FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' high school bands are stepping up at marching competitions inside and outside the state.
Those involved in the band community say there's been a definite uptick over the past several years in the quality of shows the bands deliver, fostering a level of competition not seen before in the state.
Five Arkansas bands traveled to St. Louis for this year's Bands of America Super Regional Championships in October, with Bentonville High School qualifying for the finals. Arkansas had never sent more than two bands to that event until five years ago.
Bands of America is a program of Music For All, a national music education nonprofit organization. The group stages band contests across the nation each fall, culminating with the Grand Nationals in November at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Further fueling the competition is the state's own annual marching band contest, established in 2016 by the Arkansas School Band and Orchestra Association.
Bentonville High School hosted a separate contest for the first time in October. The event drew 15 bands, including ones from the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.
Thousands of teens across Arkansas participate in marching band each fall. School bands range in size from a couple of dozen members to more than 200 participants.
There are many great bands in Arkansas now, said Jon Shultz, director of Lake Hamilton High School band, which has been to Bands of America's Grand National Championships in Indianapolis five of the last six years.
"Excellence breeds excellence," Shultz said. "If you see a group down the way doing something, and you really like it, there's such camaraderie among the band directors, you feel like you can go talk to them about it. It's a trickle-down effect."
Marching bands, in order to compete at regional and national levels, must develop a complex show each year that goes far beyond tooting some horns.
Today's most successful bands incorporate props, dance moves and other forms of artistic expression -- a kind of pageantry that requires students to put in dozens to hundreds of hours of practice in just a few months.
"If you go to a show now, it's totally different than it was," said Barry Harper, who's directed Fayetteville High School's band for 25 years. "You never stand still anymore. Everyone is always moving, no matter what."
One of the biggest changes has been the development of the color guards. They are using more equipment and are incorporating dance more than ever, Harper said.
The Tulsa area has been a hotbed of marching band success for many years. Four schools have combined to reach the finals of the Grand National Championships 14 times in the past 10 years. Broken Arrow High School, in Tulsa's largest suburb, has won the national championship three times since 2006.
"One of the reasons Oklahoma bands are so strong is because they push each other," Harper said. "All of those bands are close together, and they're all strong. That's what I see happening here in Northwest Arkansas."
Tulsa's success bled over to Northwest Arkansas, especially when Scott Tomlinson moved across the border, Harper said.
Tomlinson spent 20 years at Broken Arrow before taking the band director's job at Bentonville High School in 2011. He introduced the kind of pageantry to Bentonville that put the school on the fast track to marching prominence. Bentonville High in 2013 became the first Arkansas band to place in the finals of a regional Bands of America competition. Bentonville has repeated the feat four times since.
"We were the first ones to experience success," Tomlinson said about Bentonville High. "I think that has helped others in the state to grow a little. They think, if [Bentonville] can do it, we could do it, too."
Tomlinson retired from education in 2017. He's now a fleet service manager at a Chevrolet dealership in Broken Arrow. Tim Hendrix took over for him and led the band to finish in 22nd place out of 108 schools at Grand Nationals in November.
Ron Smith worked at high schools in Sallisaw and Muldrow, Okla. -- both within 25 miles of Fort Smith -- before taking the band director's job at Van Buren High School in 2001. The level of competition among Arkansas bands has grown exponentially since then, he said.
"We were one of the first Arkansas bands that really tried to do things that were happening nationally and that were happening in Oklahoma," Smith said.
Smith's band won its class at the state championship this year and last year, both times edging out Bentonville High.
Not everyone in the music education community initially embraced the idea of marching band as a competitive activity, but more people have come around to seeing the educational merit in it, Smith said. Van Buren has tried to stay on the cutting edge of the marching arts.
"Do you still wear the same clothes you wore in 1988? Do you use the same technology you used in 1988? No," Smith said. "So why would you want the same educational experience from 1988?"
PUTTING IN WORK
Some band directors start work on a show months before the marching season starts each fall.
"We started talking about ideas for next year before last marching season was over," Smith said.
Van Buren's band staff members have an online folder where they place any kind of idea or concept that could be incorporated into next year's show. It could be something as simple as a picture or a clip from a movie soundtrack. Every once in a while, they'll empty the file and discuss its contents, he said.
"It starts very broad, and we start stacking the building blocks until we have something concrete that we really like," Smith said.
The challenge is coming up with a show that appeals to various audiences, including the crowds at Friday night football games and the judges at band competitions. It also has to be something band students can get excited about, he said.
Van Buren's show this year was called "Replicant," a reference to the 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner. Each one of the band's 230 members had a life-sized, cardboard cutout of themselves with them on the field.
At Lake Hamilton High School, conversation about next year's show started more than a month ago, Shultz said. The band team starts by evaluating what went right and what went wrong with this year's show.
The students have to be more physically fit than they used to be, Shultz said.
"We have to condition them like a sports team would," he said. "A band show is 10 minutes of aerobic exercise and there's really no downtime. We also have to condition them mentally because of the focus it takes to perform something for that long."
Trevor Fogleman, a Bentonville High senior, said classmates can either be a high school student who does band or a band student who does high school. He counts himself as one of the latter.
But Fogleman is no slouch academically; he was one of 132 Arkansas students named semifinalists in this year's National Merit Scholarship Program.
Band "takes up so much of your life that it just becomes a second home for learning and personal growth while also moving yourself toward the realization of your goals, be they in band or outside of band," he said.
Being part of band for four years has forced him to learn how to manage his time well. He estimated the band put in more than 200 hours of practice leading up to the debut of its show this fall.
Besides putting in time, band students put in money. Each of the Bentonville Pride Marching Band members was asked to pay $650 this year to cover travel expenses, according to Dan Fogleman, Trevor's father and publicity chairman for the Bentonville Band Boosters. He estimated Bentonville's show this year cost more than $70,000 in props and travel alone.
Smith believes most high school students need to be engaged in some kind of extracurricular activity to remain engaged academically. What he loves about band is that, he said, any student can succeed if he puts in enough work. Students don't have to rely on the kind of natural abilities or physical features required for success in athletics.
"The only thing you have to do to be successful in music education is have the desire to be there and the work ethic to want to improve," he said.
Metro on 12/31/2018
Print Headline: Shows by state high school marching bands making national mark