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Vickroy: Secrets of Marian Catholic band’s success

Michael Saldanmember Marian Catholic High School Bpractices near statues broom school Chicago Heights IL Monday November 5 2012. The statues

Michael Saldana, a member of the Marian Catholic High School Band, practices near statues in the band room at the school in Chicago Heights, IL on Monday November 5, 2012. The statues are used in their current "My Brother's Keeper" performance. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 9, 2012 6:13AM



There are certain truths that parents of marching band kids in Tinley Park, Lemont, Frankfort, New Lenox and the Palos area know for sure.

Their kids are awesome performers.

Their kids’ show is the absolute best.

But, dang blast it, Marian Catholic always wins.

Don’t fret. This is not going to be an ode to how deserving my two former band kids were. As a now-retired eight-year veteran of the Andrew High School band parents association, I surely have plenty of material. Another day.

Nor is this going to be a rant about the unfairness in extracurriculars these days. Certainly, that is an important concern. But not today.

Nope. On this day, I am peering into a topic I have longed to investigate: the secret of the Marian band’s success, which includes 33 straight state titles in its class.

How is the Chicago Heights school able to consistently earn top titles at local, state and national competitions?

Does it have professional musicians posing as students? Does it recruit kids at birth, forcing them into a childhood of practicing scales for hours on end? Do the members forgo all semblance of normal teen life, including social media and zombie TV, so they can devote more time to their “dot” (jargon for formation practice) work?

I was determined to find out, to at last have answers, even though the revelations will do my family no good. Our band years are over. In fact, neither of my two daughters has so much as picked up an instrument since graduating from high school. I know, Craigslist, right? That, too, is another story for another day.

Meanwhile, the Marian band prepares once again to compete at this weekend’s national Bands of America competition in Indianapolis. Marian is a regular at both the organization’s regional and national events. It also is a regular at placing in the top 10.

I contacted Greg Bimm, Marian’s director of bands, in a brazen attempt to get to the bottom of this success story by infiltrating the music program.

To my surprise, Bimm invited me to walk through a class and interrogate, er, I mean interview the kids.

First, some background. Unlike sports competitions, bands do not have to earn a berth in local, state or national competitions. Marching band contests are invitationals. Anyone who wants to, and who pays the appropriate fees, can participate.

So whether a band takes first or last in a given competition has no bearing on whether it can compete in subsequent events.

That said, it should be pointed out that Marian Catholic routinely places first in the state competition and, for the most part, it is the only local band that consistently earns its way into the final event in BOA’s national competition.

Marian’s show this year, “My Brother’s Keeper,” is a dark, moody presentation symbolizing crimes against humanity. The music, color guard presentation and props depict the pain and suffering brought on by slavery, terrorism, war and oppression.

“We definitely feel the mood when playing,” said Molly Hickey, drum major and band president.

She said the students worked hard to emotionally absorb the symbolism.

“Then it was easy to act and play accordingly,” she said.

Molly, 17, lives in Matteson. She said key to the band’s success is the way the students, who come from all over the Southland, help each other.

“We all interact closely and we all support each other. We are very dependent on student leaders,” the senior clarinet player said.

In addition, she said, most members take private lessons. Better individual players make for better group playing.

The best players of the various instruments are commissioned to help the others, too, she added.

Another thing the band strives for, she said, is making sure practice time is quality time. A good practice is better than a long practice, she said.

But often the practices are long, especially in summer months before school starts. Most marching band programs start right after school lets out in May. The Marian kids have the added advantage, as do some other schools, of being able to set aside class time for practice and lessons.

Other schools see marching band programs as purely extracurricular, meaning practices are limited to after-school hours.

Jim Spain, 18, of Orland Park, is a senior trumpet player in the Marian band. He says the secret to the band’s success is simple.

“It’s all about leadership. It’s a big deal here,” he said.

Other bands pay professionals to come out and work on special skills, such as percussion or brass, with the students in that section, he said.

“In our band, the seniors do it; they are like staff,” he said.

The system, he said, not only provides one-on-one musical tutoring, it builds trust and closeness among the students.

But, Narvintchka Noisette points out, the band would be nothing if each individual in it wasn’t motivated to be the best they possibly can be.

Narvintchka, 17, said, “Personally, I practice a lot. I practice my flute and I practice my marching at home, with a friend. We march around the neighborhood, playing, so we get used to it.”

All this dedication is not lost on the freshmen, some of whom enter the band never having played an instrument.

Brinda Nagaraj, 13, is a clarinet player from Matteson. Super bright, she skipped a grade in school.

Her confidence about performing in the upcoming national arena is high, yet she admits, “I’m nervous about it.”

Her older peers tell her not to be.

“They tell me to just think of it as a full practice. They help me relax,” she said. “I know it will be fun and I know, no matter what, my family and friends will think it’s good.”

As a former band mom, I can confirm that sentiment.

Regardless of how their kid’s band places, in the hearts of family and friends, it’s a win.

Which, I suppose, makes it a win-win for the Marian kids.



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