The journey of a young, shy musician in her quest to join the marching band and her agony when giving it up.
At first I was mesmerized by the explosive drums and the magic of 200 people working together, making moving pictures on a field. As time went on, I began to notice details: the glint of their instruments in the autumn sunlight, the whirlwind of notes played by flutes and clarinets and the steady drive of the tubas and baritones. I saw how they carried themselves: backs straight, chins up, with pride.
I was a freshman at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School, painfully shy and lacking in confidence, and I could not take my eyes and ears off the marching band.
From Obsession to Reality
I was in the concert band, where I played the flute. Each day, second period, I’d come into the band room and gaze in wonder at the people around me. Almost all of them were in the marching band. They could play music so difficult that I couldn’t produce a single note of it. They could hold their instruments up at perfect angles for hours, it seemed. They could memorize 10 minutes of music and know, to the inch, where on the field to be at every moment. I could never do that.
Gradually, despite my shyness, I met some of those people. They told me what marching band is like—hours of practice each day, performing in front of huge crowds at football games and traveling to competitions every Saturday. I saw how these 200 people all had something in common, something that they loved, that kept them together.
My interest grew into an obsession. I felt lonely and wished I could be part of something greater than myself. One day, while waiting outside the school to be picked up after a club meeting, I saw the band members coming outside to start their rehearsal. As they made their way to the parking lot where they practiced, they were talking and laughing—a far cry from the resigned misery with which I dragged myself to ballet class twice a week. I was so amazed by this that something in me snapped. I had to be in the marching band. I had to.
Falling in love with the band had been easy, but joining it was not. My parents couldn’t have hated the idea more. They said that it would ruin my academics, that I was just following my new friends around and that I should stick to homework and ballet as after-school activities. They refused to allow it.
I had never defied my parents before; we had never disagreed like this. But months passed. I made even more friends in the band and slowly, began to shed my debilitating timidity. When spring began, I knew that I had little time left before another band season started and passed me by. The situation terrified me.
It was only with plenty of prodding from my friends that I approached my parents one evening and candidly said, “I want to join the marching band, and I’m going to do it whether you like it or not.”
Somehow, with an air of bewilderment, my parents agreed.
Summer came around. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? What if I couldn’t keep my feet moving in tempo or forgot where I was supposed to go? I was doing this on gut instinct alone.
However, right at the first rehearsal, I realized that I shouldn’t have worried. Even though I was completely new at it—I’d never taken a 22.5-inch marching step before, and I’d never had to hold my flute up perfectly parallel to the ground—I felt like I was in my element. It was where I belonged.
I quickly learned how things work in marching band. We began each practice by running the length of the school, from the band room to the practice field, to build strength and discipline. We stood in semi-circles to stretch and were expected to be silent. At the end of the stretches, the drum major would announce a number. She would count us off, and the entire 200-person band would have to do that number of jumping jacks, counting silently, perfectly in sync. If even a single person did too many or too few, or made the smallest accidental movement at the end of the jumping jacks, the whole band would do push-ups. We would try the jumping jacks again, this time a greater number. Sometimes it took several tries to get it right, and we did many, many push-ups and jumping jacks on those days.
The summer passed frantically, a blur. I remember hours of standing, marching, and running on burning pavement, hours of music rehearsal, picking the tunes apart note by note. Each morning I would wake up and feel sore in muscles I’d never even known I had. We had our band camp at the beginning of August, and we practiced from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. for five days. I had never been so hot, so tired, so sleep-deprived in my life. I had sunburns on my face and blisters on my feet, and I was always hungry and thirsty.
Yet, somehow, I loved every minute of it.
The Main Event
September came. The air grew cooler, but only slightly. The first few times we wore our uniforms—gray and woolen—we had to drink water every few minutes to keep from passing out. Luckily, our competitions were always on Saturday nights. On the bus rides, traveling to our shows, we would usually have to stay quiet and study drill—the numbers that denote our exact location on the field at each part of the show, just like x-and-y coordinates.
After arriving at the competition site and getting ready, we would huddle around our director to hear his thoughts. Sometimes he had lots to say, telling us how to improve our attitude and focus, or listing details about the bands we’d be competing against. Other times, he did not say much. He simply looked at us, the expression on his face saying more than words ever could. We knew what he expected from us: focus, pride, and ferocity.
Finally, we would silently organize into rows and march to the stadium, hearing the beat of the performing band’s percussion. We would blow air through our instruments to warm them up, running through the show in our minds. The crisp night air and blinding stadium lights did not distract us. When at last the preceding band had finished its show, we would stand up straight, instruments at attention, and march across the back of the field, guided by drum taps.
When everyone had come to a stop, the announcer’s voice would echo through the stadium: “Beavercreek High School Marching Band, you may now take the field for pre-placement and/or warm-up.”
Four taps from the drum, and we began to march down the field, carefully forming our opening shape. The audience’s cheers would crescendo to a deafening volume, but our focus never faltered. When we reached our positions, we would turn around to face the back of the stadium, where our director stood with his arms over his head and counted off our warm-up, “Number Ten.”
These eight beautiful notes could captivate anyone who heard them. The audience would quiet down to listen to our ringing harmonics, often applauding when we completed the warm-up.
By this point, I would be excited and anxious beyond belief. We’d turn back around to face the audience, backs ramrod-straight and instruments perfectly in position. Our eyes would be glued to the drum major’s hands, which would show us the tempo, guiding us through the show.
The voice over the loudspeaker would then announce, “Beavercreek High School Marching Band, you may now take the field in competition.”
Our drum major would count off precisely. We would take a collective breath, and begin.
Both years that I marched in the band, I was in love. Band was a way of life. I saw changes in myself that I’d never thought possible. I grew confident and proud, both on the field and off. I learned to love hard work and strove to improve as much as possible. I grew even more dedicated to my schoolwork and other activities, and I sought to implement the philosophy of marching band into everything I did.
I grew used to being in the band. Each time I lifted my flute to play, the memorized notes came quickly and easily to my fingers. Moving my body with snappy precision became as natural as taking a breath, and 10 years of ballet made it easy to lift up on my toes and march backwards. Whenever I got ready to march, both in rehearsal and at a show, I felt energy ripping through me, the energy we all felt. It was the sort of energy that made us feel like moving mountains. It was responsible for the ferocious pride painted on our faces. Our band director called it controlled violence.
The friends that I’d met stayed with me for the rest of high school. It was the first time in my life that I belonged to a group of intelligent, eloquent and selfless people. Often, on bus rides during band season, we would discuss everything from religion to politics to current scientific research. We did volunteer service together, played piano and sang for each other, and took our little siblings trick-or-treating on Halloween. We were like brothers and sisters, and it is from them that I learned to love myself despite my faults.
Marching band became the new meaning of my life, so it seemed only natural that I would stay in it my senior year. It would be the year to work even harder than ever before, the year to let the music take me on one last journey.
But fate intervened.
I learned of a prestigious summer program called Legacy Heritage Internships for Young Scientists (LHIYS). It involved spending a summer in Israel and doing scientific research, Judaic study and Israel advocacy. As an Israeli, I could never refuse such an opportunity. However, it took place at the same time as all the summer band practices. I realized immediately what that meant.
In the spring of 2008, while reading the acceptance letter that I had received, I realized that my time in the marching band had come to an end. The goal of my life is to take every opportunity I am offered, even if it means giving up something else. LHIYS was the chance to learn more about science and my heritage than I could ever do in Ohio. I would meet people who would make me think in new ways. Furthermore, I would go home to the country of my birth.
I returned from Israel in the fall. The marching band’s summer had been exceptional; they’d learned the show faster than ever before. They were ready for the most exciting, most successful competition season they’d ever had. I would not be a part of it.
On the first day of school, I walked into the band room, where I’d spent so much of my time during the past three years. I saw everybody’s band bags strewn across the floor, instruments laid down haphazardly after the last practice, notices for sectionals and due dates on the board. These things were once part of my daily life, mundane and unnoticed. Now they seemed like relics from another world.
It was then that I understood how difficult it can be to do the right thing. When we are young, we’re told that doing what’s best will always feel good and that our conscience will thank us. I had done the right thing by putting myself out there and taking chances, traveling to the other side of the world, so that I could learn new things. But as I looked around at all these little treasures I had lost, I didn’t feel fulfilled or proud. I felt wretched.
Those first few days crawled by. I was struck by a sense of fundamental unfairness. My friends had become section leaders, sharing their knowledge and their love for band with others like I yearned to do. Each time I heard them analyzing the previous day’s rehearsal, discussing the rivalries between people in their sections or talking excitedly about the competition coming up, regret washed over me like the miserable autumn rain outside. I refused to go to shows and football games; I was terrified of how it would feel to see the marching band down there on the field, looking and sounding beautiful even without me there to help.
Everything comes at a price. I paid for last summer’s incredible opportunity with the regret I felt when I came home. I’d give anything for one more chance, just one, to perform with the band and awe people with the beauty of the show, making them smile and cry with the music. But even though I wish above all else to have the chance to march again, I still know that my decision was the right one.
I no longer fear pain because I can see the good that comes from it rather than letting it overwhelm me. I feel more confident in my ability to make the best decision possible and to make it with reason, not emotion. I am not afraid of losing my place in the world because I know that I can always find a new one.
The experiences and changes that came to me through band remain a part of me. It is everything—how freezing and happy we were at the late-season football games, huddled together for warmth. It is the magic of September and October, of the leaves dancing through the air, down to the parking lot where we rehearsed. It is our joy, our hugs and cheers, after we have performed well; it is our silent shame after we’ve given less than our best. It is the liquid energy rushing through our veins.
My feet still twitch and try to move in tempo whenever I hear music. In times of sadness or stress, I still wear only pride on my face. And I remember that feeling of controlled violence, of wanting to run and scream, but instead of channeling the energy into precise, beautiful movements and music that bared its soul to the world. Marching band is somewhere deep, in my heart and in my blood.
Just a few days ago, I finally decided to go see the band perform. I showed up early to a home football game and loitered around the parking lot outside the band room door, musing restlessly. The leaves on the trees around me were already starting to turn colors and float to the ground, even though fall has barely begun. It felt like change.
I waited a few minutes longer, unsure of what to expect. I was prepared to be happy, to be sad, to be furious at the choice I had made. But then, I heard something that made my thoughts and worries melt away. From inside the band room came the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard—it was my marching band, playing “Number Ten.”
About the Author
Miriam Mogilevsky is a senior at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School. She played flute in the marching band for her sophomore and junior years. Next fall, she will be attending Northwestern University and plans to join the Wildcat Marching Band.