Eric Weirather

Mike Lawson • Features • May 1, 2002

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Photos by Becky Gemmell, Gemmell Photography, Vista, Calif.

In the Warner Bros. video “Here Comes a Marching Band,” actor Dave Hood invites viewers to join him on the campus of Rancho Buena Vista (Calif.) High School, which he calls “the home of one of the best marching bands in the country.” Hood, who adds some physical comedy to the serious business of learning about the marching band, literally “crashes” band practice by knocking over a cymbal stand and landing on the band room floor. The 130 students in the ensemble turn around to see what caused the ruckus.

Then the camera lens focuses on band director Eric Weirather, who offers to explain to Hood the intricacies of being involved in the marching band. He shows him drill charts and reveals how students learn their marching moves. When Weirather invites Hood to join the band, the actor is both overjoyed and overwhelmed by the honor. Hood’s first order of business is to determine what role he will play in the band. He visits each section of the band – percussion, woodwinds, brass, color guard, drum major. The students demonstrate their instruments for him and answer his questions about their roles in the band.

While Hood is the host of the video, the Rancho Buena Vista Band steals the show. The video, which is geared toward younger students, serves as a recruitment tool for marching bands across the country. Filming for the “Here Comes a Marching Band” video began at the Bands of America Grand National Championships in Indianapolis, Ind., where more than 80 bands perform for an estimated 20,000 spectators. The Rancho Buena Vista Band captured Hood’s attention at the competition, and he and his partners made arrangements to feature Weirather and his students in the video.

“They asked us if we’d want to do this program to help inspire other kids to be in marching bands,” Weirather recalled. The crew spent two days at the school filming the band – with no script.

“No one had a script, including myself. They just said, ‘Here we go. We’re going to talk about this.’ Hopefully it doesn’t look too uncomfortable on the video,” Weirather said.

For the video’s big premiere, Warner Bros. teamed up with the marching band to host a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the school, where hundreds of community members and music industry representatives dined and viewed the video for the first time. To add to the excitement, Weirather and his students had just been invited to perform in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

SBO: What did the students think of the experience of starring in “Here Comes A Marching Band?”

Weirather: They had a lot of fun. I think it was more of a reward when they got to see the finished product and saw themselves in the video. They really took a lot of pride in the project.

SBO: How effective do you think the video will be in recruiting students into marching bands across the country?

Weirather: I think it will be successful. It’s designed for younger kids. I have a lot of nieces and nephews and they all really love it. I don’t think it’s just because their uncle Eric’s in it. I’ve heard from parents who have had their kids sit down and watch it that it tends to draw them in and they end up sitting there watching the whole thing. I’ve got a student here right now who said his little brother watches it over and over again.

I can remember when I was in grade school and I saw the marching band march in for the first time. From then on, I decided I was going to be in the marching band. On the first day of band back in elementary school, I remember coming home and complaining to my mom, “I didn’t get to march today.” It was the very first day and I wanted to go out and be in the marching band. Of course that didn’t happen.

SBO: How was the spaghetti dinner fundraiser that coincided with the premiere of the “Here Comes a Marching Band” video?

Weirather: That went really well. I think we had close to 400 people there. The band parents and the community really came out to support us. It was really interesting timing because we had just found out about the Rose Parade and so we’re now looking at raising a whole lot more money. I think we raised about $6,000 that night. The community’s reaction was very positive.

SBO: How does the marching band line up?

Weirather: We don’t do street marching. We’re mainly a field band. I have done street marching before, but not with this group. The main reason is that we don’t have a very good location to do street marching. We live in a pretty hilly area and all of the streets around are very up and down. California has a strong tradition of street marching and so they have a very strict format that we have to do, as part of the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association (SCSBOA). You really have to have the area in order to set up to do that kind of competing. You have to choose from a list of marches, and the whole works. It’s very strict. We would do just fine if we did do it, but we’ve just decided to put our efforts toward the field show.

SBO: How will you prepare the students for marching in the Rose Parade?

Weirather: They’re going to have to learn. We’re looking for areas to do that. We may end up spending a couple of weekends going to one of the military bases around here and trying to find an area that’s flat where we can march for several miles at a time. We’re going to have to start off small and work our way up to seven miles or so. The parade itself is only five-and-a-half miles, but at the start of the parade and at the end of the parade there are a couple miles there, too.

SBO: How often does the marching band practice and perform?

Weirather: We have two night rehearsals a week – two three-hour rehearsals, 5:30 to 8:30 on Mondays and Thursday nights. Then everyone has a sectional rehearsal Tuesday after school with a coach. Performances are almost every weekend through Thanksgiving. We do two weeks of band camp and that’s eight hours a day. Before that, I do sectionals over the summer and that’s four hours a week for each person.

SBO: Is marching band a requirement of all band students or is there an audition process?

Weirather: If you are in marching band, you have to be in one of the concert bands and/or percussion ensemble or pageantry. But vice-versa, if you wanted to be in one of the concert bands, or the percussion ensemble, you don’t have to be in marching band. It is not required. I find that we have probably 98 percent in the marching band. I only have a couple of kids who choose not to do the marching band. It’s either because of athletics like football or water polo, because it’s the same schedule. Most of the time, people want to be in the marching band. I’m very good at convincing them.

SBO: What characteristics make a good marching band participant?

Weirather: Probably number one is a commitment to the program. I really have a good base of students here and they work extremely hard. I try to base it all around student leadership, taking ownership and pride in what they do. I’m not a get-in-your-face, screaming, mad band director. We don’t teach by fear here, we teach by enthusiasm for the event.
SBO: How do you teach students marching moves and commands?

Weirather: We start off with a freshmen/new member camp that lasts for three days. They work for six hours a day and we teach them all the fundamentals. I also have my student leadership help out, which is a big part of it. They can break down the groups into their sections.

Before that, I take my leaders to a leader camp and we spend three days talking about leadership and how to be an effective leader and a peer leader at that. We talk about our fundamentals and how to teach. There are about 35 student leaders, from the two drum majors down to a tuba player. At leader camp, we start talking about the goals for the year and we come up with a mission statement, which is very important. We hold weekly meetings with the student leadership to keep an eye on the group and to see if we’re meeting our goals or if there are any problems.

SBO: How do you come up with the idea for the field show each year?

Weirather: I try to get the bulk of my instructors – my assistant director, the drill designer, the pageantry instructor, the percussion instructor, the caption heads – together as early as possible to start to brainstorm. We try to evaluate the year we’ve just completed. What were the positives? What were the negatives? What worked well? What didn’t work so well? Then we go from there and choose next year’s show. That’s done nine months in advance. By March, we try to have the theme of next year’s show and a good selection of the music. My assistant band director does my arrangements, so it’s all done in-house, which is nice.

I try to allow the caption heads to have input. I want them to be inspired by the music and take ownership in it. If they feel really good about what we’re doing, they’re going to put out a better product. If it’s something boring that somebody doesn’t like, their work’s not going to be as excellent. It’s also important to get these great people together to talk about what’s going on.

SBO: What was the theme of last fall’s show?

Weirather: We’re going down a road that’s not traveled as much by other bands – and maybe this is part of the reason we were chosen to do the video and the Rose Parade. We do rock music on the field and, particularly, we do classic rock. Unfortunately, a lot of people immediately think that it’s kind of hokey, but we try to make it as serious as possible. We do a symphonic version of the rock music. We just did music from Kansas, and the year before that was Yes. We choose the music first and then design the show. I do know groups that design the show and then choose the music, or write it from scratch. We haven’t gone down that road and probably will not. The belief of our organization out here, the SCSBOA, and I agree, is that music is the most important aspect of the show.

SBO: How do the students react to the classic rock music?

Weirather: Of course, it’s great. I’m not saying students can’t appreciate a classical show, but they can relate a lot more to this music. And the parents love this music because it’s what they grew up with. So there are a lot of benefits. We were concerned when we did our first rock show about whether or not it would be appealing to the adjudicators that are judging the show, but it’s proven that it is a viable selection for the field show music. We have a lot of fun with the rock music.

SBO: What other elements fit with the classic rock music theme?

Weirather: Our uniforms are kind of fun anyway. They have a holographic panel in the front, and they’re very shiny out under the lights or in the sun. The uniform is kind of a trademark and it fits with the rock music theme.

SBO: As an after-school activity, is the marching band graded?

Weirather: It is. We also get physical education credit. Students do not have to drop any of their core curriculum classes to be in marching band.

SBO: How do you grade student participation in the marching band?

Weirather: The marching band grade is based on attendance to rehearsals and competitions. The performance grade is part of concert band.

SBO: How do you generate student interest in the marching band?

Weirather: We take a tour of the middle schools. I try to make sure that’s done before the counselors go to the middle schools to sign them up because once they’ve signed on the dotted line, it’s more difficult to get them to come join the band. I think it’s better to get out there ahead of time and get them excited about coming into the program. There are a lot of myths, I think, with everybody’s band program, about how we practice all the time and that it’s impossible to do honors classes while in the marching band. If I had to remove all my honors students, I’d have a pretty small band.

SBO: Do you think you will use the Warner Bros. video to help your recruiting efforts?

Weirather: We may show a portion of it. The biggest recruitment for me, as far as next year goes, is going to be the Rose Parade. It’s a chance in a lifetime and it’s the first time this school’s ever gone.

SBO: What are your goals for the marching band?

Weirather: We have a lot of goals: to more efficiently learn the show. We have to work on our transitions in the show. A lot of it is how to run a group like this more efficiently and get the most out of it. Next year is pretty huge with the Rose Parade. A lot of our effort is going to go toward that.

We try not to get too wrapped up in the competitive aspect, but it’s hard not to. We try to put on the best show we possibly can and make it as entertaining as possible with good sounds. We really try to entertain the audience. We’re looking to find better ways to do that – and also appease the judges. We do very well and we have a good time. Like I said, I put all the ownership of the program onto the students and they really pull through. It’s amazing what students can do, how much energy and enthusiasm they have for what they do and they do it really well.

SBO: How do you interface with the parents’ booster organization?

Weirather: The parent organization here is really quite amazing. I hate to compare to other schools I’ve been at, but I’ve been at schools where a handful of parents will come to watch the end of a band rehearsal. We don’t even have a stadium here, we just have a dirt hill. My first year, we would have over 100 parents sitting on this hill to watch the final run-through of the night. That should give you an idea of how supportive the parents are here.

Any time we need anything done, they’re ready to go to work. That is really key to programs: to sell your program to your parents and get your parents to come in and help out. It’s got to be fun, too. When we travel with the band, up in the crowd, it looks like half of them are from our school even though there are 35 other bands there. They really support their students. I think a lot of it has to do with the area that we’re in.

SBO: How does the booster organization support the band financially?

Weirather: Our state has made a lot of cuts to the education budget and that has caused our district to do the same. There’s even a possibility that I may lose my assistant director next year. Right now a 3/5 assistant director is funded by the district and a pageantry instructor is partially funded by the district. By fundraising about $50,000, the band parents are able to hire four pageantry instructors, four percussion instructors, three marching instructors, a visual caption head/drill designer and section coaches.

Having such a strong booster organization is a good thing, but it’s a bad thing that the district does not provide a whole lot. I know that in other districts in other states they provide money for additional staff, like percussion instructors, and we don’t get any of that.

SBO: What type of fundraising do your ensembles do?

Weirather: There are fundraisers constantly going on – anything from selling candy to restaurants dedicating a night to the band and giving back a certain portion of a night’s profits to the band. We’re looking for a bigger fundraiser right now because of the Rose Parade. We’re trying to raise over $100,000 for new uniforms and new instruments because we’re looking at a big influx of students coming in next year. I think our program’s going to be well over 200 students next year.

Also – and I think a lot of schools are having to do this now – the kids are charged a fee to be in the program. It’s unfortunate. We break up the payments throughout the year. If there’s a student who can’t pay, that’s why we have the fundraising ongoing – so they can at least raise the funds to participate. We don’t kick anyone out for not paying. The fee will cover all of the instruction. We also have an 18-wheeler rig which we have to maintain and also get tractors and drivers. It covers props and anything for the field, all the pageantry, flags and poles. It’s a pretty huge list. Apart from that fee, the kids are also assessed a fee for transportation. Pretty much, we have to pay for everything. In fact, we get very little funding for repair of instruments and/or any new instruments, too. We’re really self-sufficient, and if it weren’t for the area that we’re in and being able to charge the fees that we can, we wouldn’t be as successful.

UpClose appeared on pages 30 – 37 in the May issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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