David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, November 15, 2013
The Big, Thumping Heart of American Fork

. . . is in Indianapolis just now. It's a band. (We'll return to politics soon enough.)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The American Fork High School Marching Band is the big, thumping heart of American Fork, Utah.

We marvel at how long and hard they work. Then they work harder and longer.

We rejoice at how good they look. Then they find a way to look better.

And their sound . . . Their sound is my favorite part of every show. Their sound teaches us why we have bands at all.

I don't play trumpet any more, but I wasn't bad, back in the day, at the little high school across the river from Blackfoot, Idaho. (Blackfoot was where a young band teacher named John Miller plied his trade, before he moved to American Fork to become an old band teacher, and I was always jealous of their program.) I was good enough for a while to win a place in the all-state band, and I got some nice comments from a judge or two for a little solo, when my high school jazz band played at the BYU Jazz Festival. I marched in a couple of local parades and at a few football halftimes. But I never worked as hard at it as these young people, and I never did so well. And I hated marching band.

Trumpet was my first love in music. Until some real men demonstrated to me that vocal music was for real men too, not sissies, I disdained that. But I found my way into an elite, hard-working high school vocal group, the Snake River High School Chamber Singers. I remember a competition where other choirs gathered just to watch us warm up, then applauded enthusiastically when we finished. But there were only two dozen of us. To achieve the same -- or perhaps even a greater -- level of unity and excellence with ten times that many high school performers year after year simply boggles the mind.

As with soccer, for me, so with marching band: Only in recent years have I acquired the taste. I can tell you exactly when it happened. It was the moment when I comprehended how much this band means to this community. It was well before our third child picked up a mellophone and made my wife and me into marching band parents. (Now I aspire to be a "band dad" someday, but that is a tale for another season.)

True, more than a hundred households have someone in the band in any given year, and hundreds more who don't this year did in the past. True, the adult population of American Fork is laced with former band members, and almost everyone in the city at least has a neighbor who is somehow connected to the band. But what's happening here is more than that. Even people with no personal connection to the band and with little interest in band music are somehow drawn into a remarkable world.

How remarkable? You can sit in the stadium at a competition, near the bands American Fork routinely defeats, and hear drum majors telling their bands, "Be sure to be back here in time to cheer for American Fork. They always cheer for us."

The big, thumping heart of American Fork is in Indianapolis this weekend at Grand Nationals, an annual competition which is both grand and national. They performed this morning in the preliminary round. People who know more about these things than I do are confident that they'll be performing tomorrow in the semifinal round, with the best of the bands. We're all hoping that they'll make the final round of twelve after that, and perform once more with the best of the best. In any case, two band rooms full of parents and family gathered for a few minutes at the high school to watch a live video feed of this morning's performance. You never saw a happier or prouder audience -- and I mean the good kind of pride, not the bad kind.

Several years ago, events taught us to hope and pray even a little more earnestly than before for the safety of these good youth and their teachers, as they travel to and from competitions. Then the band itself showed us en masse what grace and courage look like. I won't recapitulate the story in detail, but we can never have too many close-up lessons in grace and courage. That year, a slot opened up at Grand Nationals at the last minute, an invitation was extended, and the community gathered $250,000 in three days to fund the expedition. The band almost made the finals even without tailoring their show all year for national competition. They won the Esprit de Corps award; as I wrote at the time, it was hard to imagine any corps displaying more esprit than that one, that year.

Just being good enough to be there again is a triumph. Getting there is another. Performing well is a third -- and they did. I can't say I don't care where they place this weekend, but it doesn't matter much in the grander scheme of things. I value even more what they have already won -- or, in other words, what they have already seen and learned, and what they are becoming in the process.

They have learned by experience how much harder it is to be excellent than merely good. They have learned first-hand to pay the even higher price of being great at something. They've learned how to be a team, and how to knit hundreds of individual performances into something spectacular and beautiful.

Their morale and unity are enviable; I guess it helps that they win almost everything locally, but perpetual success doesn't always have a happy effect. (Just ask the Beatles.) You'd think that all the winning would make them insufferably proud (in the bad, insufferable sense of pride). But they've learned to take success gracefully. They win, they work harder. And somehow they still walk from here to there, instead of strutting. (I think we must allow them to float a bit, once this weekend's work is done, but that's different.)

I would write that these priceless lessons and experiences come at great sacrifice, but we know better. They routinely come at great cost, financial and otherwise. But the return on investment here, for students and their families, is more than ample. Thus we cannot call it great sacrifice.

There is another reason. We still remember too clearly that, four years ago, at milepost 49 south of Pocatello, there was an ultimate sacrifice: the life of a teacher for the lives of some of her students. I've heard rumors that Heather Christensen was John Miller's heiress apparent, upon his eventual retirement. Whether that's true or not, and despite the fact that the seniors in this year's band were only in eighth grade then, I have heard her name quietly on the lips of students and parents alike, this season. Long may it be thus.

I join the community in saying: Thank you, our youthful friends. You make us proud. You honor your predecessors, your teachers, your families, your neighbors, your school, and your city. You honor the sacrifice at milepost 49.

In a world which sometimes seems designed to obscure the best, most hopeful, and most lasting things, you have found and embraced them, pulled them from their hiding places, and placed them squarely in front of us, where we cannot help but see and remember and rejoice. Not least, you have done so beautifully.

Godspeed and safe journey.

David Rodeback comments (11/15/2013):

After all that, I forgot a happy little twist to this week's story. The band was asking around for silver trumpets for those who don't have them, for this weekend. I don't know which student is playing it, but the silver trumpet I played 30 years ago thus became part of this morning's performance in Indianapolis. In honor of my Conn 61B and whomever is playing it, two unattributed quotes:

"Whatever you do, never praise the trumpets. Praise will just encourage them."

"There are two sides to a trumpeter's personality: There is the one that lives only to lay waste to the woodwinds and strings, leaving them lying blue and lifeless along the swath of destruction. That is a trumpeter's fury. Then there is the dark side."

For the record, I'm laughing.

David Rodeback comments again, a few minutes later:

Quoth Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter extraordinaire:

We grow up hearing that trumpeters blew down the walls of Jericho, that Gabriel's trumpet announces the will of God, and that the largest and hippest of all animals, the elephant, has a trunk mostly (we think) for trumpeting. These grandiose images shape the classic trumpet persona: brash, impetuous, cocky, cool, in command. Anyone who has ever played in a band knows that if the conductor stops rehearsal because a fight breaks out, if somebody takes your girlfriend, if a tasteless practical joke is pulled, if someone challenges every executive decision no matter how trivial, it's got to be a trumpet player. That's just how we are.

Tracy Rogers comments (11/15/2013):

As an AFHS and AF Marching Band alum and fellow ex-trumpet player, Amen and Thank You for sharing your thoughts so beautifully in your blog. You have a gift.

Nice to see you in the band room this morning. My thoughts and prayers join yours for this wonderful band, including my daughter.

Dalton Western, of the Mountain Crest Marching Band tuba section, comments (11/15/2013):

Great job AF! I wish we could be there. At St. George, your finals performance was great, and I wish you luck at Grand Nationals.

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