Marching for Matt

When Matt Sims didn't make it back to the band this year, the band made sure his absence was noted.

September 12, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The first day of band practice at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia began this year, as the first day always does, in the band room, where the sound of snare drums and bass drums was as deafening as it was on the first day of practice last year.

There were about 65 teenagers in the room. They gathered where the band always gathers, under lockers big enough to hold tubas, under gleaming gold trophies atop file cabinets of sheet music, around framed collections of "Dutrow-isms" - words and phrases like "hardware store noises" and "rolling sludge"- used over the last 25 years by the mustached band director, Lewis Dutrow.

This year's band members came dressed the way they always dress for practice: in T-shirts and shorts, in flip-flops and sandals. They sat in the familiar semicircle of chairs and cut up; they talked when they were supposed to be listening, which was no surprise.

When Mr. D., as students know him, told them to lift their instruments, to stand up, to put their feet together and play, they hit - as they always do on the first day of band practice - a few sour notes.

"Wrong notes, cats," said Mr. D., halting rehearsal with wave of his hand. "The wrong notes are tearing us up. The first piece was easy, but this piece is harder."

He stood at the podium in the front of the arc of chairs, talking into a microphone wired to his belt. It was an hour until lunch. The band had finished rehearsing a song called "Aztec Gold" and was working now on another number, "Jump in the Line," from the movie Beetlejuice.

Outside the band room, the parking lot was full of cars here for Howard County new teacher orientation. The junior varsity football team was on the practice field.

Another school year was about to begin, another season of football games and pep rallies and Saturday morning band practice. Everything - and everyone - was in place, except Matthew Sims.

Matt, who was 17 years old and would have been a senior this year, played the sousaphone and seldom missed a game. He loved music, loved the Wilde Cats, loved band so much that he talked about being a high school band instructor himself.

His fellow band members said if there was ever a student who embodied the spirit of a marching band, it was Matt.

His place was literally in the heart of the band, and he was hard to miss there in the center, carrying the biggest, heaviest instrument, the marching tuba.

When it was time for the band to yell, he yelled loudest.

When some kids painted their faces for game days, Matt colored his hair green or yellow.

When the band needed a few members to travel to away games and play in the pep band, Matt went. (And more than once volunteered his parents to bring a truckload of his friends' instruments.)

When Mr. D. needed volunteers to help clean instruments, arrange files, and tidy the band room last spring, Matt was there.

But on the last day of June, on his way home from summer school, Matt lost control of the car he was driving. He struck a tree and died at the scene.

Just seven weeks later, on a sweltering morning in August, the band he loved had to begin practice without him.

There was the usual flutter of sheet music as students flipped their booklets to find the right page.

There was the usual round of hugs from friends who hadn't seen each other all summer.

There were four songs, as usual, to be learned for the 12-minute football halftime show.

And this year, there was something new.

Mr. D. told the band he had come up with an idea to honor Matt during the drum feature piece. The idea, he said, had come to him over the weekend. It took a few hours to sketch out the details, but now he had it down pat.

When the band heard what he had in mind, it listened quietly. A few seniors, some of whom had been in band with Matt for years and had attended his funeral, nodded.

It sounded like his kind of idea.

On the second day of band practice, when he decided the students were getting comfortable with the music - and comfortable again listening and taking directions - Mr. D. took them outside.

It was time for the hard work of matching footsteps to music.

They lined up on chalk lines in the clover field near a stand of trees behind the school. Mr. D. climbed a ladder and put on his headset and microphone. In his hands was a diagram mapped out on graph paper, and on the paper, every member of the band was a dot.

The hard part had begun. The band had two weeks to learn how to march in formation - and play music while they did. They had to learn how to march forward, backward, sideways. When they had that figured out, he would show them in more detail what he had in mind to honor Matt.

Matt had found marching and playing music a breeze. "He picked it up and really loved it," said his father, Robert Sims.

Matt had auditioned and was chosen for Baltimore's Marching Ravens, the band that performs at Ravens football games, when he was in the seventh grade. So by the time he entered high school, marching in formation was old hat.

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