In the course of a season for the Oregon Marching Band, there is one event, usually somewhere in October, which is by far the most stressful performance of the year, even though it involves absolutely zero football and about 57,000 fewer fans. It’s called Festival of Bands, and from the first day of band camp until the end of the performance all it does is make our lives miserable.
There isn’t an awful lot of scrutiny placed on college marching bands because they have the unique distinction, much like wedding bands and The Grateful Dead, of playing to inebriated audiences who as a result aren’t all that critical. I can’t even count how many times the Oregon Marching Band has sweated all week to get a halftime show practiced and ready, only to start performing at halftime and have the students promptly turn around and start booing when they see the police ejecting a drunk fan. At that point, we could all take a collective dump in the center O on the field and nobody would notice.
To some degree this is sad, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off. Even a sober Oregon football fan (if such a thing exists) is unlikely to notice that somebody is in the wrong place on the field or missing his or her stepoffs, and even if said fan did notice, it’s not like he can send a text to the athletic department and get a chance to throw a water balloon at us or something. As such, we tend to not sweat the small stuff, preferring instead to make sure everyone is playing the same song at the same time while wearing their uniform properly, which is a bigger challenge than you’d think.
But then there’s Festival of Bands, the annual high school marching band competition that the University of Oregon hosts. We provide judges and a venue, OMB members work in tickets, concessions, and security, the bands compete, and then afterwards we march in exhibition in hopes of enticing the various nerds in the audience to come join us once they graduate. It’s a pretty effective recruiter – four years of seeing the Oregon Marching Band blow all the high schools out of the water at Festival of Bands was why I came to UO (Lord knows the Journalism School wasn’t that enticing).
The problem with this is that an audience of hopeless band geeks know exactly what we should look like and will be scrutinizing our every form and note for the slightest hint of an error – it’s like if your Beatles cover band is playing for the actual Beatles. Maybe the guys down at the bar didn’t notice when you sang the wrong lyrics for ‘Hey Jude,’ but they will. And then John, Paul, George, and Ringo will be so put off by your lackluster performance that they go join the marching band at Oregon State instead. Game over. That means we have to bust our asses to make sure everything looks and sounds perfect, and who wants to do that?
Of course, if we perform well, it’s the best thing in the world – these kids from tiny, poorly funded marching programs think we’re gods thanks to our high proportion of music majors, six figure budget, and 200+ people on the field. Sure, maybe it’s silly to seek approval from people several years younger than you, some of whom wear fake animal tails and makeup just for the hell of it, but we’re a marching band, for God’s sake. We take appreciation where we can get it.
Yesterday was my last Festival of Bands, ever – between the time I spent attending the competition (and losing, every year) with my high school’s band and the time helping run the competition with the Oregon Marching Band, I’ve been involved with Festival of Bands for eight years. Eight years is a long ass time, basically a decade if you’re fuzzy on the details and bad at math, and when I look back at my life I can’t find an awful lot of things that I’ve spent that much time doing. To be honest, most of my current circle of close friends I’ve only known for roughly half that long.
It’s sad when one of the major elements in your life is built around trying to impress a stadium full of socially awkward high schoolers in the rain. Yet, after eight years, it’s become something as friendly and familiar as going home.
Working in the ticket booth yesterday, for example, was a very fitting way to end my experience with Festival of Bands and marching band competitions in general, because it allowed to me to see pretty much every marching band competition spectator archetype who I’ve come to know over the years.
We were yelled at by band assistants who couldn’t fathom why we wouldn’t give them sets of on-field passes at the price they wanted to pay, chatted to by band moms wearing big buttons with pictures of their children in their band uniforms pinned to their sweaters,* harassed by hyperactive competitors who were no doubt jazzed on PixyStix and Mountain Dew (the crystal meth of the band world), and questioned by unaffiliated passers-by, no doubt confused by the conflagration of school buses and semi trucks, parking lots filled with girls twirling flags, and ATVs pulling xylophones, all set to the beat of a dozen or so drumlines early on a Saturday morning.
*By the way, thanks, Mom, for never doing that.
Looking at the high schoolers running around now, so obsessed with something so pointless as their score in a high school marching band competition, I find it hard to believe that only four years ago that was me, completely committed to trying to win at Festival of Bands, which is arguably the only competition you can win that will actively cockblock you if you mention it to a girl in a bar.*
*Okay, that’s not true. I’m sure winning the Northwest Chloroforming Unsuspecting Women Championship probably isn’t a big turn on either. Nor is getting the blue ribbon for ‘Best Basement Dungeon.’
I guess I’m just surprised about how much has changed in the past four years – it makes me wonder where I’ll be four marching band-free years from now, and whether I’m going to want to untag the 300-odd Facebook pictures of me in my green and yellow OMB tracksuit.
Truman Capps imagines it would’ve been a good idea to make his Halloween update today, which is actually Halloween, as opposed to last week, but he can’t help when inspiration strikes.