WHS band marches to victory
Whitehall-Coplay residents are accustomed to cheering the Whitehall High School sports teams to victory, and now, there’s a new medal winner in town.
The Whitehall Marching Zephyr Band (MZB) is making great strides in the marching band world. The unit competes in the Cavalcade of Bands circuit in the American Open Class category.
According to Matthew Tanzos, music teacher at the high school and MZB director, the band has been competing as early as 1973. In 2016, the band finished in second place in the championships. The unit took it a step further the next year and was crowned the American Open Class champions at the end of its undefeated 2017 season. Tanzos reported the band outscored every other competitor, regardless of the other bands’ sizes.
According to Tanzos, the 2017 marching band season was the first time in Whitehall High School history the marching band won an open class championship. Open class is the highest level of competition in the marching band circuit. This means Whitehall High School’s program was judged to be the best of the best during the 2017 year.
He reported that until 2009, the band competed in the A Class category, which is reserved for more novice bands.
“Last year’s championship really marked our arrival as a premier marching band program, not just locally, but throughout the Northeast. I’m proud to say that we have continued that momentum through the first part of this season as well,” Tanzos said.
As of Oct. 6, MZB had a score of 84.7. That ranks the band as the highest score out of all 106 Cavalcade of Bands schools to date.
Tanzos said there are 49 students in the band this year. He also remarked that most of the band members are underclassmen. There are also 20 new students.
“It really makes the results all the more impressive considering those figures,” he said.
There is an extensive process involved in putting on a marching band show. According to Tanzos, the process begins in March when the instructional staff explores and discusses possible themes, musical selections and different performance concepts. The show theme is usually finalized around April. Then the staff has to arrange all the music for the students. There is a check-in with returning band members and an opportunity for new members to try out in May.
While arranging the music, staff members must consider the visual aspects of the show as well. Tanzos said they usually begin ordering flags and uniforms for the color guard that will represent the specific theme.
There is a mini camp in June just before school lets out for summer break. This is to get the students prepared for the more extensive band camp in August. In the time between band camps, the staff is busy writing the drill for the show. A marching band show’s drill maps out where each person on the field stands at all times. It details all the movement and placement of students throughout the entirety of the performance.
Starting at the August band camp, students learn the music and their drill. Generally, musicians play their instruments from a stationary position, but that is not the case in marching band. These students must master the task of playing the music they memorized all the while marching in beat to specific predetermined spots on the field.
Everything is planned out and done with purpose. For example, when a musician is moving from one spot to another, they need to walk a certain way, hold their instrument a certain way and account for their body angles. All of these factors are in play at all times. It takes months of intense practice for a musician to master all of these factors, while correctly playing music and making it to the proper spots on the field.
The color guard contributes to the visual aspect of the show. They perform through a blend of dancing and flag work. Some groups utilize wooden rifles and metal sabres as well. They also need to learn their routine and drill.
The color guard and musicians must work together to create a comprehensive performance. The two groups weave through each other while contributing their own bits to the whole show. It requires a great deal of work and practice to be able to pull off a marching band show.
This year, the MZB is presenting a show titled “Nature’s Tapestry.” The band explores different scenes in natures through four different songs. The color guard has flags with scenic pictures such as a field with flowers, river rapids and a sunset over a mountain range. There are various other musical and visual effects to depict these scenes as well.
The musical and visual elements come together to create an experience for the audience. Tanzos and his staff have created a story and the students bring it to life.
As can be expected, marching band is not an inexpensive activity. Instruments, flags and uniforms all cost money. You also need to account for busing the students to and from competitions, as well as a truck to transport the larger instruments.
One of the marching band’s greatest assets is the band parent organization. They put together a variety of fundraisers throughout the year, including selling candles, pie and lottery calendars or hosting car washes, spaghetti dinners and basket bingos.
Tanzos took time to reflect on how the world and education have changed over the years.
“I am a firm believer that as our lives become more and more compartmentalized and technology based, the arts are increasingly becoming such a vital piece to bring balance to the lives of our students,” he said.
He added that band provides students with useful life skills and allows them to be a part of a group. This activity involves putting down the phones and stepping away from the screens for a while to be a part of something bigger.
“All of the responsibility and discipline that goes into performing in a setting such as marching band are things that will serve those students so much as they go on to become successful adults,” he stressed.
Arts programs have been struggling over the past years, and activities like marching band are being lost. With that loss, students have fewer outlets for creativity and artistic growth. According to the National Assessment of Educational Programs in the Arts, student exposure to the arts education in schools has steadily declined since 1997.
“I hope that more and more people will see the hugely positive values of what music and the arts has to offer our students and encourage support and involvement for years to come,” Tanzos said.
These students have put in countless hours of rehearsals for a few minutes of performance. They create a complex experience for the audience to enjoy.
“You really have to see it for yourself to catch all of those elements working together,” Tanzos said.
For those interested in supporting the students in their endeavor, the band next competes at home. The MZB home show, Music in Motion, is Oct. 20 at Whitehall High School, 3800 Mechanicsville Road. The event starts 5:30 p.m.