Marching On and On

Community marching bands allow individuals to relive their high school and college glory days.

Photo by Victoria Opanashuk Hickey

From 20-member middle school programs to 300-strong university dynasties, marching bands are an integral part of many music programs in schools across the country, teaching students life lessons that they would not get anywhere else. Marching band can become a way of life that lasts all the way through the end of college.

In many cases, it stops there. Graduates pack up their instruments, put them into closets and only bring them out as a party trick or a reminder of their school days.

Marching doesn’t always end with college, however. Groups spring up to bring adults back into marching band, allowing them to continue the lifestyle they’d enjoyed throughout school.

Community marching bands stand independently from school programs, formed under a wide variety of circumstances. Some groups, like The Beat Goes On, splinter off from previously established ensembles. Others, like Santa’s Goody Bag Band and The California Repercussions, formed almost by accident. Regardless, all of them come together for the same reasons—to keep the spirit of marching band alive long after its members have left college.

The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On, based in Portland, Ore., came together in 2011 as an offshoot of the Get a Life Marching Band. Formed with director Steve Tolopka at the helm, the band worked through the logistics of forming a new organization and began taking gigs.

“We took a step to the right and formed a new thing,” Tolopka says. “We had a bit of rockiness at the start, but once we got past the first few months, everyone pretty much threw themselves into it.”

Tolopka and his wife, Janet, who acts as the group’s treasurer, went through their school years involved with their marching programs on tenor and alto saxophone, respectively. Neither of them continued with any sort of marching past college until they witnessed the One More Time Around Again Marching Band (OMTAAMB) in the 1990s participating in the Portland Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade.

“It was the biggest marching band we’d ever seen; it was full of people who clearly weren’t 20 anymore, and they were having more fun than anyone else on the street,” Tolopka says. “We looked at that and looked at each other, and said, ‘I want to do that.’”

That encounter led to the two of them joining OMTAAMB later in the decade and joining several other musical groups as time went on, leading to the Get a Life Marching Band and eventually The Beat Goes On.

The group has given a wide variety of performances all over the country, gaining a highly positive reputation in the process. The Beat Goes On became so well-known that it was invited in 2014 to be the sole representative for the United States in the Shanghai Tourism Festival in mainland China as part of the festival’s marching band theme. Though it was the ensemble’s biggest performance to date, it almost didn’t happen.

“I get lots of mail from various places every day, lots of e-mail,” Tolopka says. “And every now and then, something interesting drops into my mailbox. That’s what happened here, just before Thanksgiving last year. It was this email that said, ‘We would like to see if you are interested in attending the Shanghai Tourism Festival. It’s one of the largest festivals in China.’ And it says, ‘Oh, and we’d be glad to host you while you’re here. We’d pay for your food, lodging, bus tours, all that sort of stuff. Are you interested?’ So we looked at each other, and I was like, ‘Look, I got mail from a Nigerian prince today! How great is that?’”

Steve and Janet, however, decided to take a look into the festival anyway, on the hunch that it may have actually been a legitimate offer. They got in contact with the festival’s coordinator, and after working out some of the initial logistics, took the idea to the group’s board of directors, which approved the trip. The financial hurdles were a tall order to clear; the group turned to fundraising as well as acquired grants, including one from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, to make the trip happen.

“The trip was fantastic,” Janet says. “We performed about six times while we were there—the opening parade, the largest mall in Shanghai, at a street parade, the Oriental Pearl Tower, at a town square and the Great Wall.”

“It was everything we hoped for and more,” Steve says. “Our hosts wanted us to see as many things as we could. People were so open to us about their lives and what living there was like, and the musical experiences were simply amazing. Every time we played, there were people going berserk, and even without playing, they were just as enthusiastic.”

For John and Darla Bowman, the experience was just as wonderful—especially considering that The Beat Goes On was their first marching band experience, having joined in 2013.

“It really demonstrated to me that music is an international language,” John says. “Some of the bands—even the local Chinese bands—they were playing some of the same songs that we were. It really is universal when it comes to marching band music.”

Santa’s Goody Bag Band

In Cincinnati, Ohio, one band has been going strong since 1981. Santa’s Goody Bag Band specializes in Christmasthemed music and parades, performing year-round. The band formed following a Christmas performance featuring founder Thomas Heitkemper and a few of his friends.

“We decided to go to a bar and just play some tunes there, and a woman came up and gave us $20 because we had just played her daughter’s favorite song, and her daughter had died that year,” Heitkemper explains. “So, we asked, ‘What do you want us to do with this?’ and she said, ‘Donate it to Shriners.’ That’s when we started Santa’s Goody Bag Band.”

Since then, the band has expanded from five members playing in a bar to a full-fledged marching band, collecting donations for various charities, including the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The group has played in parades, bars, lodges, Christmas tree lightings and summer festivals. Overall, the band has raised nearly $50,000.

The group’s largest fundraiser is its yearly tavern tour, held the week before Christmas, where it makes about eight stops on a single night.

“We pull in around $4,000 each tour,” Heitkemper says. “The taverns really enjoy having us there because we really pack the house. One of the taverns even had us do a repeat show later that night because of how many people we brought in.”

Heitkemper explains that audiences are often caught off guard by how well the band plays. “People aren’t expecting much out of us because we’re a bunch of old guys showing up in these crazy outfits, and then we start playing,” he says. “We love to see the look in people’s eyes once they hear us.”

The California Repercussions

The California Repercussions formed in 1982 when members of the marching bands from the University of California, Davis, and the University of California, Berkeley, came together to perform for the Reno Charity Bowl, a charity event sponsored by public safety officials from California and Nevada. Following the performance, the members decided to continue performing together in street fairs and other events, growing into a full-fledged organization after the members graduated from their universities.

“They had so much fun, they just said, ‘We need to keep doing this,’” explains current member Benjamin Goldsmith.

The California Repercussions play a wide variety of gigs all throughout the San Francisco Bay Area while also taking annual trips outside the state. The group has played street festivals, parades, charity events, a host of local harvest and wheat festivals, and even street corners, bringing original arrangements of current pop music wherever they go. The group’s events outside the state of California include marching in Washington, D.C.’s Fourth of July parade in 2011, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Las Vegas in 2013 and an upcoming cultural exchange to Cuba in 2015.

“We try to make a big trip once a year, either domestically or internationally,” Goldsmith says.

The group arranges its own music, continually updating its repertoire with current radio hits while also mixing in iconic classics.

In addition to these songs, the leaders of each section arrange solo features for their respective instruments. Not only do these features give spotlights to instruments (such as sousaphones) that aren’t usually thought of as being lead instruments, but they also provide an opportunity for the rest of the band to take a break.

“I arranged Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ for sousaphones,” Goldsmith says. “That’s a memorable experience right there, when I can get seven of my sousaphone buddies to play Lady Gaga for a crowd of people.”

So, What’s It All About?

When someone asks individuals in the music business why marching band is important, several answers are to be expected. Teamwork. Bonds between members of a section. Bonds between everyone in a band program. Discipline. Athleticism. Development of creativity.

All of these are, of course, valid reasons why marching band could be considered important. But individual members have their own reasons as well. Marching members have their own goals, their own desires, their own explanations for why they pick up an instrument and continue to march, even long after college has passed them by.

For Steve and Janet Tolopka from The Beat Goes On, the give and take with the crowds is just as important as the experience the band provides to its members.

While community concert bands can help individuals enjoy music past college, “it ain’t the same experience as marching band,” Steve says. “We’re all about energy. We want to be good players, we want to be great musicians, but we measure ourselves on smiles per mile. It’s an opportunity to interact with people and to bring something to the crowd, and that’s what makes bands like ours possible, that we give something to them, and they give something to us. That whole positive feedback loop ignites. It takes you outside yourself. That’s not a feeling I get from very many things in my life.”

“Marching band’s appeal is different because we can play rock and roll,” Janet adds. “We play Sousa, of course, but we appeal to a broader audience when we can play songs from the radio.”

For John and Darla Bowman, the bonds built in The Beat Goes On motivate them to keep going.

“We’re sharing the joy of music, bringing smiles to their faces,” John says. “And really, that’s what it’s all about. When you see the kids out there along a parade route, and they’re smiling and waving at you, and adults too, you want them to be part of the experience.”

“It makes me feel good that I’m making other people feel good,” Darla explains.

Goldsmith finds it incredibly easy to make friends through community bands, having moved from Chicago to Northern California after graduating college. “I always enjoyed playing music, and I found a local community band,” he says. “Even though I’d never met these people before, and they came from a completely different part of the country, we still clicked almost instantly because we had that common language. Band jokes are just as funny to somebody in California as they are to someone in Chicago as they are to somebody in Boston. That gives you a way to quickly make friends. It’s a way to find people with common interests, no matter where they come from.”

He also enjoys reliving the days of college, marching out onto a football field with thousands of people cheering.

“About three months ago, the Repercussions were invited to the last football game played at Candlestick Park, to be halftime entertainment,” he says. “You can play parades, you can play on the street corner, but marching back onto the football field again, with a stadium full of people cheering for you, it just brings back that excitement of your college days, and it’s hard to relive those years otherwise.”

Heitkemper sums up his feelings in a single sentence. “Music teaches us to be human, to think, to feel,” he says.

In the end, community marching bands are, perhaps, no different from any other marching organization—and that’s the beauty of them.

For anyone and everyone no longer under the umbrella of a high school or college band, community marching bands provide them the opportunity to continue their passion for marching, be it as a full-time endeavor or an occasional hobby.

At the same time, these organizations provide their members with opportunities to give back to their communities with the power of their music, through charity drives, by representing the United States in other countries or simply by making people smile in a parade.

Music is a lifelong experience, and community marching bands enrich that experience with everything that marching band has to offer—for all ages, forever.

Inspired? Find a community band near you.

About the Author

Joel J. King is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. He is a senior at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa seeking a degree in magazine journalism. He marched trumpet with the Howell L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for a year and Palm Beach Gardens High School for four years as the high brass section leader. He has also marched mellophone and trumpet with the USF Herd of Thunder for a year each.