The pace is brisk as members of the Spring Valley High School marching band make their way across the damp grass and onto the practice fields behind the school.
It’s just minutes before 8 a.m. – the daily start time for the August summer preseason camp – and missing formation is not an option.
“Let’s go. You should not still be walking at this point,” band staff member Steve McGinnis urges as students file by. “Some of you think it’s OK for you to walk from one gate to another and it’s not.”
With that admonition, the band would begin another eight-hour-plus day in its lead-up to another rigorous season of Friday-night football games and weekend marching competitions
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It’s a ritual that’s become more commonplace for many high school bands across the state. An evolution of more elaborate on-field presentations that have become increasingly more akin to national drum and bugle style shows and tougher competition standards have commanded greater precision and stamina from the young performers.
Spring Valley’s pre-season drills started at the first of August with “rookie camp,” followed by two weeks of seven- to 10-hour days of full band rehearsals.
The days start with stretching, running, squats, abdominal exercises and other physical conditioning before a series of on-field drills, sectional rehearsals, full ensemble practice — and still more on-field work
“Athletically, you are turning these kids who are thought to be couch potatoes into fine-tuned athletes,” said Spring Valley Band director David Allison.
The band kicked off the new season with its first home football game Aug. 23 against Lower Richland. Over the next four months, the band will appear at eight games and compete in four weekend events, including the 5A State Marching Band Championships Nov. 2 in Irmo.
This year’s show, The Wild Things, combines marching and music with elements of ballet, dance and flag maneuvers, progressing through a series of on-field formations. The music and choreography for the nearly 10-minute presentation were created by professional contracted composers and drill writers, an increasingly common practice among competitive high school marching bands.
The show is been divided into four sections, but the breakdown of rehearsals leading to the opening note has been even more meticulous.
“It’s some of the greatest multitasking that you can possibly do,” Allison said of the show and the preparations for it.
‘It’s hard ... but it conditions us’
Thirty minutes into a recent August morning practice this summer, band members have completed their conditioning exercises.
Although some members seemingly coast through the drills, others — especially newcomers — struggle to catch their breath.
And while the transition from a paved parking lot last summer to the grass field this year, along with milder summer temperatures, take a slight edge off the preseason workouts, the early morning sun is beginning to rise and the students are eager for a water break.
“It’s hard for us, but it conditions us,” senior Zonnie Harper, the low brass section leader, said of the workouts. “I’m glad (to raise the fitness levels) because most of us are normally tired after eight minutes (of the show).”
That break is short-lived, though, and by 8:36 a.m., band members are back on the field, this time with instruments in hand as they begin a series of basic marching maneuvers under the watchful eye of several on-field assistants.
Nearby, members of the flag corps have broken off to work on their individual routine.
“We are going to help you be successful,” McGinnis calls out from the megaphone he keeps close at hand. “I will not allow you to waste this rehearsal.”
By 9 a.m., the sounds of instruments can be heard for the first time as band members begin to warm up. Soon enough it will be time to move and play.
“We don’t just throw an instrument in their hands (right away), but rather we start to build a pyramid,” McGinnis said.
The next several hours are spent on seemingly countless repetitions of eight- to 32-step segments of the routine that are charted on computer-generated drill sheets (The complete show will include anywhere from 100-120 pages of drills and 60 to 80 set “pictures”).
For freshmen like Haley Knight and Zhane Bradley, adapting to the new physical demands have been compounded by the novelty of playing and marching at the same time — while also learning to read the drill sheets.
“I went from just sitting down in a band chair to walking across the field and playing and moving,” Bradley said. “It was big to me. When I first got the drill sheets, I didn’t understand them but then they explained them to me.”
Knight said learning to carry her sousaphone on the field has been her greatest physical challenge.
“It was really heavy,” she said. “But I like the drills, once we start moving and playing.”
The warm-ups? Not so much.
By 11:30 a.m. the morning session is finally over. The band members break 90 minutes for lunch before returning for the afternoon session.
Once back, they divide up by instruments for sectional work. Much like the on-field drills, the sessions are marked by the same attention to small sections of the musical score, and even to a single note.
“We may work on 10 measures (of music) for 30-plus minutes because this is what it takes,” said Stuart Ray, the band director at E.L. Wright Middle School and an assistant at Spring Valley. “We want them to get the big picture, so we spend so much time on every detail.”
Following the sectionals, the full band gathers in the auditorium for a brief ensemble rehearsal that mixes show songs with football chants.
At 3:30 p.m., band members are back on the field for another round of drills as the pieces of the morning and afternoon puzzles are carefully blended to form the complete show.
Sometime between 5-9 p.m. the day is done. But the break will be short-lived.
The process begins again promptly at 8 a.m. the next day.
Spring Valley started putting together this season’s show during the August drills and has been adding to it in the weeks since.
Allison said he hopes to have the full show ready in the coming weeks before the band takes part in its first competition of the season Sept. 28 at the Midland Valley High School Mustang Classic.
Last year the band reached the 5A state finals, while winning the Mooresville Blue Devil Classic in North Carolina.
Junior drum major Aaron Roach said such victories are part of a dual reward.
“After competition, there is that feel of a great show and knowing that I did a great job,” Roach said. “But at the end of the day, it’s great to know that I did something over the summer. I didn’t just sit on the couch.”
Allison agreed that while accolades of competitions are gratifying, the bigger reward is seeing the students respond and improve.
“It’s trying to get better and better at what you do,” Allison said, adding the band’s biggest competition is its own resolve. “No one can intercept us. We have to do the best that we can. It’s what they’ve done better every day and improved on.”