During the 1970s and beyond, Sylva-Webster High School set the gold standard for marching band excellence, including laying claim to a national championship in 1979.
Yes, forty years ago bands were battling it out just as hard as they do today. The Golden Eagles won the Marching Bands of America Championship by outperforming 36 other groups from 13 states. Directed by legendary music educator, Bob Buckner, the Sylva-Webster High School captured the title with a score of 89.45 in front of a crowd of 12,500 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Stadium.
You can see their award-winning performance here. (FYI, the video quality is as bad as the band is great)
Sylva-Webster was able to achieve this honor without the aid of drill cleaning drones or computer-aided drill design. They had no access to a Harmony Director, clip-on tuners, or any electronics for that matter. Heck, they didn't even have staff.
In preparation for this article, I had the privilege and honor of speaking with then Sylva-Webster Band Director Bob Bucker about the band, and his fifty years of experience as a music educator.
When I asked Buckner about staffing, he states, "We had someone come in and teach the choreography, but as far as cleaning it, it was up to my assistant and me. I wrote the drill and one of the charts, while a couple of buddies and my former theory professor rounded out the arranged the other selections. It's not like it is today, where a band director is much a personnel manager as they are band director."
And that's not the only change.
Marching band and music in general, has changed a great deal in the past forty years. Anecdotally speaking, I think it to be about 3% a year. In other words, if you play, sing, or move next year just as you play, sing, or move this year, your score goes DOWN approximately 3%. Why? Everyone else got better. Beyond the sheer volume of what we teach, the demand of what we are asking of our young people to achieve grows each and every year as well. Good is never good enough, and last year is the benchmark we are always trying to eclipse.
Three percent may not seem like a lot, but when viewed over four years, it can be quite noticeable. In the span of your students' high school experience, the activity changes in very prominent and measurable ways. When viewed over more extended periods, the demand and achievement gap grows even more extensive.
This isn't just anecdotal, we have evidence. The dot books grow larger as the set counts grow shorter. The demand within the percussion book is exceeded only by the choreography executed by the color guard. We're not just reaching a higher level of achievement, we're doing it with more material.
"That national championship show had probably 40 pages of drill in it. As I judge, I am seeing groups with nearly three times that amount," Bucker states.
And this just isn't on a national level. It's occurring everywhere and in every part of our country and curricula. Concert bands are playing better. Choruses are singing better. Percussionists are musically stronger, and some high school orchestras rival semi-professional symphonies. Heck, just this past weekend, I went to watch my son in a marching band competition and was blown away by what my neighboring bands were doing.
You're not just teaching more, you're teaching better. YOU HAVE TO.
State departments of education require evidence of professional growth and development every 7-10 years to maintain your teaching certificate. How about you just hand them a performance tape of your group from 10 years ago and a tape of your last week's event and we call it good?
Yes, we are asking and achieving more. What's next? I don't know. When will it end? Likely never. Perhaps it's not supposed to. But the what and when are not what matters. It's the HOW and WHY.
Bob Buckner shared, "I don't care who you are, you can't achieve at a high level without understanding how to create a culture of excellence, and the Sylva-Webster Band understood that. This small-town high school band in a county that only had 20,000 residents believed that they could do anything. And they did."
Yes, with better teaching, we are achieving more than ever before. But more than that, we are also empowering students to take more responsibility for themselves and their fellow members. Leadership training, personal development activities, and good role modeling give students the tools to be successful in an ever-demanding landscape. Teaching, training, and modeling, that's the HOW.
The WHY? So students will be better prepared for life.
Bob Buckner sums it up as eloquently as anyone when he said, "I recently went to a reunion of that championship band. The room was filled with over 150 adults, some educated, some not, but all successful in their own way. Through band, they had learned how to show up and commit every day. They learned to work hard, care about others, and make the most of what they had. I asked how many of them were still involved in music? I'll bet 75% of the people in that room raised their hands… It made me feel good. Made me proud."
And at that moment, I realized that even after forty years of escalating achievement, some things hadn't changed at all.
Not one bit!
Have a great week!