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What happened to the high school band?
Academics and sports reduce numbers in state high school bands.
PHS band in HC parade
The Platteville High School Band marches in the PHS Homecoming Parade Friday, one of only two in which PHS marched this year due to parade-day conflicts. - photo by Photo by Steve Prestegard

Thirty years ago, most high schools in Southwest Wisconsin had robust band programs and showed them off at parades in Belmont, Lancaster, Platteville, Bloomington, Cuba City and Darlington each fall.

Those days are long gone. Many schools are just hanging on to marching bands, and the loss of a few more students could make it nearly impossible to continue to have those shining moments for high school musicians on a cool, fall Saturday. Fewer and fewer high school bands are committing to fall parades, and many times the middle school is the school district’s only musical representative in those community events.

Platteville High School has 432 students, 54 of whom are in the band. Lancaster, with 290 students in ninth through 12th grades, fielded a marching band of 28 students this fall, with another eight band members in the color guard. Cuba City High School’s band has 17 students, none of them seniors.

“The last couple of years have been building years for us,” said CCHS band director Juli O’Donnell. “The numbers were starting to dwindle the few years before I started last year.”

A conflict with scheduling of a two-day soccer tournament in La Crosse on the weekend of Lancaster’s Homecoming illustrated how tenuous it can be for a marching band. Homecoming was one of only two parades for the high school band this fall. Five members of the soccer team were in the band, meaning nearly 20 percent of the band would be missing for the Harvest Festival parade if all of those players committed to soccer. It was particularly rough on the brass section, which had two trumpets and two trombones potentially out and only two remaining to play.

A similar problem prevented the Platteville High School band from marching in the Oct. 5 UW–Platteville Homecoming parade. Half of the band was committed to the annual Dick McKichan cross country invitational, a soccer tournament in La Crosse, a volleyball tournament in Madison, or Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

“I had 26 left,” said PHS band director Nancy Fairchild. “I was missing a drum major, the snare [drum] line, the cymbal line, the low-woodwind line and half of my brass section.”

The PHS band did march in the Platteville Dairy Days parade Sept. 7, having had one rehearsal with the complete band before the performance.

In the golden era of high school band participation, it wouldn’t have been unheard of to have 40 people in the brass section alone.

“It presents a lot of challenges when you have that small of a group,” said Matt Kruszka, Lancaster High School band director. “You have to think about things differently. The huge thing is to get them to sound good when you don’t have strength in numbers. You are kind of confined in a box with how large to make shapes and patterns. You want them to do well and to sound well and you need the sound to carry to the audience.”

That means the halftime performance on the football field is more compact and more stationary. Kruszka would like to do more with formations and marching routines, but realizes that until there are more students in the band that’s not likely.
Platteville’s band numbers have actually been reasonably steady given the high school’s dropping enrollment over the past few years.

“Probably the last 10 years they’ve been pretty consistently between 50 and 60 kids,” said Fairchild, who added that the band had 50 to 60 students back in the 1980s when the high school had 800 students. “Some kids are doing everything.”
“Everything” includes performing in multiple musical groups. Fairchild said 90 percent of her band performs in more than one musical group.

Cuba City High School has pep bands for home and tournament football, volleyball and basketball games. Participation in pep band is part of students’ band grades.

“It’s very demanding for a smaller band,” said O’Donnell. “Everyone has to be there. It’s a lot of responsibility when we’re that small.”

O’Donnell said students know far enough in advance that work schedules usually aren’t a problem with the parades, concerts and pep band responsibilities of band students.

“We have good instrumentation for the size we have,” she said. “The kids really think about what they want to play for pep band, so we don’t get a lot of oboes or bassoons.

“It’s interesting directing such a small band. I can tell by their sound if they’re tired. There’s no room to hide with such a small group.”

O’Donnell said Cuba City band numbers are low compared to similar-size high schools. She said Darlington is comparable in size, but has a large band.

Kruszka is planning a summer band camp to help improve marching, fundamentals. He realizes it will be a challenge to schedule to avoid the starts of high school sports in the fall and to avoid youth club league activities as well as summer vacations. In Kruszka’s first summer, two years ago, he had no idea LHS had summer driver education, and he scheduled June rehearsals with no sophomores there. He said it’s important to known where all the conflicts are as far as scheduling and where to fit it in.

The intent of the camp, besides the teaching opportunity, is to build interest to get numbers up to 40 to 50 students a year.

Kruszka said recruiting starts with combining activities with middle and high school band students. He’s thinking about a combined pep band for winter sports.

“Even though the middle school students can’t play everything, it let’s them know what it is like to play in high school,” he said.

Fairchild, who has taught at both the middle school and high school in her 24 years in the Platteville school district, described getting middle school band members to become high school band members as “hit and miss. One year I got all the middle-schoolers but three. And the next year I got half.”

Fairchild attends middle school rehearsals once a week after marching season ends. With 21 seniors and just five juniors in this year’s PHS band, Fairchild is hoping many middle school band members keep playing in the high school.

“Kids are pulled so many ways in high school,” said O’Donnell. “They’ve got sports and [Advanced Placement] classes. We have to recruit for band just like for sports. We try to get them involved when they’re younger.”

The Cuba City middle school band has 40 students. O’Donnell hopes the 10 eighth-graders in the band choose to stick with it into high school.

Kruszka doesn’t think it’s realistic to expect the kind of numbers the band had during Monte Muller’s time as Lancaster High School band director, but he’d like to think it’s possible to get to 50 students.

During the peak of Muller’s 18-year run as high school band director, Lancaster had close to 120 students in band. In a high school of 400 10th- through 12th-grade students, that represented more than 25 percent of the student body.

So what happened? Enrollment decline, for one, has had an impact. Class sizes have dropped from more than 100 per grade to an average of 72.5 per grade. So fewer students means fewer available for band.

Thirty years ago, there was no high school soccer or swimming program. Both have some weekend matches and meets. Football players — six are in band — would come out and perform at halftime in their football uniforms. There are also college-level courses offered at the high school that weren’t available years ago. Some students with advance course work choose that class and will miss a fall or spring semester of band when they are juniors and seniors.

“Student availability is something you have always had to work around, with jobs and weddings and other commitments,” said Muller. “Nowadays we’re just compounding that tenfold. Overall the student population is smaller and everyone wants a piece of that student.”

Muller said it is hard to see the dwindling numbers and the lack of high school bands in the area parades.

“As someone who spent a career with high school and middle school bands, I would like to see them thrive,” he said. “I see the arts as important and a good thing for kids. It is discouraging. There were no high school bands in the [UW–Platteville] Homecoming parade. That has to be a first.”

The proliferation of youth club sports in the last 10 years with weekend tournaments has given students more options than ever, and Muller understands, as someone who was talented musically and athletically with children who participated in both, that it can be a one or the other choice because of the amount of time needed. He’s not supportive of band at the expense of athletics, or vice versa; he just understands the landscape has changed dramatically.

“I’ve said this to many friends: you would have had to lock me up in a padded room” if he were teaching high school band today, he said. “So much of it is beyond your control. From my perspective what do you do? You can’t pull a kid out of study hall and tell them to play first trumpet because that kid is gone. You just can’t do that.”

Band numbers aren’t dropping only in Southwest Wisconsin high schools.

“I think there is a decline statewide, and I don’t know what the problem is — if I have to get all these academic classes in, [or] if it’s sports,” said Fairchild. “I grew up in Lancaster, and we had a fairly large band, but my graduating class was 166.”

Fairchild, who has been the PHS director for 11 years, said the high school band director “has a lot to do with it, but also longevity — if you’re changing directors every few years, there’s no consistency.”

Despite the low participation, Muller isn’t about to predict the demise of the high school marching band. He said there are a lot of good teachers and that with cooperation from administration, an awareness of scheduling, and supportive parents, band can be a strong part of the district again.

Kruszka attended Janesville Craig High School, which is a larger school with a strong marching band tradition, and then went to UW–Eau Claire, which marches with 300 students and is larger than the University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota marching bands. He knows that to sound good and to look good, the components need to fall into place. One of those is knowing marching band fundamentals; another is simply having the numbers to do it.