As high school marching band season enters the home stretch, one thing's clear as a bell: bands are bigger and better than ever.
Crowds at two major area marching contests Saturday — the Omaha Marching Invitational and the Oxbow Marching Invitational in Ashland — will find more complex and theatrical shows, infused with greater detail and quality musicianship.
Many more bands integrate large set pieces into their shows, giving them the flavor of a stage production, and flag teams are stepping up their role of providing the visual complement to the music.
Various factors are pushing up quality, directors say, including a proliferation of talented young instructors, the rise of winter competitions that sharpen skills in the off-season and a 2010 format change in the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association marching contest that made it more competitive.
John Furrow, director of the 114-member Norfolk High School band, offers a counterintuitive explanation.
Despite the heightened competition, directors are sharing good techniques with one another, said Furrow, who's in his 13th year teaching.
“You would think that those people who want to be competitive want to keep their secrets to themselves, not share their playbook, if you will,” he said. “And that's not the case.”
Ron Hardin, marching chairman for the association, credits efforts to bring in out-of-state judges, whose critiques of Nebraska bands have helped them shore up weaknesses.
His Bellevue East High band, second in the state last year, is a perennial powerhouse.
Performing: Bellevue East
Bellevue East and West have finished top two in the state contest ever since the switch was made from simply rating bands superior, excellent and good to listing the top finishers and handing out awards in specific categories such as best drum line and color guard.
The change was controversial, given the subjectivity of judging and the wide variance in resources and staffing levels between schools. Some band directors still prefer to enter the festival side of the competition, where bands are only rated.
But there's no question that the change raised the stakes, and the profile, of the state contest, the season finale for most bands, which began practicing way back in the summer swelter.
Hardin said his goal has been to make Nebraska a destination for great bands, so local bands don't have to go elsewhere to compete at a high level.
Performing: Bellevue West
The Bellevue bands travel extensively and compete nationally. The two schools built their dynasty on epic shows that blend precise technique with dramatic narratives.
Other elite Nebraska bands continue to reach higher levels.
Papillion-La Vista South fields crowd-pleasing shows. The triple threat of Millard West, South and North is built on great musicianship and detail work. Omaha Burke, with its tight drum line, often pushes the envelope.
To be sure, some schools with shrinking enrollments struggle to field bands.
But the field of great bands is widening because of up-and-comers such as Waverly, aided by a new color guard instructor, and the two Elkhorn high schools, which didn't miss a beat after Elkhorn South opened in 2010 and the band was split in two.
Brady Rohlfs, in his sixth year directing the Waverly band, said his band focuses on pride, musicianship and family.
Performing: Waverly Viking Band
“I know there are programs that focus a lot on competition only,” Rohlfs said. “Me personally, I don't like seeing the bands being wrapped up in that, because I want to be more than that, than just a competition outlet. They can get that in athletics.”
On his watch, the marching band has grown from 86 students to 132, while school enrollment has been fairly steady.
He wants his band to be viewed as high-performing, a band other bands want to emulate. But his focus is still on the audience rather than the judges.
“We try to get an audience on their feet,” he said.
At the recent Lincoln Links competition, Waverly finished third overall. The Waverly color guard has existed for only four years. Directed by Miles Kellett, the Waverly guard was among just four guard units to get a superior rating at the competition. Kellett's mother, Andrea, directs the guard at Papillion-La Vista South High School. His father, Bill, directs the Papio South band.
At Elkhorn High School, director Matt Rom credits “a lot of hard work” for sustaining the quality at the two Elkhorn high schools.
Ranking bands can be a “healthy motivator,” he said, but he tries to keep rankings in perspective.
Rom said the growth of the Drum Corps International circuit, an elite marching music competition, has had an impact on the band scene.
“I don't have kids who are involved in it, but I have kids who watch it, and they follow it all summer long on the Internet,” he said. “And so we're taking ideas from that.”
Some directors warn of a downside to increased competition.
They say the intensity and high profile of the contests can tempt directors to pour more time and resources into the marching band shows, which are only one part of the high school band experience. Concert band is still viewed as the core of high school music programs, taking up most of the school year.
Rom said a well-rounded band program will be strong in both.
Elkhorn students were on the field this week fine-tuning their show, which envisions a future world where robots take over.
Elkhorn High junior Timothy Aulner, who plays French horn in marching band, said students want their show to be memorable.
“There are a lot of bands that have more resources and more time, more people. We shoot for the best we can,” he said. “Wherever that puts us, that's where we want to be.”
Ben Petrmichl, sophomore baritone player with Elkhorn, said the goal is entertainment, impact and good marks from the judges.
“We have tough judges at state, and we hope to do well for them and get a good rating.”