EL PASO, Texas – Carl Ortega stands on a short ladder near the front of El Dorado High’s band room. His busy hands come to a brief pause and the music stops before Ortega delivers his next cue, pointing his right index finger toward the percussion section. A snare drum clicks four times, and an ensemble of flutes, clarinets and brass instruments starts to pump a familiar song through the large band room.
Close your eyes and you’d think it was Martin Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in September.
The football teams at Washington State and Central Michigan may be preparing for each other on just four days’ notice, but when it comes to on-the-whim planning, it’s possible nobody in El Paso is working on a tighter timeline than El Dorado’s band.
Everything unfolded quickly.
When Washington State’s marching band canceled flights to El Paso amid uncertainty over whether the Sun Bowl would proceed as planned after Miami dropped out due to COVID-19 issues, bowl officials struggled at first to identify a replacement.
Ortega, El Dorado’s second-year band director, was visiting in-laws in Farmington, New Mexico, when he received a phone call from Armando Martinez, the Director of Fine Arts for Socorro Independent School District, gauging El Dorado’s interest in playing at the Sun Bowl as a “stand-in” band. Martinez was prepared to contact all six high school band directors in the district if necessary, but the search ended after a single call to Ortega.
With El Dorado students on holiday break until Wednesday, some band members ditched family plans while others returned to El Paso from various parts of the region and state, unwilling to pass up an enticing opportunity to play in a nationally televised bowl game.
“I had to start messaging all the kids, start talking to all the directors to see if we could put something together, and all the kids got super excited and we were able to work it out,” said Ortega, who sent a group message through the aptly-named “BAND” phone application. “At first, I was like, ‘I need to know ASAP if you can do this.’ I told them what it was, and they were like, ‘Really?’ and they got all excited.”
The band at El Dorado was an ideal fit for a variety of reasons, including the color scheme of their uniforms, which are black with tinges of white, red and yellow.
Danny Vega, the district’s music facilitator, astutely pointed out “on a positive note, these colors weren’t purple.”
El Dorado’s band regrouped on Thursday for a single rehearsal less than 20 hours before Friday’s 9 a.m. kickoff. Ortega didn’t receive sheet music for WSU’s fight song until Tuesday evening, and the high school band made an impromptu decision to add some extra flair to their Sun Bowl act by learning the “Jaws” theme that’s become another ritual of the game day experience in Pullman.
Some students had already studied the sheet music, and others went through dry runs with the material at home. But they arrived at El Dorado on Thursday with instructions to “be prepared to stay a while and bring some snacks,” according to Alexa Ortiz, a junior bass clarinet player.
“We’ve built a program, and we’ve been working on this and getting these students ready to be adaptable and play any situation, so I think we were confident,” assistant band director Cesar Hinojos said. “We knew that we could pull this off. We were a little nervous because we knew that it’s college material and we want to honor the material to the highest level, and I think that’s the biggest feeling we had. But no, I think these kids are prepared.”
Hinojos added: “We had some students already saying, ‘Go Cougs.’ So a lot of these students bought in, and they wanted to know what it felt like to be in that atmosphere.”
It’s an atmosphere El Dorado’s students will experience for the first time late Friday morning, but one that Ortega is already familiar with. Five years ago, he was an assistant band director at El Paso’s Horizon High School when Stanford’s marching band was suspended for violating school conduct rules.
Horizon was selected as the “stand-in” band, although the situations differ: students were notified two weeks before the Sun Bowl, not two days.
“Well the time crunch is the hardest part, but this is a collegiate-level fight song,” he said. “So it’s a little harder than what we’re used to, but the kids like the challenge.”
Brandon Smithson, a senior clarinet player who’s volunteered at the Sun Bowl, expanded on the challenge that El Dorado’s band has eagerly taken on this week.
“Well, you learn your individual part (alone), but that isn’t enough,” he said. “Because we all have our own versions, and that comes about when you practice alone or just looking at it, but when we actually come together everyone kind of realizes, I should be quieter because this is a more important voice.”
Smithson said a friend recently joked, “it kind of feels like we’re cheating” on El Dorado’s fight song, but pointed out the Sun Bowl will be icing on the cake for the band’s seniors who figured they’d already performed at their last football game.
“It’s pretty cool. I was telling somebody it’s like this is the last football game,” Smithson said. “It was sentimental before, but now it’s kind of like, oh this is a good sendoff.”
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