A director and his musicians have transformed Atholton's band from a football game sideshow to a source of school pride

Students band together to play music and win

October 28, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Temperatures were in the 40s and dropping late Wednesday afternoon as the Atholton marching band rehearsed on the high school parking lot.

"Right side out," said Lee Stevens, the director, his voice amplified through a portable public address system as more than 70 students followed his directions, stepping carefully as they played drums, tubas, saxophones and other instruments. "Forward march. Left side out. Forward march."

Again and again, band members stepped through their 9 1/2 -minute routine on the empty parking lot, as Stevens, the school's music director, analyzed every note from the musicians and flag twirl of the color guard. The rehearsal, which began at 4:30 p.m., would continue until 8 p.m., as it does every Wednesday.

"He's really strict," said junior Zinnia Luo, who was rubbing her hands together to keep warm when she wasn't playing the vibraphone. She's been part of the Raiders marching band since ninth grade, and doesn't mind that rehearsals and performances take up so much of her time.

"It's a lot of fun," she said.

Stevens -- popularly known as "Fuzz" because of his graying facial hair -- has been at the helm of the marching band for 20 years. In that time, he's turned it from a football game sideshow to a source of school pride.

"They have a long reputation of having a lot of successes," said Sue Righter, the mother of a senior and a sophomore in the band, and vice president, with her husband, Warren, of the school's music booster club. "Mr. Stevens really expects and is able to pull out the very best from these kids."

At 7 p.m. tomorrow, the Raiders will take part in the United States Scholastic Band Association's Yamaha Cup at M&T Bank Stadium. It is the band's fourth competition -- under the Youth Education in the Arts program -- this season. It has played in Herndon, Va. (at the Northern Virginia Regional Championship), Hershey, Pa., and in Westminster -- taking first place each time in its category.

The season's final competition -- All States Championships -- is scheduled for Nov. 12 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Bands from the East Coast compete against teams from their own state -- they're divided into categories based on size and ability level -- and produce a state champion. Atholton has won state titles four years in a row.

"Lee has an amazing history of winning," said Ruth Davey, president of the music booster club, which raises money for the program. "He expects a lot from the kids, and they deliver. We have a long history of awards."

Stevens credits much of the school's success throughout the years to its drum majors. And this year's group -- Ameneh Bordi, a senior, and junior Adam Yocwiak -- certainly are worthy, Stevens said.

"They are incredible student leaders. They're wonderful," Stevens said. "And the kids do everything they ask."

The drum majors conduct the band in practice and competitions.

"At that point [in competitions], I go into the stands and watch. And that's very difficult to do," Stevens said. "I want to get involved. I want to be down there. But I do get to cheer with all the parents, and that's fun."

Stevens, 60, said parent involvement has been a critical part of the band's success.

"The whole operation would not be possible without the support and the assistance of the booster parents, of which we have a ton," Stevens said.

Each year, the band performs a different routine built around a theme. One year, it was a Sesame Street theme, and the marchers took garbage cans on the field to represent Oscar the Grouch. This year, it's a groovy 1960s theme, with "Bridge Over Troubled Water," by Simon and Garfunkel; "Pinball Wizard" by the Who; and other selections.

During competitions, the band has 15 minutes to get on the field, set up, perform and leave.

Students, former students and parents all describe being part of the marching band as a highlight of high school life.

"I just like going to competitions and feeling that high and the rush of competing and winning ... because we do win," said Tynika Reese, a junior who plays saxophone.

For Stevens, the discipline that the students learn is what makes the experience so important. He said the students get used to being critiqued by judges, and have a keen sense of what they could do better.

"That's what the kids take away for life," he said.

Competition days start early and end in the wee hours of the next morning.

"A typical weekend for us would be to arrive at school and begin rehearsing at 9 in the morning and not get home from a competition until 1 or 2 in the morning," Stevens said. "The kids are used to putting in a lot of hours."

Stevens said he began entering the band in competitions 19 years ago because the members were already spending so much money and working so hard to prepare for football games.

"For the expense of having to put [a band] together in the first place, you might as well get something more out of it," he said.

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