Who gives a toot?

Rancho Cotate marching band members Jordon Hainer, left, and Jake Martin play their sousaphones during a pregame set before the Cougars' game against Windsor on Sept. 27, 2013. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

Rancho Cotate marching band members Jordon Hainer, left, and Jake Martin play their sousaphones during a pregame set before the Cougars’ game against Windsor on Sept. 27, 2013. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It will be a rare football game tonight at Montgomery High School. With Santa Rosa High providing the opposition, spirited band play in the stands will match the action on the field.

Montgomery students will be energized by “Thriller” and cheer to “Take a Walk” while Santa Rosa favorites will include the percussive “Jump on It” and “The Pink Panther Theme” even if these Panthers are black and orange. School fight songs will blare when teams score with a notable number of students singing along.

“We give the crowd energy. They really get into it,” said Montgomery band officer Molly Wood. “The music is a lot of fun. People expect us to be there at the game.”

Preview Friday’s football matchups here

Rarer still is a game that involves Rancho Cotate, Casa Grande or Elsie Allen. They are the the only schools in the North Bay and Sonoma County leagues that have marching bands that come out of the stands to perform halftime shows.

Sporting colorful, striking uniforms, these performers entertain the crowd in the custom of marching bands that dates to the first university outfits formed in the 1880s and ’90s.

“We put in a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun. We keep it high energy to keep the atmosphere going,” said Sam Shipman, drum major for Rancho Cotate’s marching band, going strong since the school opened in the mid-1960s. “It’s almost like a legacy. It feels really, really good.”

Today’s Empire high school bands carry on a heritage reaching back to the early days of prep football.

Typically complementing strong music programs, marching and pep bands have survived or thrived depending on financial and organizational backing in and out of schools.

“It’s really teacher-driven and what kind of band you have, the skill level, and also whether the parents and kids support it,” said Arlene Burney, longtime Casa Grande band director. “I think it’s important to support the school and generate school spirit.”

Longevity and sizes vary. Casa Grande, for instance, has fielded a marching band for several decades with 180 musicians in the current corps. Santa Rosa’s latest group formed as a student-led pep band six years ago with some 25 musicians in this year’s unit.

A common denominator for all Empire bands: Once they play, everyone wants them back.

“The band’s been really popular,” said Mia Spizman, a Santa Rosa band leader. “We have fun playing together and creating school spirit. And because we have such a large playlist nobody gets tired of the songs.”

The energy-producing presence of bands at football games has origins in the early decades of the college game.
Those first marching units largely came out of military-style bands featuring university cadets. The expansion of public universities under the Land Grant Act called for a focus on agriculture, engineering and military training.

Evolving into student groups playing at football games and other events, the nation’s first college marching bands took the field in the 1880s and ’90s.

The precision and pageantry of songs and steps at the high school level is on display at Rancho Cotate, Casa Grande and Elsie Allen home football contests. Those marching bands carry on the tradition of performing before games, at halftime, and even playing fans out of stadiums.

“This year’s show is really difficult musically. We’re constantly running through the choreography,” Shipman said. “We treat the football games just like competitions.”

The Latin jazz show features a trio of songs and constant movement over some four minutes — half of what the Cougars band plays at competitions.

Work begins with two-week band camp before the start of school. Then rehearsals are daily during zero period symphonic band class.

“It’s coming together really well. The dedication is at another level,” said Shipman, who leads and keeps time with his 5-foot ornamented staff.

During the game the band draws from more than 30 songs. Crowd favorites include “The Imperial March” from the “Star Wars” films and “Start It Up.”

At 75 musicians and growing, the Cougars band is loud and proud.

“We know that there’s someone in the audience that’s never seen us before. We want to get them excited,” said Tim Decker, the Rancho Cotate band director. “This gives our music program its own unique identity.”

Playing at football games helps sell the Casa Grande music program to future students and the community.

“Fans at games get to see and hear that Casa Grande has a music department,” Burney said. “This is a way to get exposure and that we have a viable program. That’s the bigger picture.”

The trio of prep marching bands in the Empire today must commit much time and money to stay alive. There are the summer band camps and football focus in the fall. For expenses, consider that a single Casa Grande band uniform costs $450.

For many Empire high schoolpep bands to support athletics demands enough dedication of time beyond music classes, seasonal concerts and competitions.

“A quality marching band program requires a tremendous effort and commitment to preparation time and equipment. In the past there was much more school funding for that sort of thing than there is now,” said Randy Masselink, Healdsburg band director.

Healdsburg’s pep band limits playing to football games. The student-run group has some 20 songs, choosing and practicing numbers on their own.

“Part of the reason, too, is that we only have one band class, which emphasizes mostly symphonic music and jazz. We simply don’t have the time or inclination to prepare pep band music all year long,” Masselink said. “I see our football connection as a generous contribution to that aspect of the school and community, and for the rest of the year we are very actively involved in other ways.”

Montgomery has boasted a band at football games going back to its opening in 1958. The current pep band edition has gained strength with increased enrollment in the symphonic music class.

“Working up these songs requires an extra commitment from our students, as they are also learning all of their classical songs concurrently,” said Montgomery band director Erik Ohlson. “Their abilities to perform the wide variety of music is a testament to their skill levels and dedication to our music program and supporting Montgomery High School.”

Breaking in the freshmen on a half-dozen songs took about two weeks. They continue adding musical numbers during zero period band class making sure the selections feature few chord changes and easier arrangements.

Variety provides a mix of music for games that extend more than two hours. Band members also wear campy clothing, masks and other garb to keep the mood fun in the student section.

“I think people are glad the band is getting involved in boosting the school’s spirit and not just a separate entity. We’re smack dab in the middle of the student section,” said Serena Uppal, a Montgomery band officer.

Montgomery’s band might take some credit for helping generate an atmosphere that contributes to the Vikings’ football success. Last season the band played at one home game and Montgomery upset Maria Carrillo. This season the Vikings have won both games where the band performed.

“It’s really great when the crowd reacts to us,” Wood said. “We’re trying to get the tradition going strong again.”

Michael Coit can be reached at Mike.Coit@pressdemocrat.com

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