their share of the cost and help fundraise after their own share was met. It shows how far we have come in four years, from nearly having no band to going to the Outback Bowl.”
The recognition and prestige that these bands will get during the holiday bowl season is a culmination of the hard work needed in order to secure the opportunity to go on a trip and perform at a nationally televised event.
“I am very proud of my students, and without them this would never have happened,” Mitchell said. “Along with help from the community, I feel blessed to be doing this with this group of kids. We’re an inner-city school, so we’re not exactly the most well-off financially, but the fact that we can do this shows this band’s determination, and we are going to show the best Anniston has to offer in Florida.”
About the Author
Jeremy Chen is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.