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Old Days

Trey Reely | April 2014

    I find that I have grown more reflective as I have gotten older. In talking with those of the younger generation, I have to be careful not to tell too many of those when-I-was-a-kid stories. Sometimes I even check with any potential audience beforehand to make sure that I haven’t told them the story before. (It will be a sad day when they all say they have heard it and I tell it anyway.)
    In a column three years ago, I recounted memories from my years in junior high school band. I marveled at how few specifics I could remember, yet I also recognized the impact that several of these events had on my current teaching practice. In this column I recount some of the memories that first spring to my mind when I think about my high school band years (1977-1980).

Sophomore Year
    Marching practices for the band at Jefferson Davis High School (Montgomery, Alabama) began in the late summer. We had ten days of summer practice in the muggy Alabama heat. Each day was 9-12, 1-5, and 7-9, except when we had Wednesday night off. We did not march uphill, in the snow, both ways.
    One day while walking from the practice field back to the bandroom, the juniors started a cheer for themselves. (This was my first introduction to class warfare.) Not to be outdone, I started to lead a cheer for the sophomores: “Give me an S! Give me an O!” and so on, until I ultimately misspelled it by leaving out the second “o.” Shaking their heads, the upperclassmen dismissively remarked, “yeah, they’re sophomores all right.”
    In marching band we were required to use copy books, small little books of blank staff paper on which we copied down every note of every song we played, and we played a lot. As best I could tell, the point of these books was to help us memorize the music. I lost mine during marching season one year and had to copy the whole thing again. I always assumed that other bands used them, but I have never met anyone who has.
    A real highlight of the year was missing school for one or two days to attend a band clinic at Troy State University in Troy, Alabama. This gave me a chance to watch bands from other schools and visit the exhibits. There weren’t many exhibits there, but at the time it was amazing to me because I had never attended a band clinic. I was like a kid in a candy shop.
    I remember standing in a hallway and seeing Johnny Long, the director of bands at Troy State (who I gathered to be a legend among band directors in the state), going crazy over the fact that Auburn High School was going to play Capriccio Italien. He kept pacing up and down the hall, repeating something like, “I can’t believe they’re going to play that! I can’t believe they’re going to play that!”

Junior Year
    I did not practice my trumpet much my junior year. This was mainly due to discouragement. I had practiced a lot during my sophomore year but didn’t make much progress. I always continued to practice my band music, but I did not work on much beyond that.
    I was late to a summer practice once because the car engine would not shut off. My director was known for making a major issue out of tardiness. He would often stop rehearsal to grill a student about tardiness, even if that student had never been late before. This director asked me why I was late, and the band sat quietly to wait for my answer. “My car wouldn’t stop,” I answered, not knowing exactly how to phrase it. My friends laughed when someone asked, “Then how did you get out?”
    Our undefeated football team that year won the state championship at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. We marched drill to Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good on an artificial surface, which was an unusual experience for the time.
    Since our two drum majors were graduating, there were two positions open—one for a male and one for a female. (I have since questioned the logic of that.) There was no tryout for the position, but night after night I practiced in front of my bedroom mirror, conducting songs of my favorite groups, Chicago in particular.
    In what was one of the major disappointments of my life, I was not selected as drum major; at that point in my life I don’t think I had ever wanted anything so badly. Since there was no tryout I didn’t feel like I even had the chance to show what I could do as drum major. To this day I’m not sure what the director was thinking. He broke the news to my good friend Steve and me while we were at the clinic at Troy State. Steve, who had put his name in the hat on a whim and didn’t really care either way, was given the position. After hearing the news I was not very pleasant about the decision and did not talk to Steve for the rest of the day. It was not one of my better moments.
    After enduring that disappointment, I still had a chance to be elected band president, but trying to get elected to the band council was worrisome. Our director filled the lesser offices first, so if you wanted to be president, you had to bypass being nominated for all of the other positions. Then, if you lost the run for president, you would not be on the band council at all. (This came back to haunt the band the next year when the best candidate did not get elected president and had no position at all.) Fortunately, my main competition decided to run for vice-president, and that cleared the way for my uncontested election as president.

Senior Year
    One of my main goals during my senior year was to be a positive influence. In the previous two years there had been considerable complaining and several near-revolts within the band, over matters ranging from hair length to marching style. Other members of the band council felt the same way. That year, however, we accomplished our goal of making the band more positive, and the whole band had a great year. I am not sure if my director noticed that we were the ones making the difference.
    One day during marching band that year, all of the trumpets were asked to stand. Our director then rearranged us. I was first chair and section leader. In front of the band, the director asked me and the second chair player to switch places. I thought this was humiliating to say the least. It didn’t help that the second chair was a little sophomore twerp who put me down behind my back to my friends, not thinking that they would tell me. If I am honest about it, I recognize that he played better than me in many ways, but I thought he should have had to prove it on a playing test. Then if he won we could have switched chairs between rehearsals.
    Our pep rallies for the football team were the best. It helped having a really good football team. The student body would chant “We want the trumpets” We want the trumpets!” and we would run out and play the trumpet cheer, which was something we stole from the University of Alabama. At one pep rally we wore paper bags over our heads and sauntered out like the unknown comic of the Gong Show.
    I practiced much more during my senior year than I did my junior year,  and I also began taking private lessons from a trumpet player in one of the Air Force bands stationed at Maxwell Air Force base. Despite all that practice, I missed making All-State by three points that year. I think that hurt more than not getting drum major, because it felt like a permanent stain on the rest of my musical career.
    I ended the school year strongly. I defeated the first chair player in a challenge before our final concert. His parents came to the challenge after school and sat there while we played off the music in the director’s office. We were not told the result that day, possibly because the parents were there and the director didn’t want to get mugged. The next day my director moved me to first in front of the band as everyone cheered.
    I was also the first student conductor of our band. This would not have happened without my dad. He knew I was discouraged about not being selected as drum major, and in what was probably the only time my dad ever talked to one of my teachers concerning something he was unhappy about, he told the director about my strong interest in being a band director and how I needed to be encouraged in that direction. To my director’s credit, the unexpected result for me was becoming a student conductor for the spring concert. I conducted the march Proud Heritage by William Latham. Many years later I conducted this piece again at Region Contest with my own band.

From the Past to the Present
    I’m not exactly sure why I remember some things and forget others. I believe that some memories stand out because I knew at the time that I was going to be a band director, so I was particularly sensitive to issues relating to that career choice.
    So how did these experiences affect my future career? I have never made my busy students use copy books. I am probably a little more understanding if a kid gets in a funk and doesn’t practice as much as I would like. I believe that punctuality is important, but I don’t make a scene about it, preferring to talk to habitual offenders privately. I hold drum major tryouts each year, even if it jeopardizes the chances of a person who I would prefer be the drum major.  Sometimes the judges have selected drum majors who I would not have chosen, but they ended up being very good. I also hold chair try-outs where a cumulative score of several tests determines the chair, and I recognize good leadership when I see it.  And, most important, I never misspell the word sophomore.