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Sweating the details

08/25/2015 10:30AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Members of the Unionville High School drum line stand in formation during practice on Monday afternoon.

Gallery: Unionville Marching Band [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer
On Monday afternoon in the side parking lot at Unionville High School, an arena-size show was coming together, 16 beats at a time.
The 69 members of the Unionville Marching Band were counting out their steps under the watchful guidance of Monica Morrison, who was high up in a scaffolding, offering strict instruction and a little bit of encouragement to the sweaty teens below her. 
"You've got to be mentally tough," she said over the PA system. "I know it's hot, but we stuck it out last week. Come on!"
High up in a scaffolding, Monica Morrison directs the students in the steps she has created for this year's music.

 Beginning on Aug. 17, the musicians and color guard members have been working eight-hour days -- as well as some nights -- to learn the music for "Land of the Free," the band's patriotic-themed show for the fall season. But it's not just music. It's marching side by side, performing pinpoint turns, getting your arms in the right positions and ending up exactly where you're supposed to be. It's practiced over and over, until the routine becomes sort of a muscle memory.
Getting a marching band show into shape is sort of like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, but first you have to teach the pieces where to go, and then you reassemble them a minute later into something that looks much different. On Monday afternoon, there was an intermittent breeze across the scorching parking lot, which is better than some band camps, when conditions range from swamp to hot griddle.
During one point in the show, the band members drop to one knee, and Morrison reminded everyone, "I told you to get knee pads!" as a few of the teens squirmed when their bare knees hit the jagged, sizzling blacktop. 
By the time the marching band season ends, there will be snow flurries and frozen fingers, but for the band members -- and the staff, parents and aides who share their passion -- there's no better way to spend the end of their summer vacations.
Band director Scott Litzenberg has been involved in band camps in one way or another for 41 years, beginning when he was a teen himself, sweating it out in the school parking lot.
"I've been here at Unionville for 18 years," Litzenberg said on Monday. "But this is my 32nd year of teaching."
Each year's music is selected in May, and the teens get the music in June. In theory, they've all been practicing over the summer on their own. But learning the steps begins at band camp in August. 
Color guard members work out their routine.

 "We pride ourselves on being entertaining, but still being competitive," Litzenberg said. "This year's show is going to be both those things. It's not cheesy patriotic. This is a little more thought-provoking.  We'll have an outline of the U.S., with different banners showing landmarks where they are on the map. So there's the Seattle Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Alamo, places like that," Litzenberg said. 
Marching bands are a particularly American tradition, and the whole concept is rather alien to people in other countries. The bands are linked to football and halftime shows, and there's an extensive series of competitions that pit different bands together for trophies, prize money and bragging rights. For the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who follow marching bands, it's a big deal. But for outsiders, the band culture can seem like an elaborately choreographed mystery.
On Jan. 2, the Unionville band will be performing at the Gator Bowl field show in Jacksonville, Fla., a big-time competition that's an indication of the band's winning history. But while trophies and prize money are nice to have, it's the friendships forged between the teens that keep them coming back for four years of tough work.
"At the beginning of every rehearsal, we do a whole routine of running and calisthenics and stretching," Litzenberg said. "At first the kids say, 'Wait, we're running for band?' And I say, 'Yes we are. We're going to get you in better condition, so as you get into the season, it will get easier and easier.'"
Musicians get a little help with where they're supposed to be moving.

 Even if the band members don't go on to take part in more rigorous college bands, they have learned something about themselves, Litzenberg said. "We teach them how to work as a group, how to apply themselves, and how to finish. How to not say, 'It's close enough,' but to keep working until the last day to make it better every time you perform. It's perseverence. If you have that, you're hireable in any field you want to go into."
The Unionville band is a come-one, come-all organization. "I've never cut a kid, and I hope I never do," Litzenberg said. "There are some schools that cut a kid if he doesn't play well enough. I've never had that philosophy. This is a public school, so if kids come through the door, my job is to teach them. They just have to trust me to put them in a spot that's going to be the best for them."
The band has a consistent size of about 70 students, Litzenberg said. "Every year, we're right around that number. We love this size group because we still can look and sound big, but not have to deal with 200 kids -- transportation, outfitting them, instruments. We're very comfortable with this number.
"Last year and this year have been the nicest group of kids," he said. "No attitude. It makes it a lot more enjoyable to come here when the kids are really nice to be with. They support each other. And I'm very lucky to have the kind of people we have on staff here. Of course, we couldn't do half of what we do without parents. We have very nice support from our school district, but to do the extra stuff that we like to do, you have to have the parent support."
As for the long hours everyone puts in with the band, Litzenberg said, "We're at rehearsal when the sports teams come in, and we're still at rehearsal when they leave. We have very good sports teams here that work very hard, but even they look at our kids and go, 'Man, that's harder than what we're doing.'"
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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