It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday in the waning days of summer at Cheney High School. Most people might think that the school would be deserted, with only teachers and staff preparing for the upcoming school year.
But the band room is full of noise and students – many warming up their instruments, some chatting with friends, many laughing and joking.
They are there for band camp – an intense two weeks of learning how to stand straight, march and play at the same time, and to learn an 8 1/2-minute halftime show.
That 8 1/2 minutes will be the focus for the band students this fall. Not only do they perform their show at football games, but they compete in their own right. Last year, the Cheney marching band took first place in the A division at the Pacific Northwest Marching Band Championships at Joe Albi Stadium.
This year, the Cheney marching band will travel to the Tri-Cities, Spokane and Yakima. The band saves money by staying in schools and sleeping on gymnasium floors.
“Good times,” said Stephanie Schaub, a junior who plays the clarinet.
Many high school marching bands throughout the region had similar camps this month.
It’s hard work. By 9:35 a.m. the girls in the Cheney color guard and the students who play wind instruments were setting up on the football field in their opening position. The students who perform in the front percussion ensemble – also called “the pit” – were rolling out their marimbas, vibraphones, timpani, chimes, gongs and other things you can hit with a stick.
Out on the field, director Mike Suhling speaks in a sort of code to the students. He told them to move 20, 20, 48. This told the students how many moves to do before they stopped. They may go through the same two or three moves several times until the moves become automatic before they add another. Since the students are so spread out on the field, Suhling speaks into a microphone, and he gets help from band assistants Rich Sonnemaker and Jon Smith.
“Dress that set,” Suhling told the band when they stopped. The students looked at where they were standing in relation to those around them to see if they were in the right spot. Then they made the proper corrections.
“We’re ahead of where we were last year,” said Emily Clark, one of the band’s two drum majors. Clark and Nick Stevens not only direct the musicians on the field, but act as leaders off the field.
“I like how everyone comes to us, everyone trusts us with whatever (they need),” Clark said.
After a noon lunch break, the students break into sections to work on their music. The color guard gets some time to practice as well.
Color guard combines moves with a flag or other props and dance. Heather Petro, one of the two color guard instructors, said three of the five members this year have no experience with flags or dance, so she gets to teach them everything from scratch.
“They’re all so dedicated,” Petro said.
At West Valley High School, director Jim Loucks takes a different approach to band camp.
For the last three years, he’s taken the students to Camp White in Post Falls for a week. The students sleep in tents, wake at 6:30 a.m. and are on the field by 8 a.m. They practice until noon, take a lunch break and are back to rehearsal by 1 p.m. They get a break during the heat of the day between 3:30 and 5 p.m. to go swimming in the river, and then practice until 8 p.m.
“We put in a long day,” Loucks said.
West Valley is preparing for four competitions this year in the Tri-Cities, Yakima, Everett and Auburn.
He said that last year, the band placed in the top two or three of their AA division, and he added that it was probably the band’s best year.
This year, he said, “we hope to do better.”
West Valley’s band is playing selections from “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“The kids love it,” he said.
For the kids, band camp isn’t just about hard work and intense practice. Band members get a chance to know one another and bond.
“Everyone here is cool,” said Andrew Walmsley, a junior who plays the alto saxophone at Cheney High School. “Everyone’s just kind of like family here.”
“It just really pulls the kids together,” said Loucks.
That family aspect helps first time marchers get through what can be an overwhelming experience the first few days while they are learning what marching band is all about.
“I did the Lilac Parade,” said Danielle Gilmour, a sophomore alto sax player at Cheney who is participating in her first band camp. “It’s so much different, moving to spots and making the forms.”
After camp wraps up, both Cheney and West Valley’s bands perform their new shows for parents to showcase what they’ve learned. Cheney performed Saturday after 12 days of practice. West Valley will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at the school.
“We have pretty high expectations,” said Nick Stevens, one of the drum majors at Cheney. “It’s looking to be a really good year.”
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